Like so many Americans, Mesh Gelman relies on the Internet for work. But in a move that could complicate his business in international trade, he plans to unplug his home computer from the wired world, shutting out all that's good -- and bad -- about the Web.
Gelman's reasoning is simple: His religious leaders have told him to do it.
The father of four is a member of Lakewood's tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, whose leaders have declared that Internet access should be removed from homes with school-age children to better protect them from the bounty of sexual images online.
It is more than a suggestion. The community's policy -- created with principals from the area's 43 yeshivas, or Jewish private schools, and unveiled in late September -- decrees that any student with home access faces suspension or expulsion on the grounds that one Internet-corrupted student could sway others.
Rabbi Moshe Weisberg said children are not mature enough to use the Internet and are susceptible to sites that are sexual in nature, whether it is evident or subtle.
"Kids can become addicted to the point where it's almost like a drug addiction or an alcoholic addiction," said Weisberg, who runs a social services agency in Lakewood. "Even though there might be some value -- research, schoolwork -- the negatives so far outweigh the positives."
Although figures were not available, rabbis said many parents among the Ocean County community's 6,500 Orthodox families have canceled their Internet subscriptions.
Gelman, whose sons are 6 and 8 years old, said he's still trying to figure out how to work at home without the Internet. But, he said, he will, praising the rabbi's policy as "smart."
"The Internet is not a bad thing, but people use it for the wrong reasons," Gelman said. "As a parent, it's hard when kids start asking you things and [you watch] their innocence fall away. You wonder what they can learn on the Web. I know that with one little stroke of the key, you can end up in the wrong place."
Although strict, the policy is not absolute. The community's rabbis may make exceptions for parents with e-mail-only access or with home businesses if computers are kept in a locked room or cabinet.
A different section of the policy prohibits students from using personal digital assistants, cell phones and other hand-held devices with Internet access, though yeshiva principals are not required to expel students for violations.
In a community in which few people have televisions, the rabbis' concerns extend beyond fears about children meeting sexual predators in chat rooms. They also worry about pictures.
"The issue of extramarital sex . . . extends to even looking at ladies for pleasure, thinking about other ladies for pleasure," said Rabbi Netanya Gottlieb, principal of Yeshiva Bais HaTorah. "We really . . . don't want children to see ladies who are dressed inappropriately."
Elsewhere, attempts to limit Internet use are criticized as censorship. But Lakewood's Orthodox Jewish leaders said they do not expect lawsuits.
Rabbis and others in Lakewood said there is widespread support for the rules and little outward opposition. And they said similar policies in Israel have worked well.
But the ban drew some disapproval outside Lakewood.
"I think it's doing a great disservice to the students by prohibiting them from using what is essentially the primary communications medium of our time," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group. Bankston said he had not heard of the policy until contacted by a reporter.
Lakewood's Jews make up about a third of the township's population, community leaders said. The community began growing in the 1940s with the establishment of Beis Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva that has blossomed into one of the world's most prestigious schools for studying the Talmud, the writings on Jewish civil and religious law.
"This is a self-selected group of people that choose to live in Lakewood," Weisberg said. "Being subject to rabbinic leadership here is completely voluntary. . . . If you're sending your kid to a private school, you've already made a choice. You want to guide your child in a certain direction."
The rabbis say 100 percent compliance is not the point; they do not plan midnight raids. Instead, they said, they expect community members to use the honor system and sign pledges stating that if they use the Internet at home for work, they will ensure that children cannot use it.
"I'm definitely concerned about my children, about spiritual development and well-being," said Rachel Rappaport, who just canceled her home Internet access. "The community is trying to keep itself a safe place for parents to live with families."