The Internet Rebellion Shaking Stamford Hill

By Pen Tivakesh (The Jewish Chronicle)
January 11, 2013

It may seem like decades, but only three months ago thousands of Charedi men were marshalled into the Leyton Orient stadium for a ticketed event, although one quite unlike any football match, by the Union of Hebrew Congregations. The gathering was the brainchild of Rabbi Ephraim Padwa himself, the rabbinical leader of the UOHC.

Rabbi Padwa had been present as an honorary guest at a similar, but much larger assembly at the Citifield stadium in New York, where some 40,000 Charedi men were admonished, inspired and cajoled into accepting a censored internet. That event and its aftermath were truly astonishing. Thousands of men and women consequently voluntarily brought their devices to Technology Awareness Groups (TAG) in New York and surrendered them or had them koshered through the installation by TAG volunteers of internet-filtering software.

Here too, in London, at Rabbi Padwa’s event were rabble-rousing speeches, ghetto-blasted across the stadium. Here too people left feeling inspired, and TAG offices were set up. TAG London received many hundreds of calls within a few days. Many Charedi men and women did indeed feel the need to give up their iPhones and Androids or chose not to use such phones in public lest their reputation be tarnished.

Never before had we seen the powers that be flex their muscles in such a tangible way. Never before had we seen them impose on the masses their will with such orderly determination. My own view that there was no real Charedi rabbinical hierarchy, at least in London, lay in tatters. I had always thought that our rabbis had little clout and were merely crowd-pleasing figureheads adept at dancing to their crowd.

The dust settled after only a few weeks, and I came to realise that there was still a silent majority which resented these imposed changes. Not everyone had felt compelled to sit huddled in a corner when using an offending device, a smartphone of the kind now banned by the UOHC rabbinate. There were enough of us who publicly still flouted the new edicts issued at the great Leyton Orient circus without suffering any real repercussions.

In my wildest dreams, though, I could not have foretold what was to come next. Right after Succot, rumours began to surface that a particularly influential Golders Green Charedi UOHC rabbi, Chaim Halpern, had allegedly behaved improperly towards women seeking his counsel. Initially, few people knew of these rumours until they were mentioned on a blog written by a Stamford Hill maverick.

If it is true that middle-aged, rank-and-file Charedim are trained to sweep such horrific tales under the carpet, it is also true that rank and file Charedim do not frequent blogs. And so such rank-and-file Charedim, predisposed to under-rug sweeping, were blissfully unaware of the scale of the storm brewing.

Away from the spotlight, however, hundreds of Charedim were using their Blackberrys to pass along message after message, blog post after blog post and nugget after nugget of gossip. A silent mob was slowly growing in number and in strength.

In shul halls too, it had become acceptable to mention the previously unmentionable. Young men had begun to discuss these allegations of abuse publicly, to the chagrin of the older generation unequipped to deal with this new world order.

The UOHC leadership stood in stunned silence. It froze as if in terror, and failed to react to what was before its very eyes. No action was taken by the UOHC, who seemed unsure what to do or or where their support lay.

The rabbis in Golders Green who had taken it on themselves to investigate Chaim Halpern and who thought him guilty, on the other hand, had become emboldened by the level of popular support present within Charedi circles for their own stance. Finally after a month of simmering heat, a valve blew.

At a non-UOHC meeting in front of a panel of six rabbis, Chaim Halpern resigned his public positions, with the exception of his velvet-bedecked lectern at his shul. The rank-and-file UOHC Charedim called for a letter of unambiguous support for Chaim Halpern by the UOHC. The UOHC dithered and deflected but did nothing much at all.

They promised to set up a Beth Din for the purpose of re-investigating the allegations against Rabbi Halpern. Then there was a letter stating that Rabbi Halpern’s shul was no longer UOHC affiliated, implying to some that the UOHC had passively washed its hands of its problem called Chaim Halpern. This letter was almost immediately retracted through yet another letter, and there was another letter after that, a retraction of the retraction of sorts. Now the UOHC seems to have reverted to its Beth Din plan, announcing a tribunal of three rabbis from abroad, though its remit is unclear.

UOHC proclamations have come and gone as fast as kugel dishes at a Shabbat morning kiddush. The UOHC has oscillated from position to position as it has tried in vain to align itself with one or another faction within a very fragmented community. But let it never again be said that Charedim are led by their rabbis. Rather, it is we, the masses who lead our “leaders” and, this time, we really have led them up the creek without a Paddlewa.

Pen Tivakesh is a pseudonym