NEW YORK – 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 (Yiddish for gatherings) organized by leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community 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 years 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 Brooklyns 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.
Weve 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.
Theres 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 Gods 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, Im convinced that when the Messiah comes, theres going to be a tweet.