(All photos by Mateo Aceves)

Security was tight. Misaskim, a crisis response center in Brooklyn, coordinated logistics and security for the event—a mass gathering for the ultra-Orthodox at Queens’ Citi Field to speak out against the dangers and temptations of the Internet—and served as liaison to law enforcement agencies. According to a letter sent out before the asifa (rally), that job involved juggling more than 750 buses, a few boats, 28 state agencies, and a capacity crowd that was a bit confused about stadium etiquette. “Special consideration is being given to the fact that many attendees are not familiar with Citi Field, or any stadium, and have probably never been there before,” the letter said.

The rally sold out early last week, with some savvy Haredim putting their tickets on eBay and Craigslist at a hefty markup. Organizers were anticipating a full house at Citi Field, and they rented out Arthur Ashe Stadium across the street to broadcast the asifa to an additional 22,000 fans. Would they need it? The final tally, according to Ichud HaKehillos spokesman Eytan Kobre, was 40,000 in Citi Field (which sounds accurate—the place was packed), 10,000 at Arthur Ashe (based on photos, this seems to be an overstatement), and “thousands more” watching at locations around the New York area (sounds plausible).

Goodie bags! Each asifa spectator received a survival kit for the day, sponsored by Fidelity Payment Services (“Advanced Payment Technology, Simplified”) which included: Stern’s chocolate Danish, Bloom’s mini pretzels, bottled water, a booklet titled “The Internet in Halacha,” mini binoculars, and a number of special prayers for the event. Inside, the Citi Field concession stands were closed, but Ichud HaKehillos had set up its own stands selling sandwiches, soda, chips, and sweets at not unreasonable prices. (A $7.00 turkey sandwich looked like a bargain next to the $9.00 stadium beer).

What do you wear to a sold-out, anti-Internet rally at a baseball stadium? I tried to blend in with the crowd, wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a velvet yarmulke. I even grew a beard. It didn’t matter. There is an inimitable quality to the ultra-Orthodox look that an outsider simply can’t imitate. That said, nearly everyone in the stadium was in black and white, and most wore jackets and black hats.

The crowd in left field:

“The Internet is NOT the Problem” counter-rally drew about one hundred lively protestors, carrying signs that were evocative, if blunt. “Where is the molestation asifa?” one asked. “Protect kids not abusers” and “The internet never molested me” were two more. However, the counter-rally was situated two blocks from Citi Field in a roped-off area that most asifa participants never got near. When I tried to talk to the protestors, the police noticed my black-and-white garb and asked me to leave. “You are not allowed to be here. You need to leave right now, sir.” In my section in the stadium, only a few asifa attendees had heard of the counter-rally and none had seen the group.

The counter-rally:

They weren’t the only ones protesting. A group from Motherfuckery.org embraced the absurdity of the event, protesting the “use of technology at the anti-Internet rally.” Dressed as cavemen and cavewomen, the fifteen protestors chanted, “Everything too new!” while carrying signs that read “Where you hide women?” and “No electricity also.”

Meanwhile, one man in sandals and jean shorts was calmly passing out flyers about animal abuse in slaughterhouses. What are you protesting about the rally? “Nothing really, I’m just a vegetarian. I do this at all the games.”

What drew these 40,000 people on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? Shulem Shanker, a 24-year-old kollel student from Boro Park, was a bit hazy about the purpose of the rally, but felt certain that he needed to be there. “I don’t have the Internet in my house or my phone, but the gedolim [Torah leaders] said to come, so you come.” In the seat next to me, a student from Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan, expressed a similar sentiment. “We don’t have the Internet at home, but my dad uses it at work. The gedolim think it’s an important issue, so you come here out of respect.” Not all ticketholders took the event so seriously. A few rows down from me, a man was chatting on his iPhone. “I’m at the ballpark, it’s Jewish heritage day!” he laughed. “I could use a cold beer.”

