Ultra-Orthodox Jews to Hold Big Meeting on Internet Risks
Sharon Otterman, NYT, May 17 2012
Citi Field, home of the Mets, is sold out for Sunday evening, but not for a baseball game. More than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews plan to pack the stadium to hear about what the event’s organizers call the dangers of the Internet and how to use it in a religiously responsible way. Tickets for the gathering have been so sought after that organizers announced on Wednesday that they had also rented the nearby 20,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, home to the United States Open, for an overflow crowd. Eytan Kobre, a spokesman for the organizers, said:
Speakers at the rally in Queens will not seek to ban the Internet, but rather to raise awareness about how, unmonitored, it poses a grave risk to the community. The risk comes not only from pornography, but also from social media and the addictive pull of the Internet, which can limit human interaction, reading and study. These are the same concerns that people across society, in academia, in psychology, parents, spouses, have about the Internet. But here is a community that is actually standing up and coming together and putting our money where our mouth is, to express a unified communal resolve to address the issues.
At both stadiums, only men are invited, because of the ultra-Orthodox practice of strict gender separation. The meeting will be broadcast live to audiences of women in schools and event halls in Borough Park and Flatbush in Brooklyn and in other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, according to Hamodia, a newspaper serving the Orthodox. The rally is being organized by a relatively new rabbinical group, Ichud Hakehillos Letohar Hamachane, which means Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp. Two prominent rabbis are backing the event: Israel Portugal, the Skulener rebbe of Borough Park, and Matisyahu Salomon, the spiritual leader of Beth Medrash Govoha, the main yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ.
The Ichud sponsored a meeting for 600 rabbis last year that became the basis for this weekend’s session. The group has links to the Technology Awareness Group, of Lakewood, which runs a hot line for people concerned about the Internet and helps install filtering software. In Lakewood, home to the largest yeshiva in the country, residents have taken an aggressive approach to the Internet. In 2005, the town’s Orthodox schools and institutions issued a proclamation forbidding children and high school students from using Internet-linked computers. The proclamation also prohibited adults from going online at home, except for work-related business, and then only with rabbinical authorization. Rabbi Salomon recently told a gathering of thousands of people in Lakewood that by coming together they would be asking for God’s help in fighting evil inclinations, according to Hamodia.
Religious concerns about the Internet are big business in the ultra-Orthodox community. Companies sell “kosher” smartphones that limit Internet access, as well as software filters for computers. The event at Citi Field, for which tickets cost $10, was originally planned with a technology expo to show such products, but that was canceled; instead, a booklet that each person at the meeting will receive will provide a range of suggestions, Kobre said. Posters promoting the rally have filled Williamsburg in recent days, playing off biblical themes. The event is being held right before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah. “Accept it Again, Like One Person With One Heart” one sign says, adding, “No one should miss it.” A counterrally, called “The Internet Is Not the Problem,” is planned outside the stadium. Its goal is to draw attention to the issue of child sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. “It’s infuriating that these rabbis are so focused on the Internet, instead of far more serious dangers,” an organizer, Ari Mandel, said.
Vital, pointless, sexist, hilarious? New York’s
ultra-Orthodox battle-the-Internet gathering goes viral
David Shamah, Times of Israel, May 19 2012, 8:06 am 8
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 US Jewish community for a long time. Web sites, blogs, commenters on Web articles, and even mainstream media (WSJ, New York Magazine, HuffPost, etc.) have something to say about it. 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, 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!). Many of the organizers are from the Hassidic community, but none are from the Lubavitch community, which was specifically not invited to attend. 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 told the Times of Israel:
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. 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 agreed. He said:
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. 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. 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. I’m not against the Internet per se, but against unfettered access, especially by those who have no business using it. Kids don’t need it, as there is nothing on-line they can’t get in the library. Certainly those who are learning in Yeshiva don’t need it. Those who do need it, business people and professionals, are the ones seeking guidance on what to do.
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. One well-known blogger wrote about this issue:
This is unconscionable. 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.