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Rallying Against the Internet

A sold-out event at New York’s Citi Field aims to unite the ultra-Orthodox world against online ‘evils’

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)
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Yiddish, Translated on a Jumbotron

Overheard at last night’s ultra-Orthodox rally against the Internet

This Sunday, there’ll be a sellout crowd at Citi Field, a rare sight at the home of the New York Mets. But the big draw isn’t a baseball game. It’s an ultra-Orthodox rally against the Internet that had sold out all 40,000 seats more than a week in advance.

An organization called Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) raised $1.5 million for the massive asifa (rally) protesting the “evils of the Internet and the damages caused by advanced electronic devices.” It is a watershed event, marking the arrival of online censorship as a primary—and public—focus in the ultra-Orthodox community. The rally is not, as some have joked, merely about pornography: Rabbi Moshe Drew, who operated the Ichud HaKehillos technology-awareness hotline, identified “Facebook and social networking sites” as the most damaging material online, while others see the Internet as an issue of politics as much as piety. “By having a following that will make no decisions on their own, the ruler sets the tone,” wrote Michael J. Salamon in the Times of Israel, stressing that Internet access—and everything that comes with it—threatens basic rabbinic authority. And then, of course, it is also about porn.

A poster for the rally explains: “A HUGE crisis demands a HUGE solution, and May 20th will mark a new era for Klal Yisroel,” the Jewish community.

But with the rally just days away, event organizers are struggling with political infighting, a growing protest movement, and a mission statement that remains muddled and contradictory, as it tries to simultaneously advocate “safer” Internet use while also banning the Internet altogether. Organizers have yet to announce what the rally will entail, who will be speaking, or what the “many practical solutions to the internet problem” that promotional materials have promised might look like.

Asifa organizers hope that the event itself will reduce infighting and unite the ultra-Orthodox community around a shared threat. According to Rabbi Mattisyahu Salamon of Lakewood, N.J., one of the founders of Ichud HaKehillos, “It is entirely possible that the entire nisayon [test] of technology was brought upon us by Hashem in order to force us to unite.”

***

This is not the first time that the ultra-Orthodox community has confronted the problems of technology. In 2000, the Council of Torah Sages, a powerful legislative committee that represents several Haredi sects, weighed in on a number of new (or new-ish) devices, sounding a “serious warning against the terrible dangers within computers, compact disc players, movies and the Internet,” in an official edict. This amounted to a prohibition against accessing the Internet or owning a computer.

Despite the ban, a vibrant community of Haredi news sites, blogs, and forums began to develop online. While some sites challenged the rabbinic establishment (usually anonymously), many operated as unofficial mouthpieces for religious authorities. Other sites clandestinely featured lectures and articles by the same rabbis who denounced the sites’ very existence. And though the Internet bans are severe, rabbis always maintained an exemption for business use.

In 2005, rabbis in Lakewood doubled down on their campaign against the Internet. Citing the “immoral lures that are present on the Internet,” the community banned students enrolled in any of Lakewood’s 43 yeshivas from having computers at home. The ban succeeded—to a degree. A year after the ban was instituted, the Lakewood Public Library reported a 40 percent increase in computer use at its branches, fueled mainly by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The edicts continued. In 2009, the Council of Torah Sages focused its wrath on Haredi websites, calling on readers and advertisers to pull support. The websites were accused of being gateways to “the vilest of places” on the Internet, and of spreading “slander, lies, and impurities.” In 2011, Haredi leaders in Israel unveiled an ad campaign claiming that the Internet caused, among other things, cancer. Using gematria, which assigns a numeric value to Hebrew letters, rabbis demonstrated that “Internet” and “cancer” were numerically equivalent. The web was also implicated in causing droughts.

In January 2011, the council issued its latest ruling: “Internet usage should by all means be avoided in homes and, wherever possible, also in business offices. In any event, children should not be given internet access. For those who must have internet access … it is assur [prohibited] to have internet access without an effective filter.” Internet filters, the rabbis’ newest salve, will undoubtedly be a primary solution advanced this weekend at Citi Field.

