Thousands attend strictly Orthodox debate on internet dangers

By Marcus Dysch, September 6, 2012
Some of the thousands of strictly Orthodox men who came to east London learn of the dangers of the internet

Some of the thousands of strictly Orthodox men who came to east London learn of the dangers of the internet

As thousands of sports fans roared Paralympic athletes to victory, a mile away another sporting venue was filled by a very different crowd.

More than 4,600 strictly Orthodox men took part in Tuesday night’s conference at Leyton Orient’s football stadium, aimed at discussing the best ways to steer young religious Jews away from online dangers.

Inspired by a similar initiative earlier this year at the New York Mets baseball stadium, British Charedim quickly snapped up £10 tickets when they went on sale last month.

Parallel events have been held throughout the week in Manchester, Zurich, Antwerp and Vienna, but it was Leyton, east London, that provided the most remarkable scenes.

It was the first visit to a football stadium for most of the attendees but once the concept of queuing and entering through a turnstile was negotiated, they flocked into the stands, filling three sides of the Brisbane Road ground.

“I’ve disinfected the keyboard so we don’t pick up an internet virus”

“I’ve disinfected the keyboard so we don’t pick up an internet virus”

On the way to the terraces, they collected bags containing essential items for the three-and-a-half hour debate, including binoculars — to see rabbinical speakers on the far side of the pitch — programmes, and cake.

More than two dozen coaches had brought participants from Stamford Hill, with hundreds more Charedim travelling from North-West London and around the country. About 2,500 men attended the Manchester rally at Trafford Park’s Event City.

Outside the stadium, police were called to direct traffic in the narrow streets as residents struggled to negotiate their way around the now-empty coaches.

The irony of the conference being streamed live on the internet for women and children to watch at Pardes Hall in Stamford Hill seemed lost on those engrossed in the debate, delivered entirely in Yiddish.

On the far side of the pitch, an 80-metre-long stage seated rabbinic leaders from around the world. The event was chaired by Dayan Aharon Dovid Dunner, one of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregation’s most influential figures.

He was joined by speakers including New-York-based Rabbi Avrohom Schorr and Rabbi Shmuel Dishon, who arranged the original Mets event.

Once the floodlights came on, the action got under way, with minchah followed by tehillim (psalms) and then more than a dozen addresses.

Residents in blocks of flats overlooking the pitch came out on to their balconies to observe the proceedings. Twitter — the micro-networking site surely frowned on by the organisers — was ablaze with football fans and residents wanting to know what was happening.

The debate itself focused almost entirely on “addiction to the internet”, and the growing number of cases coming before London batei din (religious courts) in which marriages are breaking down, and parents and children are in open conflict over the amount of time spent surfing the web.

Advice provided by a Charedi technology company showed how parents could protect their children by keeping computers and other devices locked in cupboards or by employing internet filtering and monitoring systems.

This firm will even intercept emails — with your permission — and check them for unsuitable material.

Concluding the event, Dayan Shalom Friedman revealed guidelines drawn up by UOHC.

They included a recommendation to avoid the internet wherever possible, restrict it to office use only if total abstinence is unavoidable, and deny children access to online devices in all circumstances.

As the evening wore on, a number of weary Charedim turned to their Blackberries, smartphones and instant message devices to contact friends, moves described by one onlooker as “a real chutzpah, under the circumstances”.

Last updated: 2:56pm, September 6 2012