Borderline Views: The Internet and the haredi community

Pragmatists are winning between opponents, proponents of Internet technology usage in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Haredi men, Intel (B&W)_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Haredi men, Intel (B&W)_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Last week’s gathering of some 60,000 haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) in two sports stadium in New York, to protest the intrusion of the Internet into their communities, was impressive for a number of reasons.
First of all, for the sheer number of people who descended onto the two venues, mostly from New York, but also from other locations along the eastern seaboard from Montreal in the north and down to Washington and Baltimore to the south.
Secondly, for the organization of the event and the coordination between the haredi community and the civilian authorities. One just has to look at some of the main haredi Internet sites, such as Lakewood Scoop, Matzav Com or Yeshiva World News, to see how closely integrated the communities are with the political system, the law enforcement and the welfare organizations, throughout the region.
The amazing demographic and political growth of the haredi community in North America during the past five decades, starting from a low point when their numbers had been decimated by the Holocaust, is nothing short of a miracle. Their self confidence, and their feeling of being at home in America, a country about which they are never reticent with their fulsome praises and which they describe as being no less than a “Malchut shel Chesed” (A kingdom of kindness).
They have found their new niche within North America and do not see Israel as being in any way a necessary haven or place of refuge. Their political influence is significant and when any of the major Hassidic or religious leaders passes away, one of the first visitors at the Shiva will be the mayor or governor of New York, accompanied by press and media coverage to send out the appropriate message to this powerful voting bloc.
The fight against the intrusion of the Internet into the haredi world has been carried on, largely unsuccessfully, throughout the haredi world for the past decade – both in Israel and in the Diaspora. For the haredi world, the Internet and its potential hazards has become the number one threat to their way of life. It has succeeded in penetrating the strict walls and fences of the ghetto, enabling the intrusion of information, ideas and pictures into places where, until then, they had been excluded from.
As the haredi world grew during the past five decades, the need for the men and women to go beyond their own communities and encounter the larger world outside diminished, as the necessary size thresholds for almost any type of activity could now be met internally, instead of externally.
Preventing interaction with people whose lifestyles were different to their own world outlook would, so they believe, prevent further movement of haredi young adults away from the community, and away from religion altogether.
The growth of computer technology has, in their view, been the work of the devil and the “yetzer hara” (the evil inclination) in finding a way to get around the physical walls, and therefore must be combatted at all costs.
But despite the public rhetoric, the massive gathering which took place last week signaled the end of the phase where they have tried to ban the use of computers and Internet altogether, to a new phase where they recognize that the technology is here to stay and that most of their community needs to use the Internet for work and employment purposes.
So instead of an outright ban, they have now attempted to create a system of filters and blocs which will prevent Internet users from accessing the many sites and sights which they see as being negative and damaging to the continuation of a pure haredi lifestyle. In short, the creation of guidelines aimed at a “kosher” Internet.
In some cases, this requires the use of a computer only in public places where others can see what is on the screen, in a locked room at home to which children have no access, and where the browsing history cannot be erased and can be checked by “big brother” units, equivalent to the tzniut (modesty) commando which keep a watch on the dress code of some haredi communities. A rabbi’s permission to have the Internet at home must sometimes be acquired before a child will be accepted to a school.
Nowhere is this change in emphasis more noticeable than in one of the leading personalities who has been at the forefront of the fight against the Internet, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the mashgiach ruhani (spiritual overseer) of the Lakewood Yeshiva.
Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Gateshead in North East England (the location of the largest haredi yeshiva in Europe) where he served in the same role for almost 30 years before stepping up to this most senior of positions in the world yeshiva hierarchy, Salomon sees himself as responsible for the mores, ethics and lifestyle of the tens of thousands of young haredi men who pass through this burgeoning institute of education – presently numbering over 5,000 students at any one time.
A fiery orator, a fluent speaker of English (the only sector of the haredi community which refused to take part last week was Satmar, because the event was not entirely in Yiddish), he has emerged as one of the major figures within the haredi Diaspora world during the decade in which he has been in North America.
Originally, Salomon was entirely opposed to any use of computers or Internet at all. He was involved in the imposition of a stringent list of conditions for the Lakewood community.
Principals of local schools were instructed not to accept any children whose parents had Internet in the house, due to the potential negative influence which would be passed on by a child to his/her classmates.
But he has since been convinced that this form of technology, as too the almost blanket usage of smartphones (also against the wishes of the haredi rabbinical leadership), is a basic working tool for most people doing business and requiring gainful employment, and that the community as a whole would suffer greatly from even less employment opportunities.
In the struggle between the hardcore ideologues who still come out against any use of computer technology and the pragmatists who realize that the growing haredi community must find ways of adapting to new technology if they are to continue to grow and sustain themselves, the pragmatists are winning out.
Last week’s sell-out event in New York, while declaiming the evils of the Internet and its potential detrimental effect on the haredi household, implicitly recognized that the battle had been lost and that, at the best, ways need to be found which will enable them to adapt the technology to the needs of the community and that the two do not necessarily have to be in conflict with each other.
A similar tension exists with the move towards incorporating larger numbers of Haredim in Israel into the workplace, including the cooptation of the universities in preparing degree programs, tailored to the specific needs of the communities, and  under conditions where they can gain qualifications without being over exposed to the influences of the externalworld. This includes a segregated study environment,  preparatory programs which can bring students up to scratch to meet university entrance requirements, and the avoidance of course material which is perceived by the Rabbis as being harmful or too questioning for their belief systems. Professions in accounting, computers, para medicine, social work are acceptable, while broader programs of study in the Humanities, such as History, Philosophy, Literature or Art, are definitely not. While not all universities are happy with this form of pre-censorship, the need to enable tens of thousands of people within the Haredi community, who no longer desire to be engaged in full time yeshiva study, who desire to find gainful employment for the benefit of their families, but who lack the necessary qualifications, is a national priority – as it is for the Haredi communities of North America and elsewhere. The government has announced its intention of investing huge resources into these study programs,  and the country's universities have all invested time and resources in preparing relevant proposals.
The Haredi world is as well established – both in Israel and in North America – as it has ever been in history. It continues to experience rapid demographic growth. The next challenge is for the community to  enhance its own economic well being without the fear of losing those values and ways of life which are essential for their very existence. The moves toward increased study programs, along with the adaption of technology – such as the internet -  to their daily needs, will serve to strengthen the community even further, as the more pragmatic of their Rabbinical leaders have come to realize.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.