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    What the Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Internet Rally Was About

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    Watch our short documentary about the rally

    “What do you think this is about?” was the question that bounced back when I asked the same of Sruly, a smiling, bespectacled twenty-something Hasidic student and erstwhile packer and shipper from Williamsburg. We were on the G train, on our way to what may have been the largest “anti-Internet” rally in history, held last Sunday at Citi Field in Queens, home to the Mets. It wasn’t hard to detect his mild skepticism about talking to a journalist, considering how the asifa had been portrayed in the media: as a backwards rally against the future, a farcical and confused debate over an unavoidable technology, a sign of the olden days’ fear of the new, a call to put an end to Internet masturbation, a giant meet-up for the Haredi patriarchy. Only men were invited, as providing a separate section for women would have been too “problematic,” the organizers said.

    Sruly was gauging the opinion of an outsider — the kind of person, admittedly, who browses the Internet wantonly, without any filters, on his cell phone even, getting distracted this way and that by an unending stream of links that are full of schmutz and have nothing to do with the only valid reason for the Internet: strictly business, of course.

    “Distractions, Jewish, non-Jewish, that’s for everyone,” Sruly says. “But the problem is that whatever a person sees goes into his body, goes into his brain. Whatever you see, you comprehend something you’re allowed to do. You can see the worst of the worst. Whoever doesn’t need it shouldn’t have it and whomever does need it should use it as little possible.”

    Television, with all of its pop culture lewdness had already been banned, he pointed out; but using the Internet was necessary for business, and therein lied the rub, and, he said, the reason for this rally — not a protest, not an anti-Internet event — just a coming-together of various sects within Ultra-Orthodox Judaism to discuss one of the biggest bugaboos of its time: how to ensure the Internet is kept kosher, and only used for business — not for gossip, not for learning, not for, ahem, pleasure. “Sure, sometimes friends will send me jokes by text message, but I have to write back and tell them, ‘sorry, this isn’t why I have a phone.’”

    By the time we squeezed into the above-ground train car, Sruly already had his phone out and slid open, so he could find out where his friends were on their own trips to the stadium. A bus broke down on the BQE, he reported, and a busload full of Hasidic Jews were now marching along the highway, hoping to get picked up by one of the other hundreds of buses ferrying some 50,000 attendees to the home of the Mets. An older man nearby me pulled a phone from his coat to survey Twitter for news; people were gathering in parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey and Israel to watch the event on simulcast, streaming via Internet.

    The event, organized by Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or the Unification of the Communities for the Purity of the Camp, had already become the butt of jokes and the target of ridicule — on the Internet of course — and so concern about outsiders had transmuted into a kind of low-level paranoia.

    Photo: Getty Images

    Sruly, however, was happy to talk about the dangers of the Internet and the need for restrictions — he doesn’t own a computer, relying instead on the computers at the local library, where you have 30 minutes of use time and are surrounded by others who can see what you’re looking at. We happily walked and talked up to the stadium entrance, where we were suddenly interrupted by a spokesman who noticed I was of the media and, speaking rapidly, insisted that I put any questions I had to him. We outsiders — a reporter from The New York Times, the Awl, even the Jewish Daily Forward — may as well have been the Internet.

    Because of “homeland security,” the media was not permitted inside the stadium, and the event’s 40,000 tickets, along with those for a simulcast at Arthur Ashe stadium nearby, were sold-out. In the crowd outside the stadium entrance, men were handing out fliers about the risks of the Internet, while others were taking the opportunity to gather petitions for Jacob Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew who had been sentenced to prison in Bolivia. Scalpers were few, and prices were hovering around $40. I managed to buy a ticket at face value of $10 from another reporter but, when I tried to enter, the ticket scanner rejected it.

    The spokesman looked exhausted as he declaimed the problems of the Internet to a group of reporters and attendees. I introduced myself to a man named Yakov, who wore a kippa but no beard and had been speaking animatedly in Yiddish to a couple of other men. He said he didn’t want to speak on camera, but he he had a familiar question for me: what did I think was really going on here? I told him something reasonable and honest — the Internet is a new force, a source of distraction, and it deserved some kind of public discussion, though I had never heard of anything like this — and he shook his head no. The Internet, he explained, is full of “wrong” and misleading information that could harm the community, echoing the event’s refrain. He knew: “I began using it in the days of AOL and Compuserve.”

