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Sex Abuse Scandals and Ultra-Orthodox Jews: Is the Internet the Problem?

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Editor's Pick: This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University.

 

By Ayala Fader

On May 22, 2012, forty thousand ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys gathered at Citi Fields Stadium in Queens to listen to important rabbis rail against the dangers of the Internet.  (There were separate places where the event was video-streamed for women, prohibited from mingling, at other sites in Brooklyn). The stadium bleachers were packed with bearded men and boys in traditional black and white clothing, many on their cell phones. The scoreboard was silent, but the jumbotron was alive with close ups of the rabbis’ faces, some crying, and English subtitles for Yiddish speeches. The goal of the  asifa (gathering) was not to condemn the Internet, which has become indispensable for “business.” Rather, it was to promote the use of “kosher” filters to limit exposure and use. One rabbi claimed the Internet was more dangerous to Judaism than the Holocaust. Another called it “the  nisoyan ha-dor (the test of this generation). All agreed that the Internet presented new challenges to Jews in the “Torah community,” threatening their very existence. The event received a tremendous amount of coverage in mainstream and Jewish presses.

Less publicized, though, was a counter-rally across the street from Citi Fields.  Organized by Ari Mandel, an activist with a non-profit organization, Survivors for Justice, this counter-rally sought to bring attention, instead, to sexual abuse scandals in ultra-Orthodox communities and their cover-up, which had been broken in the  New York Times just a few weeks earlier. The crowd of a few hundred included many former ultra-Orthodox Jews, those who have “gone OTD”  (off the (path)), holding up signs and chanting, “The Internet is not the problem.” Actually, for many victims of sexual abuse, the Internet has been a literal lifesaver. As Mandel explained it, the Internet made it possible for victims to speak out, first anonymously and then more openly as they found other victims, spurring public activism and greater media attention.

 

Moral Authority and a Crisis of Leadership

These competing rallies are part of a much larger story, one about the struggle in the digital age over the moral authority of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership to control the  gedarim (gates) that keep the secular world at bay. Many in these communities call this “a crisis of  emune (faith or trust in God)” and blame the Internet for corrupting Jewish souls. Prior to the early 2000s, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who wanted to explore forbidden ideas or ask questions had to go physically outside the community in search of newspapers, the radio, movies, or even, God forbid, the public library. The smart phone changed this, allowing exploration, questioning and even community building away from ultra-Orthodox surveillance (family, teachers, rebbes, etc.).

This new access to uncontrolled knowledge and people made cracks in the communal wall of silence that rabbinic leadership worked to maintain as the sex abuse allegations came out. The sex abuse scandals and their representation in the media highlight the surprisingly porous boundaries that have existed between nonliberal ultra-Orthodoxy and liberal democracy in the United States, which is based on Enlightenment principles of governance, include pluralism and tolerance, protection of individual rights, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Smartphones, though, are adding new challenges for ultra-Orthodox leadership, for as rabbinic leaders have tried to contain the scandals, they have further embroiled themselves with the police, the District Attorney’s office, the ultra-Orthodox victims (now grown up) and investigative journalists.