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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ban the Web? Not Lubavitch Jews

Jan, 19, 2000

BROOKLYN, New York -- Despite a recent Internet ban by a group of prominent Israeli rabbis, Brooklyn's Lubavitch Hasidim have no plans to scale back their extensive presence on the World Wide Web, a presence that now includes 700 Web sites in 52 countries.

But the Lubavitch, the largest Jewish outreach group in the world, are concerned about a conflict with the ultra-orthodox rabbis and deny any contradiction between their decade-old Internet presence and the ban.

"We're very sympathetic to [the rabbis'] concerns," says Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a Lubavitch spokesperson.

These concerns revolve around the Internet acting as a conduit for pornography, particularly to Jewish children. But, unlike the ultra-orthodox, the Lubavitch emphasize the use of physical objects as tools to spread their word.

"It's not the medium itself that is kosher or not kosher," Shmotkin explains. "It's how it is utilized."

On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, Jewish men dressed in black and sporting the trademark fedoras and long beards of the Lubavitcher Hasidim rush in and out of the main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.

Inside, dozens of men sway and chant prayers while off to one side dozens of young boys enthusiastically sing religious songs. Two exhausted Yeshiva students sleep with their heads resting on open books of Talmudic law.

In a small room upstairs, the Lubavitch Internet team sits around a table, oblivious to the din below. These men and women are at the vanguard of harnessing the technology to promote evangelical Judaism. This effort has resulted in a worldwide network of virtual Jewish centers at chabadonline.com.

"We're trying to create a marriage of new technology and 3,000-year-old ideas," says Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, a Lubavitch leader.

To this end, a dozen part-time designers, writers, and editors work six days a week to create pages on topics ranging from proper kosher dietary restrictions to the popular "Ask the Rabbi" feature.

Team members create stand-alone Web sites that offer translations of Passover and Hanukkah texts in a dozen languages. They scan and post books of Talmudic law for reference and online Torah studies.

The Lubavitch team includes an editor in Israel and a programmer in the Ukraine, but the content decisions are made at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. Once Web content is created by the team, they upload the material onto servers housed in New Jersey, and mail a list of available pages to Lubavitch communities on every continent.

"We give the rabbi in each community his own domain name," explains Shimon Laber, a Web programmer and key member of the team.

A user-friendly template is also provided, enabling rabbis or community Web masters to decide which pages to post on a site.

The Lubavitch see two kinds of benefits from their increasing Internet sophistication: First, in a religion where the rabbi stands at the center of community life, Web site visitors can feel as if they are visiting their spiritual leader. Second, as programmer Moshe Berghoff points out, "If the rabbis had to learn HTML, this would never happen."

Aside from the yarmulkes and beards, the meeting is no different from any other. HTML codes, budgets, and software glitches are discussed; Motorola Star Tacs litter the table. Team members discuss efforts to get pages up for a New Hampshire congregation before the primaries, and a new Hollywood page up before the Oscars.

But a more unique challenge comes from another community: "It's dark in Alaska 23 hours a day right now," says Chani Benjaminson. In a religion where many laws are structured around sunrise and sunset, the team must come up with an Internet solution to reconcile Jewish law with the geographic obstacles of the Anchorage congregation.

One of the most popular Lubavitch sites is 800mitzvah.com. Mitzvahs, or small acts of everyday kindness, are central to the Lubavitch philosophy. Under a headline reading "Practical Acts of Kindness," visitors can choose from "general kindness," "kindness towards children," "kindness towards spouse," and "ideas for everyday kindness." Visitors choosing "everyday kindness," are encouraged to "talk to strangers," "smile," and "resist road rage."

The Lubavitch community settled in Brooklyn in 1941 and grew quickly in the years after World War II, the result of an influx of concentration camp survivors, a high birth rate, and aggressive outreach efforts. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitch leader who died in 1994, developed a huge international following as well. Even today there is fierce debate among his followers as to whether he is indeed the Messiah.

That question aside, the Rabbi embraced technology early on. Rabbi Schneerson's position was that God created everything for a reason, and the material things God created should be used to spread His word. Accordingly, the Lubavitch seized on cable TV and live phone hookups to deliver the Rabbi's five-hour talks to a rapt audience in nearly 50 countries. Today those efforts have been supplanted by chabadonline.com.

But not all of Brooklyn's Hasidic communities have embraced the Web. Just a few miles away from Lubavitch headquarters is Lee Avenue, the busy strip frequented by Williamsburg's Satmar Hasids. Businesses here still use manual cash registers; a peeling sign over one store reads "Dry Goods." Williamsburg's 50,000 Satmar Hasidim are prohibited from using the Internet.

As early as 1950, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, the Satmar leader who shaped the community after World War II, decreed technology a threat to the Satmar way of life.

Satmar journalist Albert Friedman says, "In the 1960s we were lucky. With the hippie generation, and LSD, it didn't touch us. Now the 1990s, I am afraid -- the walls can be broken down much easier because of the Internet. The temptations are much worse than in previous years."

In a community where boys and girls are strictly segregated and marriages are arranged, Satmar elders have gone to great lengths to prevent teens from exposure to chat rooms or sites where they might be bombarded with invitations to X-rated Web pages.

But the technology ban has come at a cost for the Satmar, leaving the impoverished community out of New York State's boom in tech jobs. Males study Talmudic law as much as 14 hours a day, but don't graduate high school; the community is focused on turning out rabbinical scholars.

Rabbi Glanz of the United Talmudic Academy explains, "we are turning out very well-educated men according to our priorities. Whether the education they receive is useful in today's economy, I can't say."

The Lubavitch are also concerned about sites they deem objectionable, but they view the Internet as an ideal tool for Judaism. And as Shimon Laber explains, "The Torah jumps around. It is the original hyper-linked text. Nothing can bring it out like the Web."

4 comments:

Editor said...

An oldie but goodie.

Anonymous said...

where is this from?

Anonymous said...

Click on the title link for the source.

Anonymous said...

Satmar has hijacked Yiddish wikipedia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish_Wikipedia

and according to your article they don't use Internet. Hmm...