    The best approach, he said, was the one he practiced: white labeling — effectively blocking the web but for only a certain list of sites. Along with “Internet accountability” – giving your rabbi access to your web history – web and phone filters were a popular tool among attendees I spoke to. Indeed, rumors had circulated that the rabbinical group behind the event has links to a software company that sells filtering software. Also awkward: the speculation, circulating online, that one of the largest donors for the $1.5 million event was the owner of B&H Photo and Video, one of the city’s largest electronics retailers. A planned exhibition of products was cancelled at the last minute.

    In an article published online in early May, the organizing group said they had opened technology offices in various Ultra-Orthodox communities as well as a hotline that will “enable locals to obtain advice on specific devices and filters or modify them to block undesired material, at no cost.”

    At one point, as thousands of men were streaming into the stadium and a police helicopter hovered overhead, we were interrupted by an older man in a long coat and scraggly beard who began singing, in a loud, comic baritone, “we are Jewwwwwwwwws!” Our camera captured this. Yakov stared at the man, then at Josh, the Motherboard cameraman, then back at me. He shook his head again, this time more sternly. “This is a misrepresentation of what we’re doing here! This is not what this is about!”

    But that’s also what this was about: not just a fear of pornography, but a concern about presentation and perception – the creeping suspicion that information could not be controlled, that the Internet was importing, copying and pasting, all sorts of things from the outside world that the community had spent so many decades trying to keep at bay. This was understandable. And it wasn’t hard to agree with the basic message: the Internet is an always-on firehose of misinformation, useless information and distraction, a phantom-vibrating font of knowledge that parents, religious and non-religious, should allow their kids to see only in measured doses, and should probably wrangle in for their own media diets too.

    The Internet was a distraction from the Torah, but it also threw open the door to the outside world, where lewdness and heresy were unavoidable. “I heard quite a few times this wishful thinking from Haredim,” a Jewish writer I met at the rally told me, “that once you start talking frivolously to a shiksa, 15 minutes later you’ll end up having sex with her.”

    A little l’chaim before the rally. Photo: Micha Stein / Tablet

    The particular evils of the Internet aside, it was the solution that was problematic: think of China, where the government is currently waging a war on malicious Internet rumors as pretense for the most powerful and insidious kind of control — over information, and reality.

    “What is causing this vast sea change that has made the world so frightening a place that our religious leaders are so insistent that the only way to deal with life is to withdraw from it?” Michael J. Salamon wrote in the Times of Israel. “Many of these leaders were not raised in this manner. They were taught what was good and what was not. They were shown how to navigate through the potholes of decadence that every now and then pop up in our paths. They were never taught to run and hide but to engage properly in society.”

    Proper societal engagement was the focus of a counter-rally across the street, where a crowd of about 200 demonstrators held signs that read “The Internet is Not the Problem” and “The Internet Never Molested Me,” a reference to a recent surge in allegations about child sexual abuse within the Ultra-Orthodox community. “This is a matter of priorities,” Ari Mandel, an organizer, told me. “The Internet may be a problem, but it’s more like a pipe with a leak in it. If your house is on fire, you’re not gonna worry about a leaky pipe.”

    The counter-rally. Photo: Micah Stein / Tablet

    “I think it’s laughable that women weren’t invited,” said Chanie Friedman, a woman at the counter-protest who had left the Ultra-Orthodox community. Nearby a spirited debate was happening between another woman who sported pink hair and an older Hasidic man. Said Chanie, “The women are the ones taking care of the children!”

    She pointed out that sexual abuse victims wouldn’t have been comfortable airing their allegations if they didn’t have the Internet. “It allows people to speak out without having to use their names,” a prospect that threatened the power of what she described as the Ultra-Orthodox “boys’ club.”

