Anthropologist Researches Internet Use in Ultra-Orthodox Communities

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On May 20, 2012, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men flooded Queen’s Citi Field and nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium for a rally against an unusual threat: the internet.

Their goal was to emphasize the dangers associated with the unrestricted Web, especially pornography and gender mixing. Rabbinic leaders discussed the internet’s encroachment on ultra-Orthodox Jewish values in an age they dubbed “a crisis of emune (faith).”

Nearly five years later, Ayala Fader, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology, sees this challenge in the ultra-Orthodox community as a critical moment of cultural and religious change. She said the internet has amplified existing tensions among the ultra-Orthodox. There is a sense that more and more ultra-Orthodox Jews are leaving their communities or losing faith, but continuing to practice publicly— living what they call “double lives.”

As a result, Fader said, the internet has become a nexus for these concerns, with leadership trying to control its use and those living double lives using it as a lifeline to connect with other religious doubters.

“I don’t know if so many more people are leaving than a decade earlier or if they’re just louder, more public, and more well-organized, but I think there’s a sense in the communities that this is a moment when they need to start thinking about how they’re going to move into the 21st century,” said Fader, author of Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (Princeton University Press, 2009)

Fader has been awarded a $50,400 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her forthcoming book, Double Life: Faith, Doubt and the internet, which examines the community’s contemporary struggle to define authentic ultra-Orthodoxy.

“I was thrilled to be awarded the fellowship. It will give me sustained time to just focus on writing the book,” said Fader, who has been conducting research on this topic since 2013.

Fader first began the project by connecting with ultra-Orthodox Jews who had, during the mid-2000s, been active on the J-blogosphere, a Jewish blogging community. After interviewing members of various forums and Jewish blogging sites, she learned that the internet gave ultra-Orthodox Jews living double lives an opportunity to explore secular knowledge and activities, like going out together, and learning to bicycle and ski. It also provided a space where they could anonymously critique their communities and their rabbinic leadership.

“There are a lot of reasons that led people to lose faith in the kind of ultra-Orthodoxy they were living,” said Fader, who noted that the community had adapted to other types of technologies in the past—from newspapers and radio to television and books—without as much difficulty. “The internet is problematic because people need to use it for business. You can’t throw out the internet and you can’t keep it out. It’s also easily accessed, privately.”

Watch Ayala Fader discuss the ultra-Orthodox community’s response to “kosher” cellphones. 

To better influence their constituency to resist the lure of the internet, many rabbinic leaders are working closely with ultra-Orthodox schools.

“If you don’t agree to sign a contract when your children begin school [pledging]that you won’t have the internet at home, [and]that you won’t have a smartphone, then your kids can be denied access to school,” said Fader. “There are people who have left their communities—not because they didn’t have access to smartphones but because they didn’t feel they could continue to live these kinds of double lives.”

In recent years, there have been a few compromises allowing for some use. In 2013, the cell phone company Rami Levy Communications began selling “kosher smartphones” or rabbi-approved mobile phones that filter and block content considered immoral. Samsung, one of the world’s largest tech companies, debuted its first kosher smartphone specifically for ultra-Orthodox users last year.

Yet, despite efforts to permit some access to the Web, there is still a push to position smartphones as dangerous or contaminating objects, said Fader.

“There is a movement to not carry smartphones out in public, and an effort by educators in particular to create a sense of shame in having them,” said Fader.

She said the constant tug of war between the internet and religion isn’t limited to the ultra-Orthodox faith. It exists in many insular religious communities around the world.

“For religious communities that attempt to control their members’ access to the wider world, the internet is both an incredible tool and a dangerous piece of technology,” she said.

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