N.J. Town's Orthodox Jews Sign Off Internet at Home

By Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 24, 2006

LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- Bruce Rosenberg used to pay his bills online from home. That changed in September, when the rabbis of this town's large Orthodox community told parents of yeshiva students that they no longer could have the Internet in their homes.

Rosenberg, who has two children in religious school, disconnected. Now he treks twice a week to the public library, using its free Internet access to pay bills and sometimes check the news.

"Whoever doesn't have a computer now has to come to the library. Today you need it [the Internet] for everything," said Rosenberg, 26.

He added that he supports the ban, which was designed to protect students from online smut.

He's not alone. While many, if not most, Orthodox Jews here eschewed the Internet -- and television, for that matter -- long before the edict, some with children in Lakewood's 43 yeshivas cut the cord or put a lock on the computer afterward.

Others have quietly defied the ban or, not so quietly, ridiculed it online in anonymous blogs. Community leaders say no one has been subject to the ban's ultimate penalty: expulsion from school for students whose parents have kept the Internet at home for nonbusiness reasons.

Most Orthodox Jews, interviewed recently almost nine months after the edict was issued, said they support the policy.

"It's a great idea. They should do it everywhere," said David Egert, an emergency medical technician.

He also said he frequents the library more often since he disconnected the Internet last fall, after the rabbis' declaration.

"I used to use the Internet once a day for research. I would check medical stuff online. Now I either find it in the library or I don't find it," he said.

The number of people using free Internet access at Lakewood's public library in May was 8,248, compared with 5,858 the previous May, before the edict, library officials said. Orthodox Jews appear to be part of the increase, said Saran Lewis, head of the reference department.

Rabbis instituted the Internet ban because of concerns not only about pornography and sexual predators in online chat rooms, but also about images of women dressed immodestly, which they feared would distract those who are devoted to religious study.

The ban is not absolute. The policy allows rabbis to approve exceptions for parents who need the Internet or e-mail-only services for a home business, as long as they lock computers away from children.

Around town, there are plans to open a public Internet center in an office building for online shopping. And the main yeshiva, which teaches adults and is among the most prestigious yeshivas in the world, has tightened Internet rules for its students.

At the same time, some determined Jewish teenagers have become part of the public library's Web crowd. One 16-year-old yeshiva student, who would not give his name, said he occasionally accesses the Internet there to check eBay and baseball news.

A Lakewood adult, who also would not give his name because he said he feared retribution, said the religious leaders have gone too far. He said he lets his children, yeshiva students, use the Internet at home, although he closely monitors and restricts their use.

He said the rabbis should trust parents to run their homes and should rescind the expulsion policy.

"Nobody wants to be told how to run their life," the man said. "You don't want someone telling you, 'Put this in this part of the house,' 'Take this out of your house,' and, 'If you don't, then your kid gets thrown out of school.' "

The rabbis realize they will never get 100 percent compliance and do not intend to sniff out users, said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, who runs a social services agency and, like other Lakewood rabbis, has long stressed the dangers of the Internet.

"There'll always be a small fringe that will be there no matter what anybody tries to do," he said. "We're very, very concerned about the mainstream and we're happy to report it has not spilled over into that area."

Lakewood's policy, while similar to those in some Orthodox communities in Israel, is unusual, if not unique, in the United States, even among Orthodox Jews.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, for example, has a Web site with interactive functions to help viewers find a synagogue, learn when to light candles, or find out about singles events. The Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch has an active Internet presence. And a popular Talmud study program called Daf Yomi has an Internet site that helps people find study groups.

Of course, to those in Lakewood who have never been online, the Internet remains a mystery.

"The reason we don't do Internet is because of the bad effect it might have on our children. We find it's not worth the gain," said Chaim Rapport, who then paraphrased a Talmudic saying: "We all have evil inclination. Since it's easy to find evil, then we should stop as far away as we can from it."

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