    Another smaller counter rally near the stadium featured more mocking demonstrators, dressed in caveman attire and protesting the use of any electricity at all. “Everything too new!” they chanted.

    For all their frowning skepticism over the unwanted attention, even those attending the rally weren’t certain why they had come. Many had been dispatched by their children’s yeshivas; some schools demanded that parents sign fliers indicating whether they would go or not, a more analog version of the monitoring and control that rabbis were preaching inside the stadium.

    Photo: Giovanni Savino

    They spoke in a mixture of English, Yiddish, Hebrew, with a running English translation on the Jumbotron. In the ads that flanked the screen, the giant bottles of Cholula hot sauce had to be draped in white sheets to cover up the woman on the label. As the sun set, the stadium lights turned the empty baseball field into a brilliant green and gold. The seats were more packed than they’ve been in awhile, a sea of black hats. “These days, the Mets aren’t getting turnouts like this,” said Don, an exasperated Citi Field employee who was managing the parking lot.

    After a mass prayer, the rabbis began speaking from a dais in one corner of the stadium, standing above a banner that read “Saving the Generations” in Hebrew. First was Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman of Monsey, New York: “Many say we are too late,” he said, Tablet reported. “We’ve been retreating for years—enough! Tonight we draw a line of demarcation in the sand, tonight we begin to fight back!” He continued: “Yes, we’ll have to give up some of our entertainment. But how many of us go hunting? Do we feel deprived? We don’t need this, we’re better than this.” Filters should become the new communal paradigm, he said, echoing another refrain of the day. “If one sins on the Internet, he commits an aveira [sin]; if one separates from the community [by not installing a filter], he loses his share in olam haba [the world to come]!”

    “For the most part, the audience listened respectfully, clapped occasionally, seemed bored and approving by turns,” Ross Perlin, a friend who was inside corresponding for the Forward, told me. Due to our ticket situation, we were left watching from outside the stadium walls, speaking to men in the parking lot and trying to find a back door; security was tight, and featured at least one bomb-sniffing K-9 unit. Inside, “some were davening in the hallways; the lines for the bathrooms were indeed long.”

    Those who grew restless during the speeches could find light refreshments at the pretzel stands ($7 for a turkey sandwich vs. $9 for a beer during a ballgame), or dig into their goodie bags, which included a Stern’s chocolate Danish, Bloom’s mini pretzels, bottled water, mini binoculars, a number of special prayers specifically for the event, and a booklet titled “The Internet in Halacha." The bag was sponsored by Fidelity Payment Services (“Advanced Payment Technology, Simplified”).

    At least one rabbi spoke from Israel (via the Internet), while others, like the old Skulener rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, seemed to not have ever used the Internet before. Ephraim Wachsman, speaking mostly in English, offered “very persuasive criticisms that could have been out of Jaron Lanier,” said Perlin.

    “Klal Yisroel has to rise like lioness protecting her cubs. [We’ve been] retreating retreating… From now on we’re going forward… What will we tell our grandchildren: we couldn’t give up this narishkayt?”

    “We have had enough! Genug mit di shmutz!”

    “You’re holding a machine in your hands, it represents thousands of hours of the rest of you life. What are you going to choose?”

    There was also a “very memorable set piece about the dangers of giving an iPhone or a Blackberry to young teens, who would quickly explore everything possible through it.” Towards the end of the evening, one rabbi mentioned more gatherings to come, possibly an even bigger mega-rally at Yankee Stadium or Giants Stadium.

    At around 9:30 pm, increasing numbers of men could be seen heading for the exits. Outside, a group of restless teenagers had removed their jackets and at least one was gleefully promising to smash his iPad. Another young man chuckled at talk of a filter, called K9, that’s widely used at libraries and schools. He reported that getting around it wasn’t so hard.

    Emerging from the stadium into the relative dark of the parking lot, some attendees looked energized, others tired. They ambled towards the subway and the buses, while the speeches continued inside. Many checked their phones. Around midnight, on a crowded G train full of men returning from the rally, a cheerful song broke out.

    Follow Alex on Twitter: @pasternack.