The sellout crowd that filled the New York Mets’ Citi Field on Sunday night wore black and white, not the Mets’ blue and orange.
And instead of jeering the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves, they faced a foe that was, to hear them talk about it, far more formidable: the World Wide Web.
“The internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, a haredi lecturer. “This issue is the test of the generation. Your strength at this gathering will determine what Judaism will look like a few years from now.”
The rally to caution haredi Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet drew an audience of more than 40,000 men to the stadium, most of them wearing black hats. The group organizing the rally, Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or Union of Communities for Purity of the Camp, barred women from attending—consummate with the haredi practice of separating the sexes.
In Yiddish and English speeches, rabbis from haredi communities in the United States, Canada and Israel decried the access that the Internet gives haredim to the world outside the haredi community. Speakers called the Internet “impure,” a threat to modesty and compared it to chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover.
Almost no rabbi addressed pornography directly—which traditional Jewish law prohibits. Several speakers also lamented the Internet’s potential to distract men from learning Torah.
To a man, each of the rabbis who spoke said that Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. The speeches in Yiddish were broadcast with English subtitles on the stadium’s JumboTron.
Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, known as the Dzibo rav, compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the European Enlightenment posed in the past to traditional Jewish life.
“A terrible test has been sent to us that has inflicted so much terrible damage” on haredim, Katz said. The Internet poses a greater threat to haredim than secularism did, he said, because “in previous challenges we knew who the enemy was. Today, however, the challenge is disguised and not discernible to the naked eye.”
The crowd ranged in age from small children to senior citizens. One participant, Yitzchak Weinberger, said that although the speakers focused on the problem of the Internet rather than on solutions to that problem, the event was “inspiring.”
“This is a beginning,” said Weinberger, 43. “They’re coming to raise awareness. Every situation is different, everyone requires some filter.”
While haredim must limit their internet access, “you can’t not use it,” he added.
About 50 people protested the event across the street from the stadium. Many of the protesters came from Footsteps, a local organization that helps people who leave haredi Orthodox life to integrate into non-haredi society. In particular, they complained that Ichud HaKehillos invested money in the rally rather than in preventing child molestation in the haredi community.
“Their priorities are messed up,” said Ari Mandel, a former haredi. “Not only do they ignore child molestation, but they intimidate victims. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about leaking pipes.”
The rally came after a series of reports in the N.Y. Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times about haredi intimidation of victims of sexual abuse who have gone to the police to report their haredi tormentors.