Citifield: A Scorecard

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No event on the scale of the recent Citifield asifa takes place without its enthusiasts and without its detractors, without some surrounding hype and without some cynical push-back. With the passage of time, it may be possible to steer a course between extremes. This is one such attempt, doubling as my debut as a sportswriter.

The event had its stars and superstars. Batting cleanup was Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlit”a. He turned in a performance that usually brings a crowd to its feet in tribute. It doesn’t matter whether you believe the asifa was a great idea or a waste of time and money, the herculean effort of the Lakewood mashgiach ought to be saluted. Over the years he observed the toll taken upon individuals and families by a sea-change in the way we live our lives. Some resisted that change futilely; others shrugged their shoulders and said nothing could be done. One man, his body wracked by illness, refused to make peace with circumstances that threatened to alter our entire relationship with kedushah. He argued that the Ribbono Shel Olam expects us to try our best, coupled with storming the Heavenly gates of tefillah. He may well have been “impractical,” but his understanding of the responsibility to act would brook no compromise. Many tried to persuade him to drop the idea. We need not debate who was correct. We should be in awe of his sense of achrayus to Torah and to tzibbur.

By most accounts, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman was a key clutch hitter – in several innings. Several of his teammates didn’t really deliver (some were unintelligible, others long-winded or generally uninspiring). Rabbi Wachsman seems to have delighted all the fans I’ve spoken to.

The asifa is still part of the current news cycle. That means that media are still digesting the event. The star of the extra innings and post-game components is Cross-Currents’ own Eytan Kobre, who unfortunately was brought in as a designated hitter way too late in the game. One of the many errors committed on the playing field was not bringing in a professional PR firm to deal with media. Anyone should have been able to anticipate that there would be wide media interest, and that the coverage would be mostly negative unless we put the proper spin on things through media kits and advance leg-work well before journalists entered the stadium. Instead, Rabbi Kobre was given the task of being an answer man far too close to the date of the event. He did what he could with great distinction. Contrast what you’ve read in most of the outlets a gem of an interview he provided for The Atlantic.

Instead of allowing the press to take away an image of a sea of black railing at the evils of the internet, Rabbi Kobre turned the theme into an examination of the overall impact of digital media on the life styles of all Americans. He conveyed a sense of Torah Jews taking the lead in advocating restraint before we become slaves to the technologies that are supposed to serve us. It is worthwhile studying his remarks to learn how to interact effectively with people from the outside in a manner that turns almost guaranteed derision into a kiddush Hashem.

The reaction of the fans seemed to depend on whom they were cheering. Estimates I heard put the mix at about 65% boosters for the chassidishe team, and 35% fans of other stars. Bussing in entire school populations helped bring up the numbers. The chassidishe fans seemed to be more generally pleased with the way the game went, possibly because they saw more of their team on the playing field. Both groups reported real inspiration from simply being among so many frum Jews, from the tefillos, and from the spontaneous singing that broke out at the end.

The game was marred, alas, by a succession of errors. One of the most attractive parts of the program that had originally been promised was a technology expo before the players took the field. This would have showcased the tools that are readily available to tame the beast, placing people eyeball-to-eyeball with the know-how they needed to start using. The expo never happened. Plan B was for each fan to receive a journal that would at least have provided information about products to filter computers and smartphones. The journals were printed, but somehow never distributed.

The most serious error was made on the managerial level. The original message about the internet was, “You can’t live with it; you can’t live without it.” This was one of the most promising signs of recognition that, like it or not, the internet is not like television in the ‘60’s, that frum homes could be taught to be without. Internet is more like the phone, or electricity. Most people are going to have it, period. The theme of the evening was supposed to be showing people how they could use it responsibly. Unfortunately, this theme was mostly lost, as a result of eagerness by some in the front office to fill the stadium. That meant going to various groups, who would not support such a message, and who would not attend if it were incorporated, explicitly or implicitly. So the message was dropped, and one that was quite different was allowed to surface. Compounding that error was a separate one of seeking guidance and guidelines for the non-chassidishe groups in the frum world. The front office went to Eretz Yisrael, rather than from morei hora’ah here in the States. The role of digital technologies in American life is an issue that those thousands of miles away simply cannot understand. Guidance should have been sought closer to home, from those who have a better handle on the scope of the problem, the need for internet use, and the ability of the community to comply with various suggestions. Exaggerated, counter-factual throw-away lines like “every family that has internet has gotten ruined” do not inspire confidence – or compliance. They only diminish respect for rabbonim.

The error of partnering with chassidish groups also turned another slogan of the asifa into a claim as empty as that of the advertisers whose signs still dotted the stadium. Could this really have been a “Kinus of Klal Yisrael” as the banner so loudly proclaimed? Many large groups were nowhere to be seen. Chabad was not there. No Sephardic participation was evident. The centrist Orthodox were completely absent. Are these groups not part of Klal Yisrael? Is there any question that they could have provided speakers who would have maintained more interest, and provided more inspiration?

Some were not interested. Some were not invited, or perhaps more accurately, were underinvited. While organizers originally wanted to invite Syrian involvement, they realized that any large group that participated would have to have at least one player on the starting lineup. That meant Rav Harari-Raful, shlit”a. Then it developed that he speaks publicly in Ivrit, which was intolerable to some of the other groupings. The managers made their choice; the lineup was switched. Satmar was in, and the Syrians out. The crowd’s numbers swelled, but its inclusiveness shrank.

There is a more generous way of scoring the game. Many walked away from the event with a firm psak in hand: no internet at home under any circumstances; at work it could be tolerated for cause, if appropriate filters were in place. Many, however, understand that it is in the nature of rabbinic discourse to speak in absolutes, even when practical application will allow for far more flexibility and nuance. They understood that not all morei hora’ah are of one mind, and that this psak does not necessarily bind them. They, hopefully, took away the sense of urgency to do something about the problem, even if in a very different way than the bottom line broadcast in the stadium. Those who for good reasons or cynical reasons will reject the guidelines articulated in the stadium should realize that if they will not abide by those of Rav Wosner, the ball is in their court. You can’t reject that psak unless and until you come up with something that will work better. The issue is too important to allow naysayers to have a field day, without offering practical solutions. All communities that were not at Citifield are free to reject or even poke fun at what was offered there – so long as they offer serious alternatives. (I can testify that well before the asifa, a committee with the centrist RCA convened to issue guidelines about digital technologies. The suggestions included formulations that most people on the right would see as proper and practical, including treating an unfiltered computer the same way a male would treat an unrelated woman according to the laws of yichud. There are ideas that can be considered, short of bans.)

Perhaps, then, we ought to consider the narrowing of the target audience for the asifa as a fielder’s choice, not an error. The managers may have counted on the reaction with which the non-chassidish would respond. In other words, they made a simple calculation. Stick with the original plan, and the chassidim will not show up in any great numbers. Throw out the original slogan and game plan, and you can fill the stadium and create a great deal of buzz. The speeches and the take-away message will go in a different direction, but the attendees will be smart enