CORONA, New York – In my knee-length jean skirt and long-sleeved black shirt I feel like I’m undercover, despite the fact that I wore a similar outfit each day for ten years while enrolled in Jewish Yeshiva day school. I’m not exactly wearing a black hat and fake mustache—but it’s a far cry from my usual bright jeans and printed dresses. I feel incognito.
On the 7-train heading from 74th and Broadway toward Citi Field, I am surrounded by a few dozen Haraidim, a sect of Jews who are considered Ultra-Orthodox. Old men with white beards sway patiently in their seats, some holding the Talmud. The younger men text on their Blackberries or converse excitedly with each other in Yiddish. When we get close to Citi Field, they start to point and gather their things. But these men aren’t trekking out to Queens for a ball game.
They are here for a rally by the organization Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane (Union of Communities for the Purity of the Camp) who raised over a million dollars for the asifa ( Hebew for rally)—intended to increase awareness about the problems the Ultra-Orthodox community faces in the electronic era. Some hazards include pornography and exposure to secular society.
I get out of the train and feel instantly enveloped in the crowd. Men in black hats surge out of the train doors to flow into a river of black jackets. It is strangely mechanical and natural at the same time.
The spokesman for the rally’s organizers, Eytan Kobre (left), called the rally “an intimate family meeting.”
Kobre, a lawyer who has written articles for the NY Post about the dangers of texting in society, said the rally is one way to examine challenges posed to the Ultra Orthodox community by modern society. ”This is just a slightly larger family meeting for about 40,000 of my best friends and neighbors,” he said.
However, mothers, or any women for that matter are not invited to this “family meeting.” Kobre claimed “logistical reasons” as to why they were not included and not because of “people’s convenient memes of women being second-class citizens in Judaism.”
There are other “family members” not taking part in this event as well. They are down the block on 126th and Roosevelt, across from Citi Field, holding signs and shouting at passersby.
These are the protestors to the asifa. Many of the few dozen under the 7-train subway tracks are ex-community members. Some are daughters who professed a desire to go to college and were shunned by their parents. Others are sons who confessed to homosexuality and were ostracized by their synagogues. Many were once deeply involved in the community they so feverishly object to today.
Their main concern at today’s rally? Raising awareness about the lack of repercussions in the Hassidic community for child molesters and sex abusers.
At the counter-protest, men, women and children hold signs that boldly announce: The Internet is not the problem and the Internet didn’t molest me. Across the busy highway, curious Haradis look at the protesters through a gate, which surrounds the Citi Field parking lot. Some take pictures.
Deborah Feldman, former member of the Hassidic community and author of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, explains she’s protesting the fact that the community is eager to protect abusers.
“I don’t see why they have to spend 3 million dollars to teach people how to protect themselves from the evils of the Internet when that information is already obvious,” Feldman said. “But what’s not obvious is what can we do to stop abuse in the community and stop the cover-up.”
Another protester, Yossie Gottesman, was also raised close to the Ultra-Orthodox world but left because of what he saw as “the dishonesty in the community.” As we discussed the Citi Field event, he mentioned a placard he considered making for the counter-protest, one which would describe how both the protesters and those inside the stadium are ultimately part of the same faith.
He elaborates on a phrase in Yiddish that is typically said between Ultra-Orthodox Jews when referring to another Hassidic Jew, which basically means ‘he’s one of us.’
“And the moment you’re slightly different in any way really, you become ‘the other.’ So, today one of the ideas for a sign was ‘I am one of us.’ The notion of the Chasidim and me, we are an us. We’re in it together.”