Vital, pointless, sexist, hilarious? New York's ultra-Orthodox battle-the-Internet gathering goes viral
By David Shamah (Times of Israel)
May 19, 2012
Although its organizers probably did not intend it, a rally to "protest" the Internet is turning into, depending on whom you ask, the most constructive, pointless, divisive, sexist, embarrassing, or downright funny event to hit the American Jewish community for a long time.
This Sunday, tens of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews (male only) are set to attend "a mass rally never before seen in the history of Orthodox Jewry in the US," to "disseminate information and hold a prayer rally for the success of Klal Israel's war on the Technology which threatens the sanctity of the homes of Israel."
A "kol korei" (call to action) published in Haredi newspapers says "We must assemble together to protect and be protected ... and may it be that we will be successful in encouraging the public not to stumble over this obstacle."
The kol korei is signed by some of the "heavyweights" of the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva world, including Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, Chairman of the rabbinical court of Bnei Brak.
The event itself, which is termed an "asifa" (Yeshivish for "gathering") is being organized by a committee of rabbis calling itself the Ichud HaKehilos (many of the organizers are from the Hassidic community – but none are from the Lubavitch community, which was specifically not invited to attend), and will be held at Citi Field in Queens, home of the New York Mets.
Citi Field can hold 42,000 people – and the venue is sold out. In fact, the $10 tickets are such hot items, they are going for as much as $50 (ironically, on the web site eBay!).
According to a source in the Haredi community, organizers of the event have been overwhelmed by its popularity, and are already working on producing another rally. According to the source, the next rally may be held in Madison Square Garden.
But while there is seemingly a great deal of support for the rally, its goals are not necessarily clear, said one modern Orthodox rabbi who asked not to be identified.
"If they think they can shut down the Internet, they are obviously fooling themselves, and if they think they can manage in today's economy without the Internet, they are foolish," Rabbi T told The Times of Israel.
"If they intend to protest online pornography, I would say they are better off putting their efforts –- and the money they are raising from the ticket sales –- into providing easy to use and accessible Internet filters. Haredim who work use the Internet, and it could be assumed that many of them take their work home at the end of the day, meaning that many of them have Internet at home. So it's not going anywhere."
A senior assistant to the leader of one of the largest Hassidic groups in the world, a Reb C (he, too, asked not to be identified), agreed. "Nobody expects them to shut down the Internet to accommodate us or anyone else. The point is to raise awareness of the issue and search for ways to live with it, as a necessary evil," he said.
Representing the most conservative approach to Internet use, Reb C told The Times of Israel that even Internet filters, which blacklist offensive sites, are ineffective, and can be disabled.
"A whitelist, where you are allowed to surf only to specific sites, is the only way you could possibly allow the Internet into the home. There really is no choice today but to take the most extreme position you can against Internet use," he said.
"It's just too easy to surf to inappropriate sites. Not too long ago you had to go through a great deal of work if you wanted to, for example, view pornography and keep your interest private. Today it comes to you. This is a major crisis for religious Jews, and it is just as much a tragedy for everyone else as well," said Reb C. "I don't think it's a coincidence that life has gotten so much shakier, with depression, suicides, drug addiction etc. at an all-time high, during these days of unlimited Internet access."
Reb C, who claimed his views are typical of those that will be expressed at the rally, said he isn't "against" the Internet per se, but against unfettered access, especially by those who have no business using it.
He added: "the Internet is a test, and it's up to us as Jews to pass that test. The difference is that getting to the negative aspects of the Internet is so easy that we need to take special steps to ensure our spiritual health."
The concept of spiritual health isn't just for religious Jews, according to Reb C.
"Everyone, including the most avid Internet users, agree that surfing the Web is a 'time vampire,' and decreases interaction with family members. I once spoke with a prominent rabbi who said that as far as he was concerned, there was more value in playing a board game like Monopoly than in putting kids in front of a computer to play with an interactive game that will teach them to say blessings or about Shabbat. You can learn a lot more about human values from playing with other kids, and that trumps even the religious, but solitary, Internet experience," said Reb C.
Many of the rally's critics have no issue with the basic Haredi philosophy of Internet use, even if they themselves are not prepared to embrace it. A rapid review of comments on dozens of Web sites indicated the top criticism is the fact that no women are to attend the rally — part of a recent trend in which public events in the Haredi world, such as concerts or plays, are held for one or the other gender in order to cut down on inter-sex mingling before, and especially after, the event.
"This is unconscionable," one well-known blogger wrote about this issue. "If the threat of the Internet is so great, as the Ichud HaKehilos claims, how in the world can they make the marquee event for awareness and education about the Internet exclusively for men? Are women not susceptible to the harms of the Internet? Should mothers of our children not be educated about the dangers of the Internet?"
The organizers said in response that the rabbis wanted to invite women, but that "logistics did not permit it."
More painful are the claims that at least one of the rally's high-profile organizers has been accused in one of the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Orthodox communities in recent years.
A group representing adults who say they were abused will be demonstrating outside the stadium, hoping to rally support for their efforts to increase awareness of the issue. About this, the organizers had no comment, other than to say that holding such a gathering was just an attempt to create a "media circus" in light of the serious goings-on inside.
There are more "minor" complaints as well, such as how this or that group (mainly Chabad) was not invited, how the internal politics of the Haredi community affected which rabbis were invited and which weren't, and how the millions of dollars being raised for this event could be spent in much more productive ways. The event has generated opportunities for humor even among members of the ultra-Orthodox community, such as a (presumably fake) Twitter feed by the Ichud Hakehilos.
It seems, however, that the Haredi world is not alone in eschewing the Internet, or at least parts of it. A recent AP piece quotes numerous people and cites statistics about how many people refuse to join Facebook, and how many refused to join it in the first place. According to one ex-Facebooker, she "sort of resented how it felt like an obligation rather than fun." Others cited arguments based on productivity, personal relationships, and even discomfort with the morals they are being exposed to.
"Perhaps," said Reb C, "the next asifa will be open to the general public. It sure looks like there is a demand there."