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Internet poses spiritual dilemmas for Orthodox women and their businesses

NEW YORK — Shaindy Braun and her wig business had nearly 40,000 followers on Instagram, amassed over nine years, when she abruptly announced her departure from the social media platform.

Screenshots from Orthodox Instagram accounts that announced they would be shutting down after the anti-social media rally in New Jersey. (Design by Jackie Hajdenberg)

“I choose to leave this world of likes, followers and filters,” Braun wrote last month.

“I will be leaving Instagram to live in the real world. I want to focus on curating my real life, filtering my thoughts and speech and sending love and likes to the important people in my life.”

Then she deleted her profile, cutting off a major line of communication to clients — and potential buyers — of Sary Wigs, a Lakewood-based company providing human-hair wigs to Orthodox Jewish women in New Jersey and beyond.

She wasn’t the only one: Moonlight Layette, a baby clothing brand, announced it would stop engaging actively on Instagram, directing customers to a WhatsApp number instead. So did Rivka Dayan, a resin artist who makes Judaica products, and others.

Their decisions might have come as a surprise to the brands’ followers — except that many of them had also tuned into two massive gatherings in Newark last month exhorting Orthodox Jewish women to put away their phones and disconnect from social networks.

Coming a decade after a landmark rally aimed at warning Orthodox men about the dangers of the internet, the rallies were meant to inspire women to spend more time away from their cell phones, according to its organizers.

Critics in the chasidic Orthodox community, including women who attended or listened in via phone, said pressure to attend was intense.

“They force themselves to sit through this, being told how decadent they are today with their obsessions with ridiculous things and how spiritually inferior they are,” said one chasidic Borough Park woman, who, however, would not go on record with her name.

Known as an asifa or kinus (Hebrew words for gathering), the rallies drew tens of thousands of Orthodox women to the Prudential Center in Newark last week, many transported on charter buses from areas such as Lakewood, NJ, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Women with children in the Bais Yaakov network of schools received text messages and letters saying that the school rabbis urged them to attend; one mother told JTA that she was told her children would be expelled if she did not attend the rally, where tickets cost $54.

One rally was in English, while the other was in Yiddish, spoken in many of New York’s chasidic communities.

The events, widely referred to as “nekadesh rallies” using the Hebrew word meaning “make holy,” appealed to women’s maternal instincts — a winning line in a community where women typically have many children and are responsible for their education.

“I miss the great times that we used to have before you got the cell phone that your boss gave you,” a young boy said during a speech at the Yiddish rally, according to a recording of the event.

“Do you remember our conversations, when we used to laugh at our own stories, and not because we were listening to silly jokes on the little black box?”

At the English-language rally, half of the speakers were women, and at one point, the male rabbis who spoke left the arena so the women could sing together.

The speakers presented the issue of social media as one where Orthodox women can choose more or less pious ways to engage with the internet.

But the Yiddish-language rally tackled women’s participation in civic life offline as well, according to people who were present.

The event came 10 years after 40,000 Orthodox men were similarly exhorted to give up their smartphones at a major anti-internet asifa at Citi Field in New York City. Then, the message was about insulating the community from outside influences.

Ayala Fader, an anthropology professor at Fordham University who studies chasidic communities, said what happened next helps explain the latest rallies.

“Men were refusing to give up their smartphones,” she said. “So leadership decided to focus on women and their responsibility for rearing kids and keeping the home and really protecting the next generation.”

Many Orthodox women who have found homes on social media built connections within their own extended communities.

Instagram in particular has been both a tool for building businesses in a community where working outside the home can be discouraged and logistically challenging.

Orthodox women have also used social media for activism, such as to share experiences with infertility, combat racism and fight anti-Semitism.

Some, seeking to comply with expectations around modesty, have operated women-only accounts.

Hearing that they should set all of that aside struck some women who were invited to the rally as offensive.

Attendees were prohibited from bringing cell phones, taking pictures and sharing the event on social media. Orthodox media covered the rallies without printing pictures of the women who attended.

“Women finally found an outlet where they can network and it lets you build successful businesses via the internet,” said one chasidic woman who works in digital marketing and is the sole breadwinner for her family.

The rallies were organized by the Technology Awareness Group, or TAG, a nonprofit founded in 2011, shortly before the men’s rally, with a mission of helping Jewish internet users avoid pornography and other harmful influences online.

Shmuli Rosenberg, a marketing executive who promoted the event, said the goal was not to ask women to eschew the internet or having a public profile.

“It’s far from cutting people off,” he said. “It’s helping people find, in their own life, what will allow them to be more connected to their families and their children and themselves and feel uplifted and elevated and happy.”

Some women who attended, like Braun, the wigmaker, found the events inspiring. 
 “I know, it’s kinda contradictory to talk about it here, online,” one woman wrote on the Orthodox women’s forum ImaMother.

“But those who were there, in a positive mind, understood that it wasn’t about all or nothing.”

On their way out of the rallies, women were handed cards that they could give to their taxi drivers and housekeepers to explain why they cannot touch smartphones to type in their address and to ask that smartphones not be used in their homes.

Rayne Lunger, a woman who grew up chasidic and is now active on social media, said she was familiar with the impulse to observe more than the letter of the law.

“People want to be good and do the right thing,” Lunger said. “And they’re sometimes building stringencies on top of stringencies on top of stringencies that make no sense because they have no reference point.”

Not all chasidic Jews are wrestling with the issue of internet use in the same way. The Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement has embraced new technologies and uses social media in its outreach, and was not involved in any of these events.

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