Internet Cafe on Front Line of Culture War

Skin Sites Banned at Brooklyn iShop. Don't Try Yahoo! Either

Not Everything on Web: Hasidim use computer kiosks at  a Brooklyn internet cafe. Bowing to a local ultra-Orthodox rebbe, the owner blocks many internet sites deemed inappropriate or critical.
josh nathan-kazis
Not Everything on Web: Hasidim use computer kiosks at a Brooklyn internet cafe. Bowing to a local ultra-Orthodox rebbe, the owner blocks many internet sites deemed inappropriate or critical.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 18, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
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Whereas Oppenheim had said on May 11 that he would block only some blogs, by May 14 he had changed his policy, saying he would now block all blogs by default and approve only a few. FailedMessiah, a blog that is highly critical of Orthodoxy, would no longer be accessible, Oppenheim said.

“I might lose business from some kind of customers, but if I want the place to be a kosher place, I want to be comfortable that if I have someone who is very strict with themselves come in, [they will] not feel that I fooled them,” he continued.

During the Forward’s May 11 visit, a 15-year-old Satmar yeshiva boy dressed in a long black coat and a black hat came down Oppenheim’s stairs to have the FM radio disabled on his MP3 player. The device, which he said he used to listen to Hasidic music, was a special model made by SanDisk that is tolerated in the Satmar schools because it won’t show movies or pictures. Oppenheim’s colleague Zev Braver updated the MP3 player’s firmware to kill the radio, a common procedure.

When asked if he used the Internet, the boy made a disgusted face adding, in Yiddish, “It’s bringing down a person.”

Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe, announced this past winter that following a six-month grace period, children whose families have Internet access at home will be barred from the schools affiliated with his sect. According to a Williamsburg community leader, who declined to be named because he is not a spokesman for the community, the schools have set up committees to authorize exceptions on a case-by-case basis, usually for families that rely on income provided by mothers doing computer work at home.

The logistics of implementing the ban has been difficult. The six-month grace period has been extended another six months, pushing the deadline to next winter, according to the community leader.

In the meantime, Internet cafes are opening in Williamsburg and in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar-dominated town in upstate New York. As an alternative to paying to use kiosks like Oppenheim’s, Teitelbaum is advising computer owners to keep their computers somewhere outside the house, away from their children, the community leader said.

The sect’s protective measures don’t seem to bother many of Oppenheim’s customers. At iShop, a Hasid named Joe Schwartz had Braver load his new iPad with books of Talmud, an app with the text of the Psalms and a filtered Web browser which he was given the password to deactivate.

“I’m just using it as a reminder,” Schwartz said.

But if the filters are intended to keep information away from those curious about the outside world, they may not do much good. According to Lani Santo, executive director of the group Footsteps — a group that provides support services to ultra-Orthodox Jews who are considering leaving the community or have left it — there’s always the public library. And then there’s the biggest hole in Teitelbaum’s efforts to protect his flock from the Web: smartphones.

Satmar yeshiva students technically aren’t allowed to have smartphones, but BlackBerrys and similar devices are widespread in the community.

“[Teitelbaum] doesn’t have a solution yet for the new gadgets and the smartphones,” the community leader admitted. “He wants to have a practical solution.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @ joshnathankazis


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