Most Internet filters work in one of two ways: “Blacklisting,” which is popular in workplaces and parental control programs, uses content control software to block websites that contain objectionable key words or functions. “Whitelisting” takes a more limiting approach, allowing users to access only a specific list of pre-approved websites. YeshivaNet ($24.95/month for dial-up), a popular Whitelisting service for ultra-Orthodox families, explains the difference on its website: “Other services provide the entire Internet and then try to filter out the bad parts. We’re not convinced it’s possible to filter out the bad parts. We simply don’t offer the Internet altogether.”

Another kind of fix that will likely be discussed at Citi Field is accountability software, which allows users to access any site on the web—with a major caveat: Your browsing history is recorded, analyzed, and forwarded to an “accountability partner,” typically a friend, parent, or clergyman. Covenant Eyes, a Christian-focused accountability program, mainly targets Evangelical clients, but the company also recognizes its appeal to followers of other religions. Its website features a selection of articles in Yiddish that stress the importance of accountability software from a Jewish perspective. (One article is introduced with this: “This lecture by Vina Rav explains how, while the Israelites traveled with Moses in the wilderness, the manna that fell each day acted as a form of accountability, and why Internet Accountability is so important.”)

For those who cannot forgo the Internet altogether, Ichud HaKehillos recommends multiple layers of web security, even at a high cost. “One may have no choice but to switch to a more expensive provider which has the ability to block indecent sites from ever reaching the computer,” said Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, an Ichud HaKehillos representative from Detroit.

***

Ichud HaKehillos was founded in 2011 under the leadership of Rabbi Salamon and Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, the leader of the Skulen Hasidic dynasty. An inaugural conference in Newark, N.J., last September was attended by 600 ultra-Orthodox rabbis; the organization now boasts branches in 11 cities across North America. Ichud HaKehillos is a single-issue organization, pursuing its mission of “using technology al pi Torah”—according to Jewish values—with rabbinical conferences, a support hotline, and a magazine called Together as One. Citi Field’s rally will be its largest event to date.

The group’s stated goals for the rally are simultaneously modest and substantial: According to Together as One, the rally will provide “inspiration, direction, and viable solutions” for community members wary of technology. At the same time, the asifa represents “the first step in overcoming technology” and promises participants “an opportunity to have a part in the final redemption.”

But what do statements like these actually mean? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Ichud HaKehillos spokesman Eytan Kobre stressed that the group fundamentally accepts technology. “We’re not looking to banish the Internet,” he said. “We understand it’s here to stay.” But articles in the Haredi press and materials published by Ichud HaKehillos tell another story. “In a perfect world, the internet should be banned altogether,” Together as One suggests, going on to note that “providing your children with an internet-accessible cell phone is giving them directly into the hands of the Satan.” This is not a case where the risks of Internet access are seen as outweighing the benefits; according to Ichud HaKehillos, there are no benefits. Together as One advises readers: “Just do the simple act of ridding your home of the internet!”

Building consensus among the ultra-Orthodox has proved tricky. Organizers disagreed, for instance, about whether to include Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the largest Hasidic movements, which maintains an active presence online, using a website for outreach, education, and news. In the end, Chabad made the invite list and agreed to participate, but the endorsement is lukewarm, at best. “If there are people who think that participating in the asifa will help convince them” to remove the Internet from their homes, a letter from the Chabad-run Crown Heights Rabbinical Court advised, “then they should participate.” The letter also revealed tension within the Chabad community, expressing “dismay” about the state of Chabad websites: “Patronizing or supporting these sites in any way, shape, or form is considered as helping those who sin.”

Women presented another problem. A call to the Ichud HaKehillos headquarters (“Press 2 for Yiddish”) confirmed that the event would be for men only: “This is the first time doing it, and the separate section thing was complicated,” a female representative told me. “Setting up mechitzahs and separate entrances was too difficult.”

