The notion of 40,000 haredi and chasidic men coming out on a lovely Sunday evening to Citi Field — a sell-out crowd — not to watch a Mets game but to decry the evils of the Internet makes the attendees of this week’s rally an easy target for ridicule to many people. After all, the Internet is a reality, and prayer and preaching won’t make it go away.
The sea of black-hatted men — it was a male-only event — at a ballpark, with Yiddish speeches by bearded rabbis translated in English on the stadium’s JumboTron, underscored the enormous gap between the haredi culture and that of mainstream American society. (One rabbi compared the threat of the Internet to that of Zionism and the European Enlightenment.) Our problem was not with the event itself as much as with the prevailing haredi attitude toward dealing with serious issues within their own community.
To be sure, the increasing influence of the Internet poses many concerns. Speakers at the rally, organized by a group known as Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for Purity of the Camp), described the Internet as “a minefield of immorality,” though none directly addressed the issue of pornography, according to a JTA report. The fact is that pornography on the Internet should be a major concern to all parents, given how easy it is to access without filters. And too many people are addicted to their computers, turning away from directly socializing with others.
But the Internet is a neutral vehicle for information, not an instrument of the Yetzer Harah, or Evil Inclination. We suspect no one at the rally described the incredible amount of Judaic scholarship available online, and the fact that many people spend time studying Talmud and other Jewish texts as a result of this technology, often with study partners in other countries.
While the organizers of the rally say it was meant to highlight the need for heightened morality, there are those who ascribe darker motives to its being held.
Judy Brown, the formerly anonymous author of “Hush,” an account of sexual abuse in a haredi family, says the Internet presents “an enormous threat to the ultra-Orthodox world for the same reason it is a threat in Syria, Iran and Russia; a population that is aware is a population difficult to control.” In an opinion piece posted on our website, she writes that rabbinic leaders of the haredi community oppose the Internet so as to “conceal moral decay,” helping them cover up cases of child sexual abuse and keeping victims in isolation, subject to communal intimidation.
She and other advocates for these victims assert that the large sum of money spent to hold Sunday evening’s program would have been put to far better use by educating the community in preventing child molestation.
But unfortunately the prevailing mindset appears to be more about protecting the accused rather than the abused.
Just last week a fundraiser was attended by hundreds of Satmar chasidim on behalf of one of their own who is facing trial for allegedly sexually abusing a teenage girl whom he was counseling.
Whatever the reason for the anti-Internet rally — to condemn moral decay or conceal it — haredi leaders would do well to put their own house in order before taking on the ills of society at large.