Torah Radar in the Darkness

kosher phone

Winning the Lost Cause: The skeptics underestimated the will of Klal Yisrael to do the right thing … But the war isn’t over

As the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, “going remote” was the nearly universal road to keeping schools, businesses, and even social interactions going. While the move was a lifeline for many, it simultaneously accelerated a long-fought battle that leaders in Klal Yisrael have been waging against the detrimental effects of internet and technology.

To get a better picture of how the pandemic has affected this struggle and to get a general update on issues faced, Hamodia conducted a roundtable with three people in the front-line trenches:
Rabbi Moshe Hillel Drew, assistant director of TAG (Technology Awareness Group); Mr. Mordy Herzog, CEO of Royal Wineries and a board member of TAG; and Rabbi Leib Klein, Maggid Shiur, Mesivta Chaim Meir and instructor at Chodosh Seminary in Lakewood, discussed some of the current issues with Hamodia’s Rabbi Avraham Y. Heschel.

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How would each of you characterize the nature of the effect that the COVID pandemic has had, both practically and in terms of attitudes toward the use of technology in our community?

Rabbi Drew: On a practical level, I think that we can say that almost everyone made some sort of change in the area of the technology they used or had in their homes during this pandemic. For some, it was as little as getting another flip phone for their kids to call in to their classes. For a lot of other people it meant a husband or a wife or both bringing additional levels of internet access or new devices into their homes to allow them to work remotely — but change was basically across the board.

It created a unique situation. You had a lot of people who had very set boundaries about what technology they used or had in the home and were expecting to continue along those lines, but when corona struck, the carpet was pulled out from under their feet and they found themselves at the mercy of the situation.

Rabbi Klein: Before this began, here in Lakewood, overwhelmingly, mesivta bachurim did not have phones and, then, after it hit, they all got one, which was a major change. The vast majority of them got kosher flip phones. While I do know some stories to the contrary, very few were given smartphones to use, but many of them got phones with texting.

Now, that created a challenge which to a great extent we are still dealing with, but what TAG did was incredible. Thousands of phones were purchased in a matter of weeks for bachurim and kids who now needed them and, during that period, anytime you passed by TAG’s office, there were lines of cars waiting to get these phones kashered.

If you think about it, the fact that all of these mosdos chose to continue learning by phone was maybe the most important technology chinuch moment since Citifield. From the perspective purely of what does the best job, it would seem that schools and yeshivos could have facilitated remote learning much better on tablets with some video component and there were some communities that, according to the psak of their Rabbanim, took that route. But the fact that Roshei Yeshivah and Menahalim who certainly place a very high premium on limud haTorah, said “No, as far as we are willing to go is to use telephones,” was a major teaching moment for this generation in how dangerous and complicated the challenge of technology can be.

Mr. Herzog: Somebody characterized the change we saw by saying that COVID was a five year acceleration that happened in five days. If somebody would have said, “Let’s set up millions of children and most of the workforce to learn and work remotely,” you would have needed thousands of consultants and billions of dollars to figure out a way to facilitate that and to make it happen. We were forced to do that in a matter of days, and I think we were caught off guard. When it came to COVID, a lot of the people who always wanted to do their best when it came to technology did not have time to process what was going on and think about how they should navigate it.

It set back the mission. Within a week, everybody had to set up their kids and a lot of people had to set up their own home offices. Then they turned around and saw they had crossed a lot of the boundaries they worked so hard to set.

Rabbi Moshe Hillel Drew, assistant director of TAG.

We mentioned that one of the effects of the pandemic was that many bachurim who never had their own phones before got used to the idea of texting. Texting is something that many people see as relatively harmless compared to the other technology challenges. How concerning do you feel it is for it becoming acceptable for bachurim to use text?

Rabbi Klein: It’s a real question to weigh. Most bachurim understand that even if a family has internet access or a smartphone, that it’s not something for him. But texting is something that is so prevalent in our society that saying to do without it becomes like saying to travel by horse and wagon. But the fact is for a bachur, it introduces a tremendous amount of distraction into his daily life that creates a real challenge to a chinuch geared toward immersion in limud haTorah.

Here, most yeshivos came back together about a month before the end of the zman and, even then, a lot were in tents and some had a half day. There was a feeling that we had to focus on getting them back into learning and that it wasn’t the time and place to make an issue about the phones they had. Eventually, some yeshivos stepped up to the challenge and did different things to work on it, others wanted to wait until Elul and some till after Sukkos, but no matter how you want to deal with it, it’s a challenge.

Rabbi Drew: I think for this discussion, there is a piece of technical information that is important to understand. The phones with the 4G cellular network have a Verizon messaging app that the old phones did not have. Now, it’s not WhatsApp and it’s not close to WhatsApp, but it can have 150 boys in one group and there is an app for video sharing and some other features that make it significantly easier to abuse than regular old fashioned texting. It’s not off the charts in terms of something I see as a terrible problem, but these boys can get a lot of material and connect to a lot of groups that they could not before. So when you look at this issue, it’s important to realize that the world of texting is not the same as it was a year or year and a half ago. In a way, the full texting capabilities of a very kosher-looking 4G phone potentially open up some of the problems of a regular smartphone.

Bachurim are definitely one part of the picture, but let’s look at the topic in a broader perspective and bring in all of the adults who made changes to the level of technology they had, whether it was for business or to do more shopping from home, or to communicate more effectively with older parents and so on. Now, many of these people, to their credit, went to TAG and to other organizations engaged in this effort like Meshimur, and Geder to do these things in the safest manner possible. But the fact is, that even if they have good filters, these people did not have this access or these devices before. Do you think there is a way to walk this back? Do you see people looking at themselves and saying, “OK, I needed this then, but not now,” and getting rid of these things?

Rabbi Drew: I definitely think it’s possible. When the outbreak began, we set up a drive-through tent outside of our offices and, in the absolute worst days of COVID before Pesach, we had hundreds of cars lined up to get devices serviced. One day, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my Rav, Harav Shulem Lowy, waiting on the line. I thought to myself that I should run and bring him to the front, but I got busy with something and forgot about it until he had waited his turn and was ready to be helped. I ran over to apologize for leaving him in line, and he told me, “I’ve been waiting here, saying Tehillim the whole time I was here and I was just looking for a place to stick a kvittel in the wall of this building.” Where else, he said, could you find hundreds of men and women coming out in the middle of a pandemic spending time and money just to be mechanech their children b’taharah?

Klal Yisrael had kochos for amazing things; we just have to reignite that spark and I think we are already starting to see it now. If you want to get specific, I’ve definitely seen people giving back their smartphones. What people experienced and that certain boundaries were crossed is not something that can be undone; that is a reality that is forever changed. But, I do believe that the tangible changes people made can be walked back.

Mr. Herzog: It comes down to people’s consciousness. After Citifield, while I was definitely inspired and a lot of people’s emotions ran high, I will admit that I was a skeptic. I saw Bill Gates and Apple and all of Silicon Valley on one side, and a group of well-meaning Rabbanim and askanim on the other side and I asked myself, “How is this possibly going to work?”

The fact is that, since then, we’ve come a long way. That unfiltered internet is bad does not need to be said anymore. I think my skepticism underestimated the will of Klal Yisrael to be good. But, the nature of this struggle is that we always need to try harder and there are always new challenges to confront. That’s basically what TAG does, it helps good people be good. With the right messaging I think that we can meet this challenge and the ones that we know will come after it.

Rabbi Klein: I would pick up on the same note that Reb Mordy expressed. I’ve been involved in different programs that deal with technology issues for over 10 years now. When people want to do it, Klal Yisrael has tremendous strength, but it’s really up to each of us as an individual to make the right choices. Rabbi Nechemia Gottlieb and Reb Moshe Hillel at TAG, and a lot of other people who deal with these issues, do wonderful work, but it’s nowhere near the level of organization that Klal Yisrael needs. We need more baalei battim to put not just their financial support, but their understanding of the business world into this struggle and we need more mechanchim invested in giving over the right message to the next generation. If we could build up the infrastructure of this effort, we could do so much more.

kosher phone
Rabbi Leib Klein, Maggid Shiur, Mesivta Chaim Meir and instructor at Chodosh Seminary in Lakewood.

Around two years ago, I took a car service in Boro Park and the driver was an Israeli fellow with a small yarmulke. He was talking on his phone in Hebrew as we drove, and was so engrossed in the conversation that, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get his attention long enough to tell him that he was going in the wrong direction. Eventually he got off the phone and apologized. He said that someone had asked him to forward a video to them and that he was trying to explain to the caller that he couldn’t download it because it was blocked by his filter. When I expressed my praise over his having a filter, he turned around and passionately told me “Ani Yehudi [I’m a Jew]; of course I have a filter.”

As many problems as we face, it seems that the underlying concept that was really brought home at Citifield — that you can’t advertise yourself as an ehrliche Yid and have unfiltered internet — has gone a long way. However, do you feel that the broader message over the danger of technology is sufficiently getting across to the tzibbur?

Rabbi Drew: I just spoke to a group of bachurim and gave them the following all too relevant mashal. At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like everyone was catching corona, but we were all being told that we had to stay home and take all the precautions we could. The question was that if we’re going to get it anyway, why are we driving ourselves crazy? The answer was that we had to flatten the curve and that if everybody gets this at the same time, the world will fall apart.

