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.

The anti-Internet asifa in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on June 2, 2013.
The anti-Internet asifa in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on June 2, 2013

Photo by Gedalya Gottdenger

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.”

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.

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.