Talking with A guy who unplugged to reconnect

Name: Levi Felix
Age: 30
City: Oakland
Position: Co-founder of Digital Detox, camp director of Camp Grounded


J.: You used to work in technology, until a life-threatening illness caused you to question and consider the impact of technology on your life. Now you advocate for others doing the same kind of self-reflection. Can you recount your journey?

Levi Felix: I was vice president of a startup called Causecast in Los Angeles and was loving my job, doing amazing work helping nonprofits use technology for good. I was working 80-hour weeks, with my iPhone and MacBook Air and BlackBerry. In 2009, I ended up in the hospital with a tear in my esophagus. I had been bleeding internally for several days and lost a third of my body’s blood and didn’t even know I was sick. I decided I needed to change my lifestyle. I thought, how can I feel connected to the world and feel whole if I don’t even know I’m almost dying?

J.: You spent time traveling around the world, starting in Israel, and lived for six months in Cambodia. What was that like?

LF: My girlfriend and I spent a total of 21⁄2 years living abroad and being off the grid. In Cambodia, we visited this small island, the first time just as guests. Then we went back as volunteers to help a family manage their guesthouse. It was a fantasy beach, where we were living sustainably. People would ask if they could get online, and I started saying “This is your digital detox” and making jokes like “Don’t Instagram, intergram,” and “Instead of checking in on Foursquare, check in on yourself,” and “Instead of writing a status update, write one in the sand and let the ocean wash it away.”

All that mattered was that they were there. When you forget what day it is, your body posture shifts and it’s a total opportunity for transformation.

J.: You and your girlfriend co-founded Digital Detox and Camp Grounded, both adult retreats away from technology. Did these ideas come out of your Jewish background at all?

LF: I attended Camp Ramah throughout my childhood. It had a huge impact. Most of my staff and counselors at Camp Grounded are lifelong Tawongans, or parts of other Jewish communities, all coming together now to create a summer camp for adults. Digital Detox at its core comes from the idea of taking a [regular] break, which is inherently Jewish.

J.: Tell me about your partnership with Oakland’s Awaken Café, which last month stopped offering Wi-Fi four days out of the week. How has that been going?

LF: I did some brainstorming with the owner, Cortt Dunlap. They only started a few weeks ago. … Of course, there’s been some backlash, but other people love it, and it’s changed the whole vibe of the experience really quickly. Tables are full of people having conversations instead of people on their laptops.

Levi Felix and fiancée Brooke Dean

J.: You used to work as director of operations at the Moishe House organization and created something called the Moishe Mobile. What was that?

LF: This was 10 years ago already, but yes, I did growth and development, when it was still a small group. The Moishe Mobile was an ecopowered, veggie oil–run school bus that traveled across the country, teaching and educating people about sustainability.

J.: What is your Jewish background? You went to Jewish schools and are from a traditional Jewish home, right?

LF: I grew up in Fresno, first at a Conservative synagogue and then Reform. I attended Camp Ramah and taught Hebrew school and worked as a tutor for b’nai mitzvah students because I knew how to read trope.

You partner with the Jewish nonprofit Reboot on its National Day of Unplugging, but beyond that, do you unplug yourself on Shabbat?

LF: I don’t unplug every Shabbat, but I try every day to find a way to create Shabbat. I try to find the Shabbat in the moment. On Saturday mornings, I often walk to the farmers market and leave my phone at home. I’m not religious and I don’t take detoxes all the time, but for me it’s all about balance.

J.: Apparently, you enjoy cleaning compost toilets enough to include that skill in your bio.

LF: People are afraid of a lot of things that make us human, right? Poop grosses us out, or gutting a fish or killing a chicken you’re about to eat, or even seeing someone breast-feed in public. These are things that make us human, and are beautiful parts of our humanity and bring our understanding full circle. I used to joke that even cleaning the toilets in Cambodia wasn’t a bad job because you can go jump into the ocean afterward to clean up.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."