Lightstone Leads the Tech Tribe at SXSW
Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone (pictured above), the director of digital communications at Chabad.org and founder of the Brooklyn-based Tech Tribe, is returning to SXSW 2018 to host #openShabbat. This event is described as “a place to escape the chaos of SXSW and find a taste of home at the ultimate un-networking event.” Rabbi Lightstone devotes himself to bringing Jews in tech and digital media together through such events, and he has a certificate of Experiential Jewish Education from Yeshiva University. He shared some thoughts about his aspirations for #openShabbat, what he’s looking forward to about SXSW 2018 and finding spirituality in a mobile world. #openShabbat will take place at 7:30 pm on Friday, March 9, at the Hilton Austin. Please RSVP if you are interested in attending.
How many years have you been coming to SXSW and what is your favorite thing about it?
My first SXSW was in 2010. I love the creative confluence of diverse people sharing what inspires them as they help shape our collective future.
When did you start #openShabbat and what led you to start it?
That year, 2010, my wife Chana and I decided to make a get together for Jews attending the festival. Wanting to play into the Austin vibe, I tweeted about a kosher barbecue before I left. Being originally from California, however, my conceptions of barbecue were, shall we say, radically underwhelming for the 20 guests who came. Despite serving guests hotdogs and hamburgers instead of smoked brisket, we were able to draw a crowd. The next year we decided to return and make a Friday night Shabbat meal to give guests a taste of tradition with a SXSW twist.
For those who haven’t been to #openShabbat before, would you describe what goes on?
My friend, the late, great Alan Weinkrantz, of blessed memory, once described it like “going to your grandmother’s for a Sabbath meal, along with 350 of your favorite cousins. If your grandmother was a social media maven hosting a Shabbat meal at the heart of the world’s greatest digital festival, and your cousins worked at startups around the world.” I can’t put it more aptly than that.
What do you hope #openShabbat achieves?
I hope #openShabbat serves as the starting point for a lot of important conversations — be it serendipitously bringing people in eclectic fields together to create the next great startup, introducing people to new friends, or inspiring us all to find the balance between constant connectivity and unplugging that our modern lives so need.
Through Tech Tribe, you organize regular events for Jewish people in New York involved in technology. Is there a particular need you believe these events serves that is unique to the Jewish community, or is it something anyone could benefit from?
As a rabbi, much of what I do is inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. He tasked his followers to connect to those around them — to teach and to inspire. Technology is an amazing tool that brings us closer together and breaks down the barriers and preconceptions that may keep us apart. While the events I make in New York are primarily focused around the Jewish holidays and experience, there is a larger message that is applicable and important for all humanity: Each of us has unique talents and abilities that we must tap into and use to make this world an actionably better place for us all.
Many people feel the pull of spirituality in beautiful places in the natural world, in houses of worship and surrounded by friends and family. Do you feel a spiritual presence through technology?
Everything exists in this world for a positive spiritual purpose. Technology is really the ultimate expression of spirituality. It teaches us to constantly strive to improve, to create connections and to understand that there is always something deeper that ties us all together.
Would you describe how technology impacts your work?
I’m a social media rabbi, so simply put, I don’t think anything I’m doing today could be done without tech. It’s how I reach out to people, organize events and share the experience with others.
At SXSW 2017, you spoke about the rise of online anti-Semitism. Do you see anything that has changed since then?
I think we’re more aware of the issues of online anti-Semitism now, which is both a positive and negative thing. On the one hand, that knowledge means we’re better equipped to address the issue and address some of the root causes. On the other hand, we risk becoming calloused to it — we can become willing to explain it away or ignore it as the background hum of the web. I worry that since 2017 many people have become a lot more cynical about the technology in our lives. I worry not because the issues that drive people to that cynicism aren’t real, just the opposite, they are all too real. Rather I believe that as humans, we are innately good — and if we get lost in cynicism, we can lose sight of that goodness we all strive to reveal.
Which sessions at SXSW 2018 are you especially interested in attending?
I’m really interested in hearing Yair Rosenberg, Amanda Quraishi and Eman Aly in Uniting to Fight the -ists, -ites & the -phobes. I love how SXSW brings diverse people together — and look forward to seeing how they tackle the issues of vitriol on the web.
Do you have any advice for using the internet and technology to begin or enhance a regular spiritual practice?
Use the phone to learn, to connect and to do good. Then turn it off, put it aside, and get going.
In addition to the March 9 #openShabbat event, SXSW 2018 includes two days of faith-related sessions on March 12 and March 13. Click here to learn more about these panels and presentations that cover a variety of religious traditions and perspectives.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.