February 28, 2011
Orthodox grapple with ubiquity of Internet
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Given the communal taboo on Internet access, it’s hard to know precisely how widespread its use is in the Orthodox world. Singer says he believes most parents in his children’s school abide by the prohibition on household Internet, but Josh says in certain quarters its use is relatively common.
In more conservative districts such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a stronghold of the Satmar Chasidim, perhaps 10-20 percent of homes have Internet connections, Josh estimates. In other areas he pegs the figure at 50-90 percent.
Concern over the Internet’s corrosive impact nevertheless remains common and extends beyond the threats posed by easy access to pornography. Social networking sites such as Facebook provide young boys and girls with a discreet avenue to socialize, breaking down the community’s strict separation between the sexes. Dating sites have helped erode well-established norms which dictate that men and women should date solely for the purpose of finding suitable marriage partners.
“We find that families are falling apart,” said Twerski. “The divorce rate is up. The amount of marriage counseling problems and personal problems, anywhere from anxiety to depression to obsessive compulsive behaviors, is up.”
Even seemingly innocuous online pursuits, like reading the news, carry pitfalls for the religiously observant. A handful of news sites targeting the Orthodox not only have brought stories into homes that once were reported solely by secular outlets, but several also feature talkback functions that provide an anonymous platform for the kind of hard-edged commentary many would be reluctant to offer up in public.
In December, several prominent haredi rabbis issued an edict against one such site, Vos Iz Neias (Yiddish for “What’s News?”), a popular news aggregator. The site gathers news of interest to Orthodox Jews from various sources, including reports on sexual misconduct allegations in the religious community.
The edict slammed the site’s “contamination, filth, foul language, slander, gossip, and degrading of Torah scholars,” according to one translation, and prohibited both reading and advertising on its pages.
The site’s administrator declined JTA’s requests for comment. But Dov Gordon, an administrator at a competing site, Yeshiva World News, which thus far has escaped that kind of rabbinic opprobrium, said he is far more restrained than Vos Iz Neias, using softer euphemisms when the news is of a sensitive nature. Others say there is no difference between the sites and that the ban has more to do with internal community politics.
Regardless, the incident highlights the fear that an unrestrained online conversation elicits in certain quarters and the desire of rabbinic leaders to reassert some measure of control over communal behavior. But while that kind of rabbinic disapproval might be an effective suppressant when frowned-upon activities occur in public, the homebound nature of Internet use lowers the social costs of ignoring the rabbis.
“If you have access to these things in the privacy of your office, it’s almost impossible to resist the curiosity,” said Yaakov Gold, who runs a website to help the religiously observant combat pornography addiction. “People who don’t have protected Internet, they’re going to fall at some point. It’s almost inevitable.”
Gold’s Israel-based website, GuardYourEyes.org, has more than 1,800 subscribers to a daily e-mail meant to strengthen recipients against the temptations of online pornography. Hundreds more participate in the online forums, where addicts share tips and success stories. The site has prominent rabbinic endorsements, and Gold is developing ambitious plans for a substantial expansion of its services.
Like many Orthodox Internet users, Gold is a strong proponent of content filters, which have become increasingly sophisticated since KosherNet arrived on the scene about 15 years ago—from filtering software that is installed on computers, and in some cases can be readily uninstalled, to services like JNet, in which objectionable Internet traffic is cut off by an outside provider, to white lists specifying which sites can be accessed rather than those that cannot.
Gold also recommends a software that automatically sends a report of a user’s Internet traffic to a third party, like a spouse or rabbi.
Nevertheless, for the savvy technician or the particularly ambitious teenager, almost every method has its vulnerabilities. That creates particular problems for people like Josh, who respects his religious obligation to guard against sexual impropriety but has the technological know-how to subvert it.
“It’s not easy,” Josh said of his efforts to keep his Internet usage clean. “It’s a daily struggle.”
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