Hasidic Anti-Internet Fervor Hits New Pitch

Hasidim use computer kiosks at a Brooklyn internet cafe. Bowing to a local ultra-Orthodox rebbe, the owner blocks many internet sites deemed inappropriate or critical. (Photo by Josh Nathan-Kazis / The Jewish Daily Forward)

Back in March, a Crown Heights Chabad Jewish girls’ school announced a ban on Facebook, and started fining the girls $100 for using the social networking site.

Then an Internet cafe in the Satmar Hasidic-dominated neighborhood of south Williamsburg clamped down with a strict content filter to keep customers from accessing porn, blogs, websites critical of Orthodox leadership, or even Yahoo! news.

And this past weekend’s 40,000-strong anti-Internet rally of ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field hammered home the point that many Hasidic leaders have made with increasing urgency of late — unfettered access to the Internet is just not kosher.

Joseph Oppenheim, the owner of the Williamsburg Internet cafe iShop, explained to The Jewish Daily Forward why he uses filtering software to block many sites from his computers, in accordance with directives from one of the two rival leaders of his Satmar Hasidic sect.

“With one click you have the whole world,” Oppenheim said, describing the problem the Web poses for ultra-Orthodox Jews. “In our community, we were raised and grow up in a way that we should not be exposed to the whole world.”

In recent weeks, the Forward and The Jewish Week have stepped up their coverage of a movement within the Satmar and Chabad communities of Brooklyn to strictly filter the Internet or to purge it entirely from Hasidic homes. The papers have also covered the growing opposition to the anti-Internet movement, from some who call it backward-thinking and others who see it in darker terms — as an attempt to suppress the communities’ mushrooming sex abuse scandals.

The Forward pointed out some ironies amid the anti-Internet fervor:

An upcoming ultra-Orthodox mega-rally in New York about the dangers posed by the Internet has a promotional Twitter account.

The event’s box office has an email address. Speeches will be live streamed. And one of the event’s organizers owns a Web marketing company specializing in search engine optimization.

This isn’t your average anti-Internet demonstration.

Internet bans are nothing new in Hasidic communities, The Forward points out:

Ultra-Orthodox bans on Web use date back at least a dozen years. Orthodox religious leaders worry about the easy availability of pornography online, the viewing of which violates communal modesty standards. Some also object to Orthodox-run blogs and news sites that often offer critical perspectives on communal leadership.

The outright bans, however, appear to be failing. Ultra-Orthodox men fiddle with smart phones on New York City subways. Twitter use is not uncommon among young Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Home Internet access is said to be widespread even in upstate New York’s strictly observant Hasidic community Kiryas Joel.

Compounding these challenges to rabbinic Internet bans are the employment opportunities for ultra-Orthodox in high-tech. Technical jobs don’t necessarily require a high school or college degree, which is a plus in Orthodox communities where men often forgo secular studies, according to David M. Pollock, an official with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York who has worked to place Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn in tech jobs.

Some 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men packed the Citi Field ballpark May 20. (Photo by Josh Nathan-Kazis / The Jewish Daily Forward)

Sunday’s rally offered a somewhat tempered message, counseling Orthodox Jews that instead of completely eschewing the Internet, they should use strict Internet-filtering software to prevent objectionable content from leaking through. But not everyone agreed with this approach — Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the two brothers with rival claims to the leadership of the large Satmar Hasidic sect, boycotted the rally, arguing that sect members should not use any Internet at all in the home.

Some viewed the anti-Internet fervor as Luddite, a view exemplified by a commenter on a Jewish Week article on the upcoming rally: “Oy!” wrote the commenter. “And on May 27th: The Wheel!”

A more pointed critique came in a column for The Jewish Week by Judy Braun, the author of “Hush,” a novel depicting sex abuse in Borough Park’s Hasidic community:

The Internet is an enormous threat to the ultra-Orthodox world for the same reason it is a threat in Syria, Iran and Russia; a population that is aware is a population difficult to control. They say that they must fight the Internet for it brings moral decay. What they do not say, even to themselves, is that they must fight the Internet so they can conceal moral decay. That the only thing they fear more than the outside corruption the Internet brought inside, is the inside corruption the Internet has revealed to the outside.

The Internet is terrifying to the rabbis perhaps because of porn, perhaps because it exposes youth to foreign ideas. But even more importantly, because it enables open dialogue and an honesty they cannot afford if they are to survive as a community, the community they insist they are; pure, innocent, and above their own frailties. And if a few children must be sacrificed for this wholesome lie, then so be it. It is better than any broken truth.

In the last few years, the Internet has served as a crucial tool for victims of sexual abuse. It is through blogs and online discussions that many victims first realized they are not alone, that this is a communal problem. The silence that has kept victims in such utter isolation, unable to connect with others, has been broken by the anonymity and connectivity of the Internet. It was there victims could finally speak honestly without fear. It was there they could hear of so many similar experiences, and reach out to other victims. The Internet played a large role in tapping at the wall of denial, and for the communal authorities this was a dangerous thing.

Braun was one of a group of protesters outside the Citi Field rally on Sunday, and she described the experience.

On Sunday night we stood outside Citi Field with our cardboard signs. There were thousands of Orthodox men walking past us. Some looked quickly away, some laughed in pity, some wished they were standing with us.

Amid the heated rhetoric, some have also preached a measured approach to Internet use, especially for teens. Writing for The Jewish Forward last month in response to the Facebook ban at the Beth Rivka School in Crown Heights, the lawyer and journalist Jordana Horn suggested that a careful embrace of social media is not incompatible with modest behavior — and that the Facebook ban was a missed opportunity.

Chana Lerner, 15, works on her computer as her mother, Yocheved Lerner-Miller watches. (Photo by Claudio Papapietro / The Jewish Daily Forward)

Chabad could, by actively embracing Facebook and by condemning actions like Beth Rivka’s, become the real avant garde of Judaism. By encouraging its teens to build virtual communities exemplifying values of Judaism, Chabad would take up the currently slack reins of modeling positive online communities for Jewish teenagers. Chabad, which bills its internet presence as “the world’s largest Jewish virtual congregation,” would be best positioned to forge ahead into the frontier of Facebook to create not only a virtual bima from which one can dispense a shiur, but also a potential training ground for kids to become modest, observant and respectful adults.


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