Packing the Ballpark To Rail Against Web's Dangers

At Ultra-Orthodox Rally, Some Back Limited Web Use

‘Take Me Out’: Some 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men packed a New York ballpark May 20. But there was no baseball game to be seen.
josh nathan-kazis
‘Take Me Out’: Some 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men packed a New York ballpark May 20. But there was no baseball game to be seen.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 21, 2012.
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The sheer volume of ultra-Orthodox people in the stadium was hard to fathom, even for some of the participants. “I didn’t expect such a crowd,” said Michael Eframowitz, 18, a member of the Skver Hasidic sect. Eframowitz had come with a pack of yeshiva classmates from the Skver yeshiva in the Hasidic enclave of New Square, in upstate New York. Another New Square resident said hardly any men were left in town. Women in New Square don’t drive, so the streets of the community had been taken over by kids on bikes.

Despite the rabbis’ inveighing against technology, many of those in attendance carried Blackberrys, iPhones and digital cameras. At the Carroll Street subway stop in Brooklyn two hours before the event’s scheduled 7 p.m. start, a dozen men in black hats gathered discussed the directions they had found on the online map site HopStop.

Organizers attempted to bar press access to the stadium. Lazer Paskes, one of the events’ lead spokesman, told reporters assembled outside the gates of Citi Field that they would not be allowed inside. He blamed the decision on “Homeland Security,” saying that the federal agency had determined that press could not attend. When asked to explain why a federal agency would have deemed the press a security risk, Paskes declined to elaborate.

The speakers, however, were well aware of the general interest in the gathering, which received coverage in local and national press outlets in the days leading up to the event. Wachsman criticized the Internet in terms familiar to the non-Orthodox world. “The Internet is about the moment, it’s about the instantaneous, about the artificial, the superficial, it’s about if you’re bored you click on to something else, its about being fleeting and empty,” he said.

Some speeches were delivered in Yiddish, others in English. Subtitles were provided for most of the addresses.

While most speakers seemed to accept that some use of filtered Internet connection was unavoidable, at least one of the rabbis described even Internet used only for business as a danger. Rabbi Don Segal, who cried while addressing the crowd in Yiddish, told a story about an Israeli ultra-Orthodox man who had been forced to use the web to make a living. The man “became completely spoiled,” Segal related. “This device destroyed his yiddishkeit,” or his Jewishness.

Perhaps the evening’s most heated rhetoric came from the Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, known as the Skulen rebbe, who had been one of the conveners of the evening. The very elderly Portugal spoke in halting Yiddish with the help of another man. “This is a battle being waged against dark negative forces,” Portugal said. God “will help us wage this war against those negative forces. “

In a gesture that underlined the event’s significance in the eyes of its organizers, a rabbi closed the proceedings by leading the huge crowd in the Sh’ma prayer in the manner sung at the close of Yom Kippur. Lines normally read silently chanted out loud repeatedly by the congregation and the leader.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com and follow him @joshnathankazis.


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