The sellout crowd that filled Citi Field on Sunday night wore black and white, not the New York Mets’ blue and orange.
And instead of jeering the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves, they faced a foe that was, in their view, far more formidable: the World Wide Web.
“The Internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, a haredi Orthodox lecturer. “This issue is the test of the generation. Your strength at this gathering will determine what Judaism will look like a few years from now.”
The rally, or asifa, to caution haredi Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet, drew a crowd of more than 40,000 men to the stadium and an overflow of 20,000 more to nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium, most of them wearing black hats. In addition, there were more than two-dozen live hookups worldwide.
While news reports and social media had been buzzing with asifa-related topics, there was little mention of what the itinerary would be, and only in the days leading up to the event did spokesperson Eytan Kobre announce that the asifa was intended not to ban the Internet but to learn responsible use of technology.
An article in The New York Times noted that the group behind the event, Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, is affiliated with a firm that sells filtering software.
In Yiddish and English speeches, rabbis from haredi communities in the United States, Canada and Israel decried the access that the Internet gives haredim to the world outside their community. Speakers called the Internet “impure,” a threat to modesty and compared it to chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover.
Several speakers also lamented the Internet’s potential to distract men from learning Torah.
To a man, each of the rabbis who spoke said that Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. The speeches in Yiddish were broadcast with English subtitles on the stadium’s JumboTron.
Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, the Dzibo Rav, compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the European Enlightenment posed in the past to traditional Jewish life.
“A terrible test has been sent to us that has inflicted so much terrible damage” on haredim, Katz said. The Internet poses a greater threat to haredim than secularism did, he said, because “in previous challenges we knew who the enemy was. Today, however, the challenge is disguised and not discernible to the naked eye.”
A long and impressive list of rabbis attended, with featured speakers including Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the Skulener Rebbe, Rabbi Don Segal, Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz and Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman. Several speakers spoke emphatically about banning the Internet completely and in a video address from Israel Rabbi Shmuel Wosner ruled that the only acceptable use of the Internet was a filtered Internet in one’s place of business, and that schools should not accept children from homes with unfiltered Internet.
Rabbi Wachsman declared that anyone with unfiltered Internet forfeits his share in the world to come and in a message echoed by other speakers urged each person to take even a single step forward in his Internet vigilance.
Jewish Press columnist Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, one of the signers on the original asifa announcement, acknowledged that few concrete solutions were offered, but he called the three-hour event a resounding success.
“The asifa was a reaffirmation, saying that we need to deal responsibly with the Internet and everyone appreciated that,” he said. “Rosh yeshivas left their yeshivas. Major rebbes came from everywhere. Thousands devoted their time to make a public statement that the Internet must be handled with extreme caution.”
Others agreed that the asifa was a source of inspiration.
“The speakers emphasized that people weren’t going to learn anything new,” said Shaya Winiarz, a 21-year-old yeshiva student from Staten Island. “This was about chizuk and letting people know that this is an issue that we all face.”
Many, however, were disappointed by what they felt was a lack of clear guidance.
“The asifa was a tragically lost opportunity to deal with the growing challenges in a rapidly changing culture,” said Rabbi Gil Student, who runs the Torah Musings blog.
“We needed to hear from forward-looking thinkers who recognize that today’s challenges are only a hint of what lies ahead. Instead we heard yesterday’s solutions for last year’s problems. Our leaders failed to chart a course for the future and have abandoned each family to figure it out on their own.”