In Hebrew, English and Yiddish, speaker after speaker inveighed against the evils of the Internet in the most strident of tones before 40,000 haredi men at Citi Field on Sunday night. The Internet was called “a minefield of immorality,” “the opposite of kedusha” [holiness], “shmutz” [filth] and, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities.”
“This is the issue that is the test of our generation,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, the head of Yeshiva Me’or Yitzchok in Monsey, N.Y., a vigorous man with a white beard whose voice broke with emotion several times during the evening. “We survived Communism, Zionism, the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment], but we paid a heavy price. So many were lost to us. Today we stand at a historic crossroads. Your resolve, your strength, your determination will determine what Yiddishkeit will look like a few years from now.”
Another speaker, Rabbi Israel Portugal, the Grand Rabbi of the Skulener chasidim of Borough Park, was bent over and aged. He spoke softly in Yiddish as an aide repeated his words, which were then translated in subtitles on the giant screen over centerfield, right under a Budweiser advertisement that said “Grab Some Buds.”
“Our children are being thrown into the fire,” the rabbi said. “We have to put out the fire.”
Yet for all the anti-Internet talk, the evening was a clear acknowledgment that the Internet was ubiquitous in the lives of chasidim and haredim and that this reality cannot be reversed. The purpose of the rally was for the haredi leadership to speak as one about its dangers and to give people strategies to limit its influence.
Evidence of its ubiquity abounded. The all-male rally was “live streamed” on a secure website to locations around the country, where women were able to watch and listen. As night fell over Citi Field, hundreds of cell phone screens lit up the stadium. People spoke on their phones, sent text messages and checked the Internet. And there was much talk about “kosher filters” and other strategies to block out offensive Internet material.
In interview after interview, men acknowledged that either they or their wives used the Internet for work, shopping or interacting with the federal or local government agencies. The haredi men I spoke with worked in real estate, travel, finance and sales, all of which require daily interaction with the web. “You cannot say it is assur [forbidden],” said Ichok Landau, a real estate broker who gave me his card which includes a website and an email address. “All we can do is be mispallel [pray] that we use it in the right way.”
One young man in a kollel in Lakewood, N.J. told me that he does not use the Internet but his wife does as a receptionist in a medical office. “She couldn’t get a job without it,” he explained.
As more than one of them put it, the Internet is “a necessary evil.” For the rabbis, the evening was an opportunity to spell out its dangers and to set limits.
Another Yiddish speaker at the rally, Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz of Montreal, pleaded with the assembly, “Don’t let your children into homes where there is Internet without a filter.”
That was one of many strategies discussed at the rally, both from the dais and among the assembled. Here were some others:
• Yeshivot should not admit children who have unfiltered internet at home.
• Men and women should not work in a place where the internet is unfiltered.
• A man who does not have a filter on his iPhone or Blackberry should not get an aliyah in shul.
• Men and women should have “buddies” who can view the sites that they visit. In some ways a buddy can serve as “a human filter.” One haredi man at the rally, Shlomie Pearl, 60, told me that his rabbi in Borough Park insists that everyone in his congregation have such a buddy.
The sponsor of the rally was a new umbrella organization known as Ichud Hakehillos, which means the Union of Communities. It encompassed both chasidic leaders, like Rabbi Portugal, and the leaders of the non-chasidic ultra-Orthodox. One key supporter was Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the head of the Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, N.J., who effectively closed the yeshiva for the day so that his students could attend the rally.
Tickets to the event were $10 a seat. When all the seats to Citi Field were sold, another 20,000 were made available at the nearby Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium.
While the rally had the support of both chasidic and Misnagdic Jews, chasidim clearly predominated. Only a handful of Modern Orthodox Jews participated. Some of them stood out because they did not wear what seemed like regulation black suits, sidecurls and black hats.
Upon entering, participants were handed a plastic bag with a chocolate Danish, a bottle of water and a pair of plastic binocular. Many of the participants used these to watch the arrival of their most revered rabbis. When the rabbi of a certain sect entered the arena, his followers, or chasidim, pointed excitedly and stood in an act of reverence.
Many of the participants said that they had never been in a ballpark before. They took in the lights, the neon signs and the green ballfield with wide eyes. When a plane roared overhead, one of them asked me, “What airport is near here?”
Instead of ballplayers with their batting averages, the great neon signs showed verses of Psalms that were recited at the beginning of the evening. Then the minyan, 40,000 strong, davened mincha, the afternoon prayer.
The ire of the rabbis was not only about pornography but other “immoralities” of the Internet, such as casual interaction between the sexes, and social media. Rabbi Wachsman of the Monsey yeshiva, said that the internet led to loshon hora [evil speech] and nivul peh [disgusting language] and promises of “instant gratification” without sustained effort. He said that he heard stories of parents giving BlackBerries and iPods to their 11-year-old children. “Are they out of their minds?” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
While many of the speakers were impassioned, the crowd was low-keyed and applauded on only a few occasions. This gathering was not as inspired as other massive ultra-Orthodox gatherings, such as the Siyyum Hashas, the event held every seven years to mark the completion of the study of the entire Talmud. There is a greater investment and greater sense of purpose to those gatherings. Many participants said that they came because they were told to come. Hundreds of buses were hired to ferry people to the rally, especially from Rockland County, New York, and Lakewood, N.J.
There were some rabbis who did not allow their followers to participate, notably Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the head of a Satmar chasidic group in Monsey, N.Y. A haredi journalist at the rally who asked that his name not be used told me that this disavowal of the rally had more to do with chasidic politics than policy. “His chasidim are using the internet too. He didn’t want them mixing with the others and seeing the lights of Citi Field.”
One of the participants, Gershy Moskowitz, 34, and the father of five daughters, told me that he wasn’t expecting a conversion experience at the rally. “No one comes out of this evening a tzadik,” he said. “There is no mikveh at Citi Field. If we could just come out 1 percent better” in our use of the Internet, “it was worth coming.”