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.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, whose blog posts on the asifa attracted the notice of The Wall Street Journal, expressed his frustration, saying that little was accomplished by the event, whose price tag was reportedly close to $2 million.
“I think the Ichud HaKehillos must be disappointed with the outcome,” said Rabbi Fink. “They wanted to teach people how to use filters and allow people to use the Internet responsibly. With the exception of some portions of Rabbi Wachsman’s inspiring lecture, the overall theme of the evening was that the Internet is prohibited unless it is absolutely necessary for business. There was no positive message and no one spoke about the incredible potential of the Internet to be used in a positive fashion.”
“To me, the main point was that Klal Yisrael came together to face an issue that undeniably exists,” said 24-year-old Yitzchok Levine of Baltimore. “The gathering of so many people from so many diverse backgrounds was a huge Kiddush Hashem.”
Before the rally began, about 50 people protested the event across the street from the stadium. Later, the counter-demonstration reportedly grew to some 300 people. Many of the protesters came from Footsteps, a local organization that helps those who leave haredi Orthodox life integrate into non-haredi society. In particular, they complained that Ichud HaKehillos invested money in the rally rather than in preventing child molestation in the haredi community.
“Their priorities are messed up,” said Ari Mandel, who described himself as a former haredi. “Not only do they ignore child molestation, but they intimidate victims. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about leaking pipes.”
– Reporting by JTA and Jewish Press correspondent Sandy Eller.
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