Friday, October 30, 2015

The Agudah, the Internet (Again), and Going OTD

Rabbi Zweibel addressing a past Agudah Convention
It may come as a surprise to many that I am a fan of Agudath Israel. Surprised because of the many critical posts I have written about them in the past. But one should not confuse legitimate criticism meant to improve them with bashing them as an expressions of hate. That would be the furthest thing from the truth.

I have said many times that Agudah is a wonderful and effective public service organization that has done a lot for – not only Charedim; not only all Orthodox Jews; but all of Klal Yisroel. My issues with them are Hashkafic and the questions I have raised about some of their decisions and policies are based on how we each see the welfare of Klal Yisroel best being served.

One example of that is their anti internet policy. They consider the negative influences of the internet to be exponentially greater than any of the benefits it may provide. While I agree with them about the dangers inherent in internet use, I disagree them about the extent of the dangers involved.

True, that pornography has become so ubiquitous  that one may encounter it even without trying. But for most of us, the internet’s benefits far outweigh any chance encounter one may have.  But still, what about all that easy access to porn? Isn’t that enough to be opposed to it? That’s what good filters are for. They work for most people.  

Of course the other big issue is the Apikursus that is just as easily accessible as porn. For me this is an even greater danger than porn. I’m not sure you can buy a filter for that. These websites are so good that many Orthodox Jews encountering them will have a hard time refuting them and in many cases become Apikursim themselves. Happens all the time.

Bans or expressing negative attitudes about the internet will not have any sway for the most curious among us. They will easily access the internet caring little about bans or the like. The world of formerly Orthodox Jews is filled with people like that (commonly referred to as Off the Derech or OTD). More about that later.

Even though I disagree with the Agudah about having a web presence, I understand why they feel they can’t have one. But I have to say that every year around this time, there is a big online ad campaign for their annual convention. This is their 93rd. If one looks at the ad, one would be hard pressed to say that Agudah has no web presence. I have once again asked an Agudah official I know if Agudah has changed their mind about having a web presence. The response is always the same. Agudah does not have a website. That is based on their opposition to the internet. The website I asked him about is created and operated outside of Agudah. Something they have no objection to. It is a nuanced position that allows them to be opposed to the internet while taking full advantage of it at convention time.

That they take full advantage of the internet is in my view self defeating to their opposition to it. I doubt that most people that see that ad will think that Agudah is opposed to the internet. I am not saying there is anything hypocritical about this. Theirs is a nuanced opposition. They are opposed. But not fully opposed. However, a glossy and well executed website advertising the Agudah convention every year is hardly the way to convey opposition to it.

As long as I’m on the subject of their convention, there is one thing I both applaud them for and yet feel they are short changing themselves about. One of the sessions they have planned is on the ‘Off the Derech’ phenomenon. They realize that there is an explosion of young people (and even adults) among their own that have stopped being observant. Some very prominent Charedi families (both Chasidic and Lithuanian/Yeshivish) have a child that has gone that route.

This is not new. It was a subject they dealt with many years ago in their now defunct magazine, the Jewish Observer. The problem was huge even then. That issue of the Jewish Observer was sold out. It was probably the most widely read issue of all time. The purpose was to awaken their own public to the problem. And hopefully create programs that would stem the tide. Programs have been set up. But the problem has not only NOT gone away, it has increased.

Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob
This year Agudah has set up a panel discussion at their convention to see what more can be done. One of the participants is a someone I highly regard, Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob.

(Pet peeve: They call him Yitzchok in their ad even though he identifies as Jerry - and was called by that name even by the Roshei Kollel of Chicago’s Lakewood Kollel here when he was an Avreich there. Why they do that is a puzzle to me. If Jerry is how you are known to the world - call him Jerry! If the Amoraim could be called by Babylonian names, then those among us that use English names should be treated no differently. But I digress.)

Dr. Lob is well qualified to be a member of that panel. He has a very successful psychology practice here in Chicago and is highly respected for the work that he does.

But there is a name sorely missing that should be on that panel. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz has spent well over a decade dealing with these people. He knows them. He knows why some of them leave and has written copious articles on the subject over the years. He even founded ‘Project Yes’ for Agudah – an organization that deals with these people.  

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
If they cannot have on the panel someone that is himself OTD (something many feel should be part of the panel) Rabbi Horowitz is the next best thing to it. Who better to answer questions like: What are OTDs thinking?’ ‘What led them to go OTD?’ and ‘What should be done about it?’ There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are people that go OTD. But if anyone can speak to those issues, Rabbi Horowitz can.

Another expert that should be on the panel is Rabbi Dr. Ben Zion Twerski. He too deals with this issue in his psychology practice and has a lot of wisdom he could share. Not to mention his father, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, a renowned psychiatrist and expert on addictions whose expertise would no doubt add tremendously to this conference.

I don’t know that much about the other participants. But I do know about the ones they did not invite. By leaving them out, I think they are missing out. What a shame.