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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I am not ultra-orthodox. Not at all. – Eliyahu Fink

Women not invited.. is this the 13th century trying for a comeback?

martyj says:

A sad state to create a dichotomy between modern thought and what is among the Utra Orthodox. Tradition is wonderful, but must be tempered with a bit of contemporary thought! To live in a vacuum, is not the way!

Given that a good portion of ultra-Orthodox morality stems from community accountability and a collective watchdog mentality, I can see why the internet would be so terrifying for them. 

Joseph Nerenberg says:

The author missed out on a very problematic angle. Supposedly, one of the organizers is an ex-con with — guess what — his own internet-filtering business!

werert says:

Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

Great article.  I attended a panel discussion at Ramath Orah on the UWS recently where panelists and audience members advocated ‘Jewish Unity’ as a response to challenges faced by American Jewish communities.  I cannot think of a more appropriate example of how unity can be utterly and completely destructive than this attempt regarding the Internet.  Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum face similar problems and issues.  I am heartened, however, that in the ‘land of the free and home of the brave,’ nine Jews are entitled to ten opinions.  For somewhere in the hullabaloo and ruckus, we might faintly hear a voice of reason.

Aaron says:

Sad how in the beginning of the article the author managed to squeeze  out every negative angle about this event, and then only deep into the article does he reveal the fact that “Ichud HaKehillos is a single-issue organization, pursuing its mission of “using technology al pi Torah”.

Which basically means that this is NOT – as the headline of this articles screams – a rally AGAINST internet,  its just an awareness rally on the importance of using the internet RESPONSIBLY that’s it that’s all!

Those ill-advised “experts” who claim that this event is the Rabbi’s attempt to maintain their power, didnt even bother to go out there and figure out who is the man behind the Ichud HaKehillos, its a simple young man Nechemia Gottlieb who is driven by strong ideals to create a safer world for our future generations.

k56sf says:

Exactly…being an ex-Williamsburg resident and a reformed Jew…the ease with which the Ultra-Orthodox want to impose theocratic dictates on non-Ultra-Orthodox communities always astounded me. And how they masquerade their theocratic approach to civic life as objective, “public/civil law” is even more astounding. The Ultra-Orthodox community has the right to live in a parallel psychological and cultural space, but as the world advances, their community is going to suffer in ways that will prove detrimental not only to their social/culture way of life, but also to their economic lives. In terms of the Ultra-Orthodox gender code of beliefs, I just don’t know anymore. As a unique community of Jews, they have the full right to practice their beliefs, but I am of the camp that an autonomous, fully informed adult who wants to adopt/adapt to these beliefs is one thing. To indoctrinate the thinking on non-adults, viz., children, in these beliefs, is something entirely different, but then we are in the realm of dictating parenting principles and guidelines and one never succeeds in this type of argument.

Aaron says:

Dont know. If yes the this just proves my point that it has nothing to do with “rabbi’s maintaining control” as the “experts” mentioned in this article – claim

tk_in_TO says:

Do not look to the Haredim for breadth of vision or enlightenment.  They protect deviants but point fingers at others.  The longer the beard, the greater the hypocrite.

They’re doing this on my mother’s (OBM) ninth yahrzeit!!! [Bleep] them really, really hard.

Naftoli B says:

Rude comments about haredim and referring to other Jews as ‘them’ are bordering on anti-semitism.  Surely it is a given, especially on this forum, that others are given respect – no matter how off-beat or removed from reality their opinions appear to us.

All the sexism in the Haredi community is the reason for the endless divorces and the attrition rate of those who once adhered to it.
Frankly these men are fanatics who use religion to uphold ideas that do not appear in the Torah and have never been anything more than custom. 
There is NOT ONE WORD in the entire Torah to forbid women from reading from it nor from holding high positions in the Jewish world.  To whit these Rabbis are oppressive.  

Perhaps the Black Hats should be more concerned with the rampant molestation in the yeshivas then an educated Jewish net surfer finding alternate Jewish interpretation then the one the local rebbe is spouting.

