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Fidget Spinners and the Jews

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If you’ve seen a kid lately, you’ve probably also seen the newest craze in the toy world: the Fidget Spinner! These three-pronged, ball-bearing, colorful little spinning toys have swept the nation and far surpassed its original purpose as a focus tool for students with disabilities like Autism and ADHD. They’ve also begun to stir a bit of controversy both in the secular world and in the Jewish world, which is what first caught my attention as a Jewish educator.
 
The most obvious controversy surrounding this new fad toy is how distracting it can be. While the toy was originally created to focus extraneous energy or “stimming”, putting one in every hand in a classroom has caused quite a distraction to teachers and students alike. A number of secular, day and supplementary religious schools have even gone so far as to ban them, which I find to be a real shame. The overwhelming popularity of these toys has now hurt those who need it most by not allowing anyone to use them. I think it’s also encouraged a misunderstanding of disability accommodation in kids across the United States.
 
But what really caught my attention is the Jewish community reaction to this silly little toy. A little over a week ago a number of Jewish publications including the Times of Israel and The Forward published articles stating that the spinners had been deemed kosher for Shabbat. The Forward noted in their article: “The Scientific Institute of Technology in Jerusalem, which both reviews and creates technology in accordance with Jewish legal codes, issued a ruling on the use of spinners...”. While the spinners may be kosher for Shabbat, the article also notes that the rabbis of the Institute explicitly mentioned that the toys should not be brought to synagogue as they may harm the sanctity of a service.
 
This is the part that really caught my interest.
 
I don’t disagree entirely, but when I first thought of the notion of “fidgeting” within a religious context, images of ritual items of other faiths like mala beads and rosaries came to mind. Aren’t they sort of “fidget tools” in a way? These items are used to help Buddhist monks or Catholic nuns to focus on the prayer or meditation they are engaging in. In Judaism we may not have an external object like this but the concept of physical movement as a means of focusing in on prayer does exist. One example is shuckling--swaying back and forth during prayer. The origins of shuckling remain somewhat unclear, but ultimately it seems to have a meditative purpose. Some say that it aids in the ecstasy of prayer in the Chasidic tradition. Regardless, we could argue that it’s a religious “fidgeting” that engages one deeper in prayer rather than distracting.
 
And what about the tallit? Look around the next time you’re in shul, how many people are fidgeting with the strings of their tallit? The act of rubbing the strings between one’s fingers has always appeared spiritual and soothing to me as an onlooker. As a child, I watched my father and others in our congregation, mesmerized. The purpose of the strings, or tzitzit, is to remind us of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, similar to the way the rosary evokes an added layer to the prayer being said. To me it appeared to send my father deeper into prayer just as many see shuckling as a tool of deeper meditative focus. Are these examples all that far off from what the Fidget Spinner COULD be with some adaptation?
 
Hear me out—What if we could design a spinner that did somehow remind a child of Jewish concepts as they played? Or perhaps we can find a way to use the existing design to teach about Jewish concepts. Think for a moment about one of the most famous Jewish prayers; the Shema. The three-pronged toy spins around a weighted center that creates a unique sensation of oneness if you ask me. Fingers flick, mechanisms spin, all to create one sensation. It’s a stretch, but maybe we need to stretch a little further to reach the kids we’re teaching today.  
 
As a Jewish educator I find that we struggle to really teach the beauty of the Jewish faith today because we get caught up in tradition. Unfortunately, traditional means of Jewish education are no longer working in the age of screens. The books alone don’t work anymore, and in this world of instant gratification my students are asking more than ever how this stuff relates to THEIR lives.
 
Don’t get me wrong, many innovative educators have pushed the envelope to include the digital age with amazing programs like G-dCast.  But it seems to me that we’re always one step behind the secular world. Each new innovation we bring to Jewish education, like the increased use of youtube videos or gaming, appear still somewhat stale to the children we work with.  Proverbs 22:6 tells us, “Educate a child according to his way, And even when he is old, he will not depart from it”. This piece of Torah is often used by educators to discuss individualized learning but it applied here too. We need to teach children according to the world they live in today, and maybe that means Fidget Spinners.
 
I’m hopeful that we are coming into an age in Jewish education that is filled with fast-thinking, creative minded educators who might keep up with the pulse of secular fads and play off of them. After all, is a Fidget Spinner that far of a jump from the shtetlach practice of placing candy on a section Hebrew as a child began learning in cheder? It’ll take some adapting to put it in the sanctuary but for now we can capitalize on the popularity of toys like the Fidget Spinner in the Jewish education classroom, and we should! 
 
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