Packing Stadium for Anti-Internet Message

Hasidim Check Smart Phone Apps as Leaders Denounce Web

Mixed Messages: Smart phones and laptops were everywhere as black-hatted Hasidic men rushed to a rally where leaders denounced the corrupting power of the internet.
josh nathan-kazis
Mixed Messages: Smart phones and laptops were everywhere as black-hatted Hasidic men rushed to a rally where leaders denounced the corrupting power of the internet.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 01, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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I found it impossible to talk to only one or two Hasids at a time. As I interviewed the Skver Hasids in the bleachers, the crowds around me grew. At one point, a middle-aged man pulled me from a group of younger Hasids, hoping to have a quiet word, boxing out a preteen on the way.

On the G train home, I was swarmed again by the mostly Satmar Hasidic crowd headed for the Williamsburg. I asked one of the men next to me what he had thought of the rally. He referred me to a Satmar across the aisle, and soon half the subway car had formed a circle around us.

But getting any of their names was difficult. This had been a problem the entire day. On the way to Citi Field, a young Bobov Hasid traveling with his father and brother told me his name was Ben Zion Halberstam. I wrote it down, then noticed everyone was laughing. He had given me the name of a Bobov rebbe.

With the Satmar Hasids on the subway after the rally, we got to talking about Zionism. A rally speaker named Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz had drawn an implicit parallel between the 19th-century rejection of Zionism by the ultra-Orthodox and the need to reject the Internet. “Everyone who has a Jewish heart knows Zionism is against Judaism,” one man said when I asked about Katz’s comparison. Others told him to be quiet, perhaps understanding better how the quote would sound in a non-Orthodox Jewish newspaper.

The sentiment isn’t rare among the Satmar, who remain among the most anti-Zionist of the ultra-Orthodox groups. It was unusual for me to get close enough to the insular, Yiddish-speaking Hasids to see the fault lines between their sects, which can blend together from a distance. The Skver Hasids in my section seemed uncomfortable with Katz’s invocation of Zionism as a great threat to the Jews. The Bobov Hasids on the subway showed me how to tell their hats from the very similar style of hat worn by the Satmar Hasids. And the Satmar Hasids, by and large, seemed to be the least comfortable speaking English.

Though organizers had described the event as promoting the use of Web filters to make the Internet acceptable for those ultra-Orthodox Jews who needed it for work, some speakers took a harder line. Rabbi Don Segal, who cried while addressing the crowd, 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.

In a gesture that underlined the event’s significance in the eyes of its organizers, a rabbi led the huge crowd in the Sh’ma prayer in the manner in which it is sung at the close of Yom Kippur, with the second line, read silently on other days, chanted out loud. The prayer’s words, sung 1,000 different ways, droned through the stadium like a decades-old modem struggling to connect.

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


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