This anti-internet jamboree is just another bit of haredi window-dressing — a sort of ostentatious musar-schmooze, but on a very large scale. No one attending the event sincerely believes that it’s going to change attitudes or behaviours.

Haredi anxieties, on the other hand, are entirely justified. We’re entering into the ultra-Orthodox equivalent of the break-up of the former Soviet Union. There are simply too many internal pressures (largely economic), and external contingencies (loss of political power and cohesion in Israel), for the haredi world to continue as it has since the end of WWII.

What’s fascinating, in a way, is how all this turmoil and painful transitioning remains ethnically isolated — it’s happening within an almost exclusively Ashkenazi context. (Sure, there are some Mizrachim who’ve “converted” to one flavour or another of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy, but they remain quite rare.)

rocky2345 says:

 No. Just 18th century Poland. Sacred texts for men, picture books for women.

rocky2345 says:

Don’t get caught up in a “Fiddler on the Roof” nostalgia for the Haredi. We are not living in Russia 1881 or Poland 1904 (“Yentl”) and it is unfair for young children to be economically crippled by a substandard secular education. Chaim Levin left a Hasidic yeshiva at the age of 17 with the equivalent of a grade 3 secular education. Now at the age of 23, he is trying to put his life back together. You can read his blogs at Huffington Post.

At a time when Hasidics are trying to role back the forces of the Internet, Facebook is coming to market with the most frothy IPO since the bubble of 2000. Facebook was started by three Jews and a gay Christian. Two of the poorest communities (high percentage of residents living below the poverty line as measured by the US census) in the US are the Hasidic communities New Square, NY and Kiryas Joel, NY. As the US is forced to confront its financial problems, the residents of these two communities (and all other Hassidic communities) are going to be heavily impacted.

Tzippy Snippet says:

“It is entirely possible that the entire nisayon [test] of technology was brought upon us by Hashem in order to force us to unite.”

It’s hard not to laugh out loud at statements like this, which just reveal the depth of OJs ability to make anything, anywhere, all about themselves. Never mind what Internet technology does for the rest of the world (and for the majority of OJ communities, where it is currently used for business and/or in secret), the decades of worldwide use and development are really just “a test” for one small group. Ugh.

k56sf says:

Rocky 2345, I have to admit, your comment made me snicker…but to respond to Naftoli B’s comment. The concept of “rude” and “respect” are intriguing concepts to raise in a forum in connection with the Haredi. Again referencing my life in Williamsburg, I lived on the East River, but in the heart of the Hasidim community for a number of years. During that time, the “non-rude” and “respectful” behavior my neighbors and I experienced when patronizing the Hasidic owned stores was – not able to obtain service because we did not speak fluent Hebrew, being refused service because we were not appropriately clothed during the height of the summer season (viz., no shorts, no sandals, no sleeveless t-shirts), unwillingness to wait on women, a strident community movement to remove the bike lane on Kent Avenue, all opposing opinions at public hearings raised the cry of how we were “Nazis” and “anti-Semitic”, despite the fact we were all Jews of various expressions (Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionists), the list goes on. Now, does this mean this particular Hasidic community is “unworthy of respect and kindness, no, what it does do is raise the issue of reversing the “respect” lens on the Hasidim and why they feel justified in engaging in disrespectful, unconstructive, and unkind civic/social behavior. Regarding the grocery store even though there were several stores within walking distance, because of the inability to shop at local Hasidic owned stores, the nearest store we could patronize was 30-minute walk away.

mikekon7 says:

ha ha, this reminds me of the old man selling books in the film yentl. He shouts out “Sacred books for the men picture books for the women.”

Just came to mind while reading this comment.

About a half century ago porn was illegal. Then the misguided civil libertarians opened the floodbanks and our brains fell out. Kudos to these Rabbis for their brave and lonely stand against the sexual exploitation that is rampant on the web.

Hershl says:

The rallies were advertised on the internet.

That is where many participants found out about them.

Why not just disconnect all ultra-orthodox families from the net, take away their cell phone service ( which in many cases connects to the net), and, while we are at it, cut off their electricity altogether. Why should they benefit from that which they hate and criticize?

