On a Sunday evening in early June, thousands of Hasidic men in long coats and black hats braved the heat to attend two outdoor anti-Internet asifas (or gatherings in Yiddish) organized by leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. Women were forbidden, but the real temptation for the men was already in their laps, where they covertly thumbed their smartphones.
The Hasidic war against the Internet has been an ongoing campaign—in May 2012, a massive asifa held by the anti-Internet rabbinical group Ichud Hakehillos sold out Citi Field in Queens, N.Y.—but this year’s asifa came with a new threat, almost biblical in tone: Those caught using the Internet for nonbusiness purposes, or without content filters, would have their children expelled from the Satmar yeshiva.
The cost of having large families has forced many ultra-Orthodox Jews to do business outside of the community. Often, this means adopting technology that plunges people with 19th-century values into the aggressively uncensored world of Chatroulette and Reddit. While some rabbis are convinced that this is a gateway to pornography addiction (or worse: secular life), many Hasids, from the media-savvy Lubavitch to the ultraconservative Satmar, use the Internet regularly without detracting from their customs. In many cases, it has fostered connectedness among the ultra-Orthodox and boosted their economy. And, most importantly, it may prove to be a remedy for the unchecked sexual abuse that has plagued the community.
The Chabad-Lubavitch sect, headquartered in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, has embraced media for years, with radio broadcasts, public access TV, and now a dynamic Web presence, including Facebook and Twitter. This is part of their interpretation of Ufaratzta, the imperative to spread Hasidism to secular Jews, which, they believe, will hasten the return of the Messiah.
“We’ve always been at the forefront of communication,” says Mordechai Lightstone, a Lubavitch rabbi and social media director for the Lubavitch News Service. Lightstone is also a regular at SXSW, where he draws Jews seeking a Sabbath meal with the hashtag #openshabbat. “There’s actually a midrash, a Jewish teaching, that says ‘Why was there gold in the temple in Jerusalem? Why is there gold in the world? Gold is a source of greed; idols are made out of gold. In this case, gold was there to glorify God’s name and to make a beautiful structure that can be used as a place to encourage people to come together to unite, to pray, and not as a source of greed, fighting, and then war.’ The same idea would exist within social media, that it can be used for very negative things and for very positive things.”
He adds, “I’m convinced that when the Messiah comes, there’s going to be a tweet.”
While the Internet can be a doorway to faith, it can also show others out, as Libby Copeland wrote last year in Slate. But the most likely to drop out may be the ones who are already looking for an exit. At 24, Ari Mandel left the Nikolsburg sect, a branch of Satmar, and spent the next five years in the U.S. Army. The Internet, he says, was instrumental to him leaving the fold, but it wasn’t the cause.
“I was kind of bored,” he says. “I had outgrown the books that were available in the community, and I just wanted more variety.” At 20, Mandel began sneaking into the public library. Reading was a gateway to the Internet, where he found other Hasidim who similarly questioned their faith.
To Mandel, now 30 and a full-time student at New York University, banning the Internet is not only ineffective, it’s illogical. “The Internet is a tool,” he says. “If you’re going to ban the Internet, you should ban the Bible, because there are bad books. You should ban all Orthodox magazines because there is Playboy—that’s just silly. It just makes no sense.”
This recent wave of anti-Internet activity coincides with the release of the Venishmartem Cloud Filter, a software developed in Romania (where the Satmar originated) by the company Livigent “at a cost of six million dollars and specifically designed to cater to the sensitivities and needs of the Jewish community,” according to their website.
In Late May, Venishmartem held a “Filterthon” in Midwood, Brooklyn. Orthodox men were invited to bring their electronic devices for free installation of filtering software with features such as “skin color blocking,” which scans Web pages for immodest quantities of human skin tones, and “accountability solutions,” which send a user’s browsing history to a third party.
For $7.99 a month, Venishmartem will control their customers’ access to certain content as well as their ability to activate and deactivate the filter itself. This effectively creates a virtual Orthodox enclave by shrinking the World Wide Web down to a tiny neighborhood of frum-friendly sites. “Guard Your Eyes,” Venishmartem’s Internet addiction treatment and prevention wing, offers images of naked Holocaust dead to turn off users who are tempted to seek sexually arousing pictures, among other “Practical Tips.”