Ultra-Orthodox Jews Take a Hard Line on the Internet at Rally of 40,000 Men (And Me)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take in the view from Citi Field at a meeting to discuss the risks of using the Internet on May 20, 2012. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take in the view from Citi Field at a meeting to discuss the risks of using the Internet on May 20, 2012. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On Sunday, 40,000 mostly Hasidic Jewish men in black hats and black suits gathered at Citi Field for a series of speeches concerning the corrupting influence of the Internet, which were broadcast to the JumboTron betwixt oversized bottles of Cholula with a white cloth over the label, which shows a woman.

The 7 train from Grand Central had become packed with men in black, all in a fine mood, before we poured out at the Mets-Willets Point train station like kids on a field trip. Now there were all kinds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the stadium: fat, skinny, young, old, short, tall, with glasses, without beards, wearing watches, smoking cigarettes, talking on cellphones. “Hats off! Hats off!” the ticket-takers barked as the throng of yidden crowded around the entrance to left field. Jewish Reporter, one of the few media outlets approved by the organizers, reported on Twitter that it was one of the biggest crowds the stadium had ever seen.

Yes, the stadium was full of men, and the women’s bathrooms were reportedly locked. Yet there were at least three females present: a ticket-taker, an usher, and me, in a pair of $15 Payless loafers, my brother’s dress clothes, and a donated kippah. Oh, and the white duct tape around my chest, G.I. Jane style.

I tested my disguise at Duane Reade and the 6 train and was relieved to see I wasn’t getting any longer-than-usual stares; but it wasn’t until the first Hasid asked me for directions that I breathed a sigh of relief. Or would have, if the duct tape weren’t so tight.

I gave a monosyllabic response to the lost Hasid; the plan was to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, or pretend to talk on my cell phone. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to anyone,” my editor had cautioned that morning as I was preparing to infiltrate the men-only rally. “You definitely have the voice of a 100-pound girl,” my boyfriend said.

Silence turned out to be impossible. Orthodox men in large gatherings are rather jolly, as it turns out, although the content of the speeches suggested a timeof great siege. The Hasids were cracking jokes about the Mets in English, and perhaps the Mets but presumably other things in Yiddish, and I had several brushes with conversation. “I hope there will be English,” one said, noting my non-Hasidic costume. Another tried to help me find my seat.

The most terrifying interaction happened on the way in. A very old rabbi with long gray hair reached out his hand and started pumping my arm up and down. “What brings you here?” he asked.

I had not prepared a backstory at all. Maybe I could be a tourist, who spoke another language that no one would know?

I decided to be an NYU student instead. A large part of the movement against the Internet is due to the prevalence of pornography there; the Jewish site guardyoureyes.com is almost entirely dedicated to inventing new euphemisms for nudity and sex: “the dark side of the Internet,” “inappropriate material,” “full blown addiction.”

I put on my best “guilty porn addict” face. “Personal interest,” I answered.

The rabbi smiled. And kept asking me questions. Where was I from? Where do I live? What was my name? When he finally stopped roiling my arm, I hung my blushing face and tried to melt back into the crowd—but the rabbi behind him smiled and asked if I had a Hebrew name. “No,” I said quickly, and turned around lest I be subjected to another line of questioning.

Inside, Citi Field had turned to monochrome. Jews had been arriving by bus, car and train since early afternoon. “Over the past few days the discussion has been not if you’re going but how you’re going,” Lakewood Local, an online news source for the conservative New Jersey community, wrote early in the day. It was a beautiful night for an asifa. The organizers, a group called Ichud HaKehilos, which advocates for purity in a time of technology, had set up two long tables in the corner across from home plate. The tables were filled with rabbis were praying, chatting, sipping seltzer and watching themselves on the JumboTron. ”For many, many of us, the reality of life requires interaction with modern technology, the use of the Internet,” read the English caption on one of the opening speeches.

Many of the speeches were in Yiddish, with intermittent English translation. As the speakers vented, pausing for the occasional plane flying overhead, some of them getting very worked up, a contact at the rally texted on-the-fly translations. “Aveyra means evil thing. Breaches of tzinustzinus means modesty. Yetzer hara is Satan.”

What about chyos, we asked?

“Wild animals,” he wrote back. “Basic message was that Jews are pure and by going on the Internet—especially to social networking sites, it transforms them into a level equivalent to wild animals and makes them susceptible to Satan.”

UPDATE, 12:15 p.m. A commenter writes: “But they didn’t say “chayos” (chyos), animals. It’s ‘chiyus,’ life force, or raison d’etre. Like ‘His whole chiyus is playing tennis.’” (As in, “His whole chiyus is Facebook.”)