I told them that most of what TAG is doing now is flattening the curve. We’re installing filters and recommending the safest devices, but it’s not a solution. What we really need is a vaccine. But, as we all know, a vaccine is hard to get. We have the health crisis of the generation going on and all the biggest experts working on it and billions of dollars being thrown at it and still, we don’t know when or if we will have a vaccine that works.

We don’t know how much we can do to change the attitudes of most married people who came of age or were starting their families as the challenge of technology was emerging. But, we have seen that good education programs with younger people can make a real difference in their basic hashkafah toward these issues and if we make it part of our chinuch, with siyatta diShmaya, that will be our vaccine.

Mr. Herzog: When we started thinking about how Klal Yisrael was going to deal with technology, there was a lot of room for cynicism. It seemed like a fight against progress and that the internet was quickly working its way into every aspect of life. But, since then, I think even the non-Jewish world has come to admit how destructive and dangerous this is if left unchecked. Put ruchniyus aside. Even if you just look at the toll it’s taken on workplace productivity, people’s lack of ability to focus, the obsession with frivolous distractions it causes and so on, you see that it’s a dire societal problem. It’s gotten so bad, that no honest person can deny that something has to be done.

I think it’s obvious that we’ve hit rock bottom and that the world can’t continue with the situation as it is, much less can we, as the Am Segulah, preserve our way of life if we don’t reconsider some of the choices we’ve made and do something. It’s unfortunate that it had to get to this point, but in a way, it makes our job easier.

Rabbi Klein: If you look at a program like Hineini which is designed to educate girls about the challenges of technology, I can say from my work in the seminary I teach, that it’s had a dramatic effect on our students. It gives them a hashkafah and raised their outlook to a whole different level. Personally, I was shocked at how successful it was, but it proves that with effort and energy that we can make tremendous inroads. I’ve seen the same with bachurim. I brought Reb Moshe Hillel [Drew] to speak in our yeshivah and the boys asked if he could come again. This summer, I taught in a camp in the Midwest and when I spoke about technology, they couldn’t get enough. They know it’s out there and if you speak about it in their language, we can accomplish so much more.

Not long ago, I spoke to a group of 100 girls about smartphones. One of them asked, “What can I do? My mother has one.” I told them very simply that after the war, a lot of survivors sent their kids to yeshivah, but they also had a television in the house. It was a new thing and that generation didn’t realize the effect it has on chinuch. But a lot of the kids raised in these homes realized that this wasn’t something for a Torahdig family and they themselves never had them. So then I asked if anybody thinks their mother is a better mother for having a smartphone. No hands went up. Then I said that I would ask if anybody thinks their mother would be a better mother if she didn’t have a smartphone, but that I won’t because it’s not derech eretz — but everybody knows the truth.

kosher phone
Mr. Mordy Herzog, CEO of Royal Wineries and a board member of TAG

In general, you see the trend getting better?

Rabbi Drew: The good are getting better and the weak ones are getting weaker. There are a lot of very bad stories, but on the whole, I think Klal Yisrael has seen tremendous growth in the last two years, particularly among bachurim and high school and seminary girls.

Rabbi Klein: The way the message is given over is crucial. When it’s done in an educational way and that the person speaking has a clear understanding of the issues and a good chinuch skill set, a light starts shining in people’s minds. But, when people try to paint it all as treif with a broad stroke and don’t seem to understand what the whole thing is really about, you end up turning a lot of people off.

I’m sure that’s true for some crowds, but it depends on the clientele. In some circles the original method of Rabbanim telling people that things are bad and that they should stay away from them still goes a long way.

Rabbi Klein: I agree, you have to know your audience, and if it works, it works.

There are different approaches to advising people about technology issues, one that says to do everything you can to minimize it and another that says to accept what many people do, but to give them ways to control the dangers. Which method do you see as preferable?

Rabbi Klein: In chinuch we try to educate from the top, to give every bachur the idea that they could grow to be a Gadol b’Yisrael. Now, we know that’s not what’s going to happen to everyone, but if you start out saying, “Just be happy with learning an hour or two a day,” no one is going to get anywhere. The same is true here. You have to start with the ideal, but have a system that has a place for everyone.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Nazis first gave them an ultimatum to either surrender or be overrun. The Polish staff knew they were outnumbered and outgunned, and they had a meeting to discuss the options. One marshal said, Germany is going to invade either way, the only question is if we fight them or not.

Technology is here and it is not going away. There are a lot of compromises that have been made, and we can be sure that there will be many more. But I do believe that it is going to be harder and harder to be in these gray areas and that the day will come when we have to draw more lines in the sand. Now putting yourself on the right side of those lines will cost us, but we’re going to have to say that you can’t call yourself an ehrliche Yid if you have such and such.

