By Micah Stein (Tablet Magazine)
May 17, 2012
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."