Lithuanians Rankled Over Hasidic Domination of Anti-Internet Conference
The Lithuanians, who were the original conceivers of the “pan-Israelite” conference to highlight the hazards posed by unfettered Internet access, are disillusioned. While trying to coax the Hasidim to get on board they conceded too much for an average Lithuanian to feel that they were reasonably represented by the Rabbis and speakers at the conference.
They may have had the first word in, but they certainly didn’t have the last, or the middle, for that matter. Most orators at the conference spoke in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Hasidim in America which many Lithuanians do not understand. The filter, much touted in the PR hype leading up to the conference, was not mentioned or promoted at all at the conference, apparently an 11th hour decision due to intra-Hasidic discord over its acceptability. R. Aaron Teitelbaum-Satmar, for example, has recently issued an edict prohibiting all Internet at home, even with a filter, unless approved by a special commission on business grounds, according to a report in The Forward. (R. Aaron was not present at the conference).
In the spillover Arthur Ashe stadium there wasn’t even any English subtitles on the mega-screen (perhaps that would have required transmission through the malevolent Internet). Lithuanians were forced to endure long speeches by Hasidic Rebbes whom they didn’t know or had no admiration for. Some, such as the Dziboer Rebbe from Montreal, even exceeded their allotted time. The Dziboer Rebbe spoke for 45 minutes to the consternation of organizers and audience alike while the restless crowd tinkered with the very devices and media they were told to shun, and munched on the provided pretzels and doughnuts to pass time.
In the negotiations leading up to the conference, for which planning commenced over a year ago, the Lithuanians’ patience was tested repeatedly as they had to negotiate and accommodate each Hasidic sect separately. One of their most prized scores was R. Zalman Teitelbaum, the more fundamentalist of the two Satmar Rebbes. But it came at a steep price: Zalman insisted that some anti-Zionist message be incorporated in one of the speeches and that 90% of the speeches be in Yiddish. R. Zalman sat beside R. Leibish Leizer of Pshevorsk, a widely recognized Hasidic Rebbe from the previous generation, whom Zalman insisted on being invited as a sine qua non.
The keynote speaker and by far the most eloquent and engaging one was R. Ephraim Wachsman. He spoke in English after issuing an advance apology that English was being used in order to accommodate the media; this despite the banishment of the media from stadium grounds. One Rabbi, R. Shlomo Leib Weinberger, was seen plugging his ears with his fingers while English was being spoken, perhaps in compliance with the Hasam Sofer (R. Moses Sofer) who prohibited sermons in the vernacular, an innovative Reform practice of mid-nineteenth century Europe.
R. Wachsman, dean of a non-sectarian Hasidic Yeshiva in Monsey, spelled out the dangers of the Internet to the integrity of Haredi Judaism if left unchallenged, but he did not offer any concrete solutions; nor did any of the other speakers, who were even more abstruse than him. Critics were disappointed that more concrete guidelines were not set forth and pointed to the incessant quibbling and bickering between the various Hasidic Rebbes as the culprit.
Indeed, the Lithuanians arranged another meeting the morning after the CitiField conference, as reported by the Flatbush Jewish Journal (p. 67). Calling it a conference for “out of town rabbanim” the real purpose of the convocation was to actually do something about the Internet threat now that the fractious Hasidic Rebbes were out of the way. The Rabbis agreed on several points including:
- even (porn-)filtered Internet is dangerous
- every device must have a filter
- employer should install filters at work
- schools ought to be involved in setting standards and enforcement
- communities should sponsor free “technology offices” to evaluate and install the filtering devices.
Rav Matisyahu Solomon, the leading Lithuanian figure behind the conference, who did not speak at the CitiField conference, ostensibly due to Hasidic objections, took to the dais. He talked about the insidious influence of the Internet and urged its absolute prohibition without a filter. Moreover, each frum community shall set its own standards with respect to what content should be allowed through. The reasoning behind this, analysts say, is that for Lithuanians pornography is not the main threat. Lithuanians, who are versed in English and in the rudiments of mainstream American culture, are much more susceptible to the creeping influence of liberal ideas expressed on the Internet. Many communities in the Lithuanian and perhaps Modern Orthodox sectors have already reconciled themselves to certain sciences and professions, which they have become adept at co-opting into their Orthodox views and lifestyle. These very same sciences and professions pose a much greater hazard of upsetting the apple cart for someone from Lakewood as opposed to someone from the Five Towns, for example. Blogs are therefore completely off-limits for the Lithuanian sector.
Hasidim, on the other hand, are primarily concerned about access to lewd content. The Hasidic culture is so insular and pervasive that centralized authority and deference to Rabbis are not considered vital for its continuity. Pornographic sites, on the other hand, may lead young adherents into night clubs, movie theaters and drugs, which would undermine the socio-religious structure of the community. A site such as FailedMessiah.com, which is commonly cited as the quintessential unruly and subversive voice against the established haredi system is not much of a threat to a typical Hasid who is struggling to make sense of its strange ideas of liberty, democracy and accountability, and even stranger language.
In the absence of any concrete proposals to tackle the Internet threat, the rally at Citifield was for the Hasidim more of an introduction to the Mets baseball stadium –which most had never seen before, nor will they ever again– than anything else. The joke swirling about in the aftermath of the rally was that when asked what one took out of the conference, the response was “a danish, bottle of water and binoculars”. Pinny Glauber, a popular Yiddish blogger, pronounced the conference a colossal failure and exhorted community members to safeguard the Internet on their own initiative, in the face of Rabbis whose sole motive and objective is self-aggrandizement.
Even many Aaronites, whose leader formally shunned the conference, attended the conference, not wanting to miss out on the historicity and excitement of the occasion.
Nevertheless, filters are being sold in all major Haredi enclaves. Kamenitz in Borough Park (16th Ave and 56th St.) and iShop in Williamsburg (Bedford Ave.), are said to have offered filtered Internet consultation and/or installation throughout the week and perhaps into the weeks ahead.
For both the Lithuanians and Hasidim, schools have been seized upon as the perfect vehicle for regulation and enforcement. The specter of an adult expulsion from a synagogue isn’t much of a goad to compliance. Children being kicked out of their prestigious schools is wholly another matter. Schools that are under the aegis of the Lithuanian leadership are now sending letters home to parents in which they require that the parents’ Rabbi certify that they have no Internet at home (not trusting the parents themselves, apparently) for non-business purposes.