Especially passionate was Rav Ephraim Wachsman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Meor Yitzchok in Monsey, New York, who opened the rally, closed the rally,and spoke at length in the middle.

The problem with the Internet is not just that it allows for easier and quicker access to inappropriate material, he said. Its effects are more pervasive. “It’s a culture, it’s a way of life,” he said. “This is reprogramming our way of life! It’s changing who we are!”

Josh Nathan-Kazis, writing in the Jewish Forward, transcribed more. “You can see it in the ebbing eyes of the younger generation, of the jittery inattentiveness of our children, in the flippant and callous language and attitude, the cynicism … the unbelievable breaches of [modesty].”

There wasn’t much I could quibble with in the speech. The Internet is about instant gratification? It’s “fleeting and empty”? It causes us to waste productive hours? It threatens the preservation of isolated communities with strong traditions, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jews? Well, yes, but…

“Children are being turned into click-vegetables!” Rabbi Wachsman declared.

Some Jews are already enslaved, as if caught in a spider web. “The webbed mind has to struggle to understand Torah,” he said. ”There are those who sit at home and click and click into oblivion.”

This was getting bleak.

The rabbis behind the anti-Internet movement have come under criticism by some in the community for two main reasons. For one, the rabbis are mostly very old, and their understanding of the Internet is limited. Some community members feel they do not realize how important it is for doing business, or that it can be a force for good, as with HebrewBooks.org, a repository of more than 40,000 free Hebrew books.

The second cause of objection is more damning. Last week, the New York Times wrote about child sexual abuse in Orthodox communities, and the group’s policy that such allegations be vetted through a rabbi before being routed to city authorities. A group organized a small protest outside the rally under theshibboleth, “Not the problem.” The group’s Facebook page read: “We are fed up with rabbinical leaders’ dismissive attitude towards sexual and physical violence against children. The internet is not the biggest problem we face. Protecting children and bringing molesters to justice should be our number one priority.” The issue of child sex abuse was not discussed at the rally, although the health and success of children was invoked repeatedly.

“‘It’s true, we [rabbis] don’t know about the Internet. You may know better. But we know from the fathers who cry out from their hearts for their children because they have strayed from the path,” one speaker said.

Rav Don Segal opened his speech tearfully, crying as he invoked the long exile. He told the story of a bright, young scholar who had little children. The scholar could not find a job, and so he turned to the Internet. Gradually, he lost his way and became “spoiled.” Eventually he left his family. “He had nothing!” the rabbi thundered.

The rabbis did not seem to present a totally united front, but most took a hard line: No Internet in the Jewish home. The Internet is only to be used for business with a filter when it is necessary to earn a living. Children who have Internet in the home should not be allowed to attend school.

Some of the lines provoked applause, but the audience was seeded with subversives. This reporter was live-tweeting from the asifa, and we weren’t the only ones. We also glimpsed an iPhone, an Android phone, and saw one attendee clearly emailing from his BlackBerry—blatantly disregarding the tinny, disembodied voice of Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, who was speaking over the telephone from Israel. There were at least two sites broadcasting a live stream of the event. The blog JewishHumorCentral rounded up the best asifa jokes on Twitter. Someone put a video on YouTube.

Around 9:30 p.m., when the parade of rabbis showed no signs of flagging, the audience started getting restless. Attendees started shuffling up and down the stairs, and the perhaps-18-year-old sitting next to me had started rocking back and forth, though he was not in prayer. He ate the pretzels provided in the asifa goodie bag. He pulled a watch out of his pocket and looked at it. His friend started eating pretzels. Apparently, they had no phones. Outside the stadium, a Hasidic man in his mid-20s was trying to find a way into Citi Field. He’d been at the Arthur Ashe Stadium overflow venue, which reportedly had a paltry turnout and no English translation. “I didn’t really understand what they were saying,” he said.

Some were affected; a fellow live-tweeter said he planned to cut back, inspired by Rabbi Wachsman. Another tweeter mentioned he’d “lost” at least one person on BBM, BlackBerry’s private text messaging, during the rally.

Not my contact, who texted his closing thoughts: “This event really isn’t my cup of tea and won’t affect my internet usage in any way shape or form. I think this forum was a huge waste of money and time and that there are real issues of importance affecting the orthodox Jews that should be addressed instead of regulating the Internet.” The rally reportedly cost $1.5 million.

As I scurried to the train, a Hasid was stationed at the stairs, collecting money for something to do with hunger. “You’ll be a big donor one day, young man,” he told me.