The event kicked off (45 minutes late) with a communal reading of psalms and a stadium-wide mincha service. For all the hype and hoopla surrounding the event, the sight of 40,000 people praying together was undeniably moving. In an introductory speech, the emcee announced that the asifa was being broadcast to locations around the New York area via closed circuit television and not, he emphasized, the Internet. “The event is not being broadcast on any website!” Unfortunately, he was wrong. A glance at Twitter (#asifa) revealed a number of links to rally feeds on, you guessed it, websites.

The rabbis spoke in a mixture of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, with a running English translation on the Jumbotron. Over a banner that read “Saving Generations” in Hebrew, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman of Monsey, New York, spoke first (and powerfully) about the dangers of technology. “Many say we are too late,” he said. “We’ve been retreating for years—enough! Tonight we draw a line of demarcation in the sand, tonight we begin to fight back!” He continued: “Yes, we’ll have to give up some of our entertainment. But how many of us go hunting? Do we feel deprived? We don’t need this, we’re better than this.” Wachsman, like many of the speakers, seemed keenly aware of the media interest (and ridicule) surrounding the asifa. “I know the media is represented here tonight, but we’re not interested in that. We are a modest people,” he told the sellout crowd at a baseball stadium that was rented for $1.5 million. “We are here to speak to our brethren.” He also hammered home the importance of accepting filters as the new communal norm, a common theme among the speakers. “If one sins on the Internet, he commits an aveira [sin]; if one separates from the community [by not installing a filter], he loses his share in olam haba [the world to come]!”

Rabbi Wachsman addresses the crowd:

The crowd didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Applauding for rabbis seems strange, but this was a pep rally at a baseball stadium, so it certainly would not have been out of line. It took about two hours for the entire stadium to begin clapping for each speaker. There were also, conspicuously, no female ushers or employees at the stadium, and the repeated announcements about not smoking were roundly ignored.

It was clear that the speeches had not been vetted or coordinated in advance. Many speakers went long (Rabbi Dan Segal clocked in at 40-something minutes, in Yiddish), while all presented a mixed message as to the purpose of the asifa and the specific dangers of the internet. Rabbi Wachsman appealed to psychology, focusing on the social isolation moral decay; Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, speaking from Bnei Brak, Israel, reintroduced an old tactic, arguing that schools should not accept students with Internet in their homes, even with a filter. And Rabbi Segal tried convincing the crowd that they didn’t need the Internet for work, either. No speaker said anything remotely positive about the web or mentioned any Jewish sites of value.

The Djibo Dayan, from Montreal, appealed to history. Just as “the terrible challenge of Enlightenment,” he said in Yiddish, first inspired the ultra-Orthodox community to separate itself, the challenge of the Internet would galvanize the community. “There are some who ridicule an event such as this,” he said. “In Gemora they did the same thing.”

Outside the stadium, Ichud HaKehillos spokesman Eytan Kobre talked about the counter-rallies. “How many people did they have? A hundred? I don’t think I need to respond to a hundred folks, but if they want to stick their head in the sand and say that the Internet is not a problem, they might as well hold a pro-smoking or pro-pornography rally.”

Eytan Kobre talks to a reporter:

The rally went on and on. And on and on and on. By 11:00 pm, as the lineup of speakers (mostly in Yiddish) showed no signs of letting up, and the crowd began to thin out. When Rabbi Mattisyahu Salamon, the leader of Ichud HaKehillos, finally got to the podium and asked, “Was there ever such a wonderful sight?” I’m not sure he really wanted to hear the crowd’s answer.

And the next step is … more asifas! Rabbi Salamon mentioned continued community gatherings throughout the year and another mega-rally in the future. L’shana haba b’Yankee Stadium! I’m not sure if another asifa will get the same kind of turnout. Benny, from Monsey, New York, thought one was enough: “Too much Yiddish for this crowd. I feel people won’t come to another one.”

Not everyone was disappointed. On the 7 train home, a group of four yeshiva students from Lakewood, New Jersey, were raving about the rally, especially Rabbi Wachsman’s “powerhouse” speech. “I thought it was perfect,” one of them said. “We’re all struggling with it, we all waste time, we all look at things we shouldn’t see, we all need chizuk [support]—we got it.”

Rallying Against the Internet [Tablet Magazine]