Wired at the Western Wall, where smartphones heighten the holy

Even the ancient city of Jerusalem has been transformed by tech, as visitors to holy sites turn to mobile devices to reach out to God.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
4 min read

Tap and swipe to pray. Eric Elkins/CNET

JERUSALEM -- It's a warm summer weeknight at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple, and the sacred site teems with tourists and worshippers. And smartphones. Lots and lots of smartphones.

People talk, text, snap photos and shoot video. But some also employ their devices for a higher purpose: reaching out to God. On both sides of a divider that separates male and female worshippers, people hold smartphones in one hand as they bow and sway while reciting their daily prayers. Cell phones have been spotted at the Western Wall since before the days of the Motorola StarTac. But in an era when the Vatican has its own YouTube channel and Webcams follow the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, a distinctly modern take on the ancient prayerbook -- a mobile, digital variety -- has made its way to the holiest site in Judaism.

"We carry our smartphones everywhere, and the convenience of having all the prayers...in one place, is hard to beat," says Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone of Brooklyn, who has used his smartphone as a prayerbook at the wall, as well as elsewhere when he travels.

Prayers in your pocket. RustyBrick

I recently visited Israel for the first time in 15 years. Back then, I had yet to own my first cell phone, an early Nokia model with a 1.5-inch screen. In 1999, cell phones already seemed to be proliferating faster in Israel than they were in the US; I remember being annoyed by an odd behavior that had yet to infiltrate my country -- people yapping away loudly on mobile phones in public places.

Israel is known as a tech-high powerhouse, so smartphones, not surprisingly, are integrated into every aspect of daily life. Still, on this trip, I was struck by the sight of mobile devices everywhere at the Western Wall.

I wasn't the only one to notice the trend. "I saw a few men reading Hebrew text aloud, rocking back and forth and obviously in prayer, and I looked over another's shoulder to find that it looked like he was studying Hebrew scripture," Eric Elkins, CEO of a Denver-based social-media firm, told me of the action on the male side of the wall. "Another guy had Google Maps open, and someone else was texting."

Jewish religious law forbids the use of electronics on certain days -- on the weekly Sabbath, for example, and on some Jewish holidays. But nothing officially prevents people who don't adhere to religious law from using their gadgets -- at any time -- at the 2,000-plus-year-old wall that once surrounded the ancient Jewish Temple's courtyard.

For Lightstone -- the Orthodox rabbi uses the Siddur Tehillat Hashem app on Android -- no screen can equal the tactile experience of holding a siddur, or prayerbook, and turning pages worn and yellowed by years of heartfelt prayer. But a prayerbook that can be accessed with a tap and a swipe holds its own advantages, he notes.

These days, prayers to God can be placed in the cracks of the Western Wall, or delivered via the Internet. Leslie Katz/CNET

While Western Wall visitors can borrow a siddur from one of the wooden bookshelves that stand near the timeworn stones, supply tends to run low on crowded days.

"Keep in mind as well that different communities have different traditions and slight variations in what they say, so many people will opt to sticking with their phones over searching for the book that fits their particular custom," says Lightstone, who recently organized a cosplay Sabbath celebration at San Diego Comic-Con.

A Google search for "siddur apps" yields a number of offerings for iOS, Android, and Windows, with a handful for BlackBerry as well. Some apps are free, while others, like the popular iPhone siddur from Jewish-app developer RustyBrick, cost $9.99 or more.

But aside from the uptick in mobile devices (yes, Western Wall selfies are a thing), the Western Wall has seen other high-tech advances. A number of live-streaming Webcams keep a browser's-eye view on the site for those who can't visit in person. There are virtual tours in 3D. Using apps and online services, remote visitors can take part in the time-honored tradition of placing written prayers to God in the wall's cracks: they can send digital versions that are then printed on-site and stuffed into the crevices between stones. One such service, offered by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, has seen more than 430,000 notes sent since it started in 2005.

At least one study has cited a link between increased Internet use and a decline in religious affiliation, but Judaism and other religions continue to tap technology as a way to stay current and broaden their reach. Religious leaders post their sermons online. Hindu prayer apps include readily accessible mantras to chant for different deities, while rosary apps allow Christians to count their blessings on the go.

Pope Benedict XVI was famously vocal about his belief that the Catholic Church should become more Web- and multimedia-savvy. And though the current pope, Pope Francis, along with some other religious leaders, has warned that too much technology can distract from what's important, who can forget the moment when following him on Twitter was suggested as a way to cut time in purgatory?

Still, for all today's overlap in religion and technology, some lines have yet to be crossed before the Western Wall becomes the completely Wired Western Wall. Wi-Fi has yet to arrive, and Isaac the Hanukkah-celebrating robot is nowhere to be seen. I just hope I make it back before the Jumbotron arrives.

A common site at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2014. Eric Elkins/CNET