Mr. Herzog: We have all had to make compromises, but it’s important to deal with the choices we make in a way that’s clear. If a person goes to a doctor and asks for sleeping pills, if the doctor gives them, he’ll only give three at a time and then tell the person to come back. He knows that it can be addictive and lead to all sorts of other problems, so he doesn’t just dispense them. That consciousness about technology is something that only comes from education and it’s our job to find ways to give people that awareness.

Rabbi Drew: You can’t really make a one-size-fits-all rule, but as we’ve said, your attitude is the most important ingredient. For people who have a lot of fun with their phone, and they have all kinds of clips and jokes, their whole entertainment source is there, so it’s hard to give them a drashah and expect them to start hating it. But for those of us who use our phone for work, it’s a source of stress that ties us to all of our obligations. When people like that shut it off Erev Shabbos, they feel like a million dollars. Your kids see that feeling and they’ll learn from it.

Another good idea is to pick a place in your house that you keep your phone, and don’t take it out of there. Or at least pick a room in your house that you don’t bring your phone into, not because it’s unfiltered, but as a way of remembering that it’s not inseparable from you, that it’s a tool and not a toy.

There is a feeling that there is a sea change in the amount of passion that many bachurim and yungeleit bring to their Yiddishkeit and that the emunah peshutah that defined earlier generations has gotten much weaker. What role do you see technology playing in this phenomenon?

Rabbi Klein: It’s definitely a problem, but before we start focusing on the bad, I think first we should look at the positive side. I can tell you that the number of real high quality bachurim in the yeshivos today is unbelievable, much more than there were in my day. Bachurim who master sugyos and finish masechtos, there’s a lot of them. Come into a lot of batei medrash during bein hazmanim, you can’t get a seat. So, it’s important to know that there’s a flip side.

I think that the apathy towards Yiddishkeit you’re talking about doesn’t purely come from technology, but from the level of gashmiyus that a lot of people live with and the frivolous pleasures that have become part of the frum world. Now, technology is an amplifier of that, mostly in that when we’re connected to the whole world, we learn about all kinds of things that were simply not part of our lives a decade or two ago.

It used to be that if a person had money and wanted to go on vacation, where did he go? He went to Eretz Yisrael or
maybe to Switzerland. But now, every bachur and newly married couple is running off to Montana and Colorado. Why? Because the people setting trends in our world are plugged in to much more than they used to be. But it goes without saying that all of this gashmiyus and new types of entertainment take a toll on how excited a person is about Yiddishkeit.

Any final thoughts?

Mr. Herzog: When you introduce a new product, you have to do a lot of marketing to let people know it exists and to teach people about what it is. The struggle with technology is a known commodity, but there’s still a need to be aware that this is not about putting your foot down once. The lines constantly need to be reset and there is a constant need for education.

Thankfully, there are a lot of leaders who understand this. I remember sitting in a meeting about technology issues with the Tosher Dayan from Boro Park, Harav Binyomin Zev Landau, and he wanted to know every last detail about how Instagram works. He didn’t just brush it all away with the back of his hand. He saw that you can’t give younger people an opening to say, “You guys don’t get it.” TAG has that going for them also. It’s guided by Gedolei Yisrael and when you get to the hands-on, Reb Moshe Hillel and Reb Nechemia [Gottlieb] are both people who definitely “get it.”

Rabbi Klein: So much of our success with this topic depends on attitude. Sometimes a person really needs to have a root canal. Afterwards, he’s glad that he got it, because it saved his teeth, but there’s no simchah to it and his kid will never want to get one. If on the other hand, when a parent gets a new IPhone, it’s a Yom Tov for them, then you have very little hope.

No matter what device or access you need, if the attitude is that this is something that threatens my Yiddishkeit, so I want to do what I can to minimize it, that sends a strong message.

Even if a person can’t go that far, and he’s a person who does enjoy technology; if he takes precautions, that also sends a valuable message. We all know how dangerous cars can potentially be, but we all use them and enjoy them. At the same time, we have rules — we don’t let kids drive, you can’t drive as fast as you want and go through red lights. It shows that this is something that can only be used safely with certain guardrails in place.

A smartphone is not expensive to buy and you can get one anywhere, so if a bachur or a high school girl gets it into their head that they want one, there is not much that can stop them. If the attitude in the home is one that doesn’t give your children that desire in the first place, you have a much better chance.

Rabbi Drew: We’ve seen amazing things in Klal Yisrael the last few years and I’m inspired by how far we’ve come. If we can follow through and get the next generation to take this on seriously, I think we can all prevail and bring Moshiach.