They are opposed to secular education but have no hesitation to use the services of doctors and others whose education they consider treyf.

They refuse to donate organs for use after their death but have no problem taking organs of those who donated them.

They are leeches, parasites and the scum of the Jewish community.

As Hynes, the Brooklyn DA who is under fire for cooperating with their leaders by hiding the names of sex offenders who are hasidic, said to the NY Times recently, “The level of intimidation is not found nearly as much in organized crime,” he said. “It’s extraordinary just how relentless these people can be.”

The DA now is telling the world what we have known for many years, they are crueler, more heartless than the Mafia.

They live on welfare, in section 8 housing, and scam the system. They always have money to travel to Israel ( which they condemn), make lavish weddings and have tons of kids, but refuse to pay their fair share of community expenses both here and in Israel.

In a word, they are a cancer on the Jewish people.

RebElya says:

I have a beard, im a chabad chossid, and i find your remark just plain ol’ stupid. That goes for those who liked it as well.

RebElya says:

 stop labeling jews.  A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, as long as his mother is a good old fashioned jew ( or properly converted ), we dont  label jews ( conservative, ultra- orthadox, orthadox) there has always been one way to practice judaism…. stop tearing jews apart, and start bringing us together…

I wonder to what degree the critics of this rally imagine themselves strong advocates of cultural diversity. It’s always interesting to see how this pretense to cultural diversity ends when dealing  with their very own.  As an erstwhile Orthodox Jew and Liberal, with many Lubabs in the family, I found it much easier to the justify the mild hypocrisy of the Orthodox than petty hypocrisy of self-righteous Liberals.

Saint_Etienne says:

I thought they were against the internet altogether. Are they not? :)
For instance, this website is a terrible shikutz.

Saint_Etienne says:

 Who?

Saint_Etienne says:

Have you read the whole article, however?

“The best thing for every ehrliche Yid [pious Jew],” Salamon continued, “is to not allow it in his home at all.”This quote does seem to indicate that IHK is against the internet in toto. I’ll grant that they know enough tactics to partially dissimulate this.

Saint_Etienne says:

 Interesting angle. Are there articles or books you can suggest that expound it in more depth?

How ironic that while these fundamentalists were rallying for a return to the Dark Ages, a beautiful annular solar eclipse was broadcast worldwide,  something made possible only through the Internet. These people could have been home sharing an educational and wonderful experience with their children; instead, they made a spectacle of just how much they can imitate the Taliban. They focus so much on pornography and the negatives of the Internet that they miss out on the many positives, like being able to watch an eclipse that isn’t visible where you live. Is watching an eclipse something horrible? Is learning about the beauty of the universe, being able to see pictures and videos of stars, planets, and galaxies really that threatening? For believers, wouldn’t viewing these things be a way of celebrating the glory of divine creation?

Jayson2 says:

 How nice.  A rally of rabbis, & men with no backbones it seems. No women allowed?  Have the rabbis &  menfolk reverted to 12th century ways? 

 I wonder, after the old boys discuss & decide what’s good, & not good for the general population, if they’ll discuss & decide on the merits of lashings, iron masks & chastity belts as well? 

  Good god. It’s no wonder hatred still abounds.

rocky2345 says:

 Sooner or later there will be a backlash from the cities and counties where large numbers of Hasidics live. The growing welfare costs will eventually break the budgets of all of these municipalities and the state of New York itself.

Rally Against the Internet: An Enterprising Response to the Demands of Orthodox Rabbis http://wp.me/p1Jt6N-EX 

Diane Ferguson says:

Congratulations! I applaud the Orthodox Jewish community for having the courage to stand up to one of the greatest evils of our time. All too often, the young are brainwashed into thinking that they have to follow the herd, and they lose all traces of themselves as a result.

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Rallying Against the Internet

A sold-out event at New York’s Citi Field aims to unite the ultra-Orthodox world against online ‘evils’

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