The Messiah Will Be Tweeted

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 19 2013 7:00 AM

The Messiah Will Be Tweeted

The Internet isn’t the problem for the Hasidic community; it’s its best chance for survival.

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But the focus on schmutz, the Yiddish colloquial for porn, is misguided. Last year, in advance of the Citi Field asifa, many were shocked to learn that tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews were rallying against online porn while ignoring what many believe to be the biggest reason why children leave their community: unchecked sexual abuse. Mandel organized a counter-rally at the asifa called “The Internet Is Not the Problem.”

The problem, some say, is mesirah, a rabbinic law dating back to Maimonides that prevents Jews from turning in other Jews to Gentile authorities. For this reason, many abuse cases are never brought to light, even within Orthodox news circuits. Additionally, communities with large populations of Holocaust survivors, such as the Satmar, are wary of secular authorities (who themselves are hesitant to get on the bad side of the politically powerful Hasidim). Some victims and their families are shunned by their neighbors. Victim advocates, seen as “informants,” have been expelled from their temples and physically attacked. Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who runs a hotline that provides information on abuse cases, was badly injured in December when a neighborhood fishmonger threw a cup of bleach in his face.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, the dean and founder of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey and the author of a parenting book, says that the power of the Internet to lead Orthodox kids off the path is “not even close” to that of abuse.

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Writing about the protests at the Citi Field asifa, Horowitz cited Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain how sexual abuse affects children’s social development. The abused are stalled at Level 2, the need for safety and security, he wrote, because they can no longer feel safe in their community. This is certainly the case when the leadership penalizes the abused and not the abusers—especially when the abuser has been appointed by the community to work with children.

This January, Rabbi Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed youth therapist from Williamsburg’s Satmar community was sentenced to 103 years in prison for repeated sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl. It was an unprecedented case, not only because of the severity of the punishment, but because it reached the secular courts at all.

In his essay on the asifa protests, Horowitz says that abuse survivors “credit the connectivity of the Internet for finally raising awareness of abuse in our community.” The Internet has given a voice to what was formerly a silent majority, as individuals on social media or as victim advocacy organizations such as Survivors for Justice.

A new generation of rabbis helps, too. “I, personally, have noticed that the younger rabbis, even in the most Hasidic communities, the younger rabbis are far more likely to be comfortable going to the authorities,” says Horowitz. He notes that these younger rabbis grew up in free countries and “don’t have the cultural reticence to go to the police.”

On June 12, in anticipation of summer camp season, Horowitz released a series of YouTube videos on child safety. “I’m a big believer in using the Internet for whatever one can,” he says. “Whatever good we can do with it, we should be—we have a responsibility to.” The videos have so far had between 300–600 views each. Horowitz marvels at the efficiency of online media at spreading a message that would have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to personally deliver to families. Ari Mandel offered his kudos on the hits via Twitter: “That equals countless thousands of potentially saved lives. Bravo!”

Nuchem Rosenberg’s efforts have also expanded online, with a website and Twitter account. He still records his hotline, the most recent of which addresses the trial of Yosef Kolko, who admitted to abusing multiple victims while working as a camp counselor in Lakewood, N.J. He is the son of Yehuda Kolko, who abused multiple students during his tenure as a teacher at a Brooklyn yeshiva. (To hear the report in English, follow directions on his website. Be warned that it contains graphic description of the sexual assault of a minor.)

A Facebook account in Rosenberg’s name has not been active since 2008. But on May 9, a young man posted a simple “Thank you” on the page.

Angel or dybbuk, the Internet has become part of Hasidic life. “It’s here, its influence is going to continue to grow,” says Horowitz, “and if we’re going to be effective in transmitting our tradition, our religious beliefs, our culture, to our children, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it with the Internet being part of their lives.”

And it already is: Every day, Hasidim log on to popular Orthodox blogs, such as The Yeshiva World and Vos Iz Neias. Sidebars blink with ads for “The Perfect Shaitel for the Perfect You” and breathable mesh tzizit for boys to bring to summer camp. Yentas have been automated, with matchmaking sites advertised as “100% FRUM/100% FREE.” Even B&H, the Satmar-owned and run photography and video supply store, does a brisk online business. Over the phone, director of corporate communications Henry Posner is hesitant to reveal what percentage of their sales are made online, but he is eager to describe their “slick as a whistle” iPad app released in late May. “It’s getting killer rave reviews on Twitter.”

Correction, June 19, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the Hasidic sect Lubavitch.

Rebecca Finkel is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.