Rallying Against the Internet
A sold-out event at New York’s Citi Field aims to unite the ultra-Orthodox world against online ‘evils’
That decision has not been well received. In an op-ed that appeared on several Haredi news sites, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, an Orthodox congregational rabbi in Los Angeles, called it “unconscionable” to exclude women from the event. “[H]ow in the world can they make the marquee event for awareness and education about the Internet exclusively for men?! … If anything, the girls have more access to computers and Internet than boys in yeshiva!”
The asifa will also face a counter-protest outside the stadium. Rallying behind the slogan “The Internet is NOT the Problem,” a group of protesters announced a “massive counter rally to bring awareness to a far bigger problem: keeping our children safe.” Ari Mandel—a former Hasid, currently an American soldier—who planned the counter-rally, explained that he does not object to Internet monitoring but worries about skewed values in the ultra-Orthodox community: “How can they spend so much time, money, and effort on the Internet but ignore child molestation?” The counter-protest, which lists over 300 people planning to attend on its Facebook page, was bolstered by a series of articles in the New York Times last week about abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Ironically, the Citi Field asifa has been picking up traction in one place: online. The story has been featured in Jewish and secular media outlets, with coverage ranging from amused to offended. Meanwhile, a fake Twitter feed (@IchudHaKehilos) appeared, offering up tweets that were only slightly more reactionary than the group’s actual statements (sample tweet: “Dinosaurs were also invented online”). In a twist, some Internet users have also come to the defense of the rally, including robust support for the asifa on Haredi websites that were previously banned by the rabbis organizing the rally.
It is not only the ultra-Orthodox who struggle with responsible Internet use. At the modern-Orthodox Yeshiva University, a group of students struggling with pornography addiction formed an anonymous support group called YU Arevim. The group—which is endorsed by a number of the school’s rabbis—offers Covenant Eyes software for a reduced price. An Arevim representative told me in an email that the group has 30 active users, though “some people unsubscribe when they get married.” As an institution, Y.U. is not affiliated with the Citi Field event, according to spokesman Mayer Fertig, but the school has discussed the viability of filtering Internet access in the dormitories.
And even non-Orthodox Jewish organizations have also grappled with the challenges posed by Internet access, even if they don’t take the same approach as Ichud HaKehillos. Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recognizes the dangers of unfettered technology but prefers education to suppression. “It’s our responsibility to educate our teens on how to be responsible users and consumers of information in a context of welcoming technology,” he said. However, new technologies carry their own risks, especially for children. “The Internet is a tool, which can be used wisely or irresponsibly.”
In this sense, the challenges facing Ichud HaKehillos are the same ones faced by many concerned parents, regardless of religious affiliation. “Which uses of technology are appropriate?” an asifa pamphlet asks. “How can we protect our children from these influences? Is there any way to make it completely safe for kids to use the internet?”
But what distinguishes Ichud HaKehillos—and the reason why filters will likely be no more successful than an outright ban was a decade ago—is its steadfast refusal to ascribe any merit to the Internet. “The purpose of the asifa is for people to realize how terrible the internet is,” Salamon said in an interview with Hamodia. And no matter how much Sunday’s rally pitches filters and accountability as the key to a kosher Internet, the ultimate goal of Ichud HaKehillos is to eliminate the Internet from Haredi life altogether. “The best thing for every ehrliche Yid [pious Jew],” Salamon continued, “is to not allow it in his home at all.”
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