March 6, 2003
Web Can Ensnare Victims Quickly
In his 35-year career, Rabbi Juda Mintz established a Jewish youth group in Montreal, founded a traditional congregation and a campus Hillel in Atlanta and led more than 50 missions to Israel -- all without the aid of a computer.
But when he was hired at a Mount Freedom, N.J., synagogue at the age of 56, his board felt the rabbi should have a computer.
It didn't take long before Mintz stumbled upon Internet pornography. For 18 months, he spent several hours a day numbing out in front of the computer.
Now in recovery for two and a half years, he continues to uncover underlying reasons for his addiction: parents who were distant, his own dysfunctional marriage of 36 years.
But it is also true that without Internet pornography, Mintz may never have acted on his emotional disturbances.
Like a growing number of people, Mintz became addicted on a medium that can snare its victims within a matter of weeks.
Robert Weiss, who co-authored "Cybersex Exposed: Simple Fantasy or Obsession" (Hazleden, 2001) with Jennifer Schneider, said he is seeing a significant increase in the number of people addicted to cybersex, even among people with no history of addictive behaviors.
"Something about the intensity and the accessibility and the affordability of the Internet made it more arousing and a more immediately compulsive medium than any of the other outlets for sex, and therefore more addictive," said Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.
Weiss said that about 60 percent of all Internet traffic involves a sexual purpose. An estimated 2 million users are addicted -- meaning they are ashamed of what they are doing, it is impacting their life, yet they are unable to stop.
In a small number of cases, the behavior moves out of virtual reality and into real life.
Just last week in New Jersey, Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, who founded and directed the Jewish Center for Spiritual Care for the New York Board of Rabbis and was named the board's Chaplain of the Year for his work at Ground Zero, pleaded not guilty to charges that he was having sexually explicit e-mail conversations with a 13-year-old girl, who turned out to be an undercover police officer, according to The New York Times.
While it is hard to cull out how many cyberaddicts are Jews, mental health professionals agree that there is no reason to believe the proportion is any different among the Jewish population than the general population.
"The Web site has become the opiate of the 21st century. It's a wonderful way to stay in your secret world, your fantasy world," said Donna Burstyn, a psychotherapist who has many Orthodox clients.
In the last two months before he was caught, Mintz's addiction spiraled down to child pornography, for which he could face up to three years in federal prison. For now, he is living at Beit T'Shuvah, running a weekly 12-step minyan at Kehillat Israel in Beverlywood and working to alert community leaders -- and especially educators -- to the allure of Internet pornography.
"I don't think any rosh yeshiva or teacher or rebbe for boys or girls is in denial that this is a humongous plague facing these kids," Mintz said.
Natural adolescent curiosity now has an outlet that is more convenient, prolific -- and addictive -- than magazines hidden under the mattress.
Many Jewish families, especially in more observant circles, use heavy filters, none of which are foolproof firewalls. Others use commonly encouraged approaches, such as keeping the computer in a common area and monitoring when and for how long kids are on computer.
But the most effective tool, said Scott Perloff, assistant director for education technology at Milken Community High School, is keeping a culture of openness around the Internet.
"You should really be engaged with the kids when they are on the Internet," he said. "Use it as an opportunity for helping kids develop judgment about what is appropriate and inappropriate material."
If kids do happen upon explicit material, don't overreact, Perloff said. Teach kids to close the image, or just turn off the monitor, and alert a parent or teacher to what they have seen.
"When parents are faced with a 9-year-old boy who mistakenly ended up on a porn site, that is a teaching opportunity the parent dare not avoid," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an expert on ethics. "Because if they do avoid it, children may deduce that this is perfectly fine, or they may deduce that the parents are so uncomfortable with it that is a taboo subject which they are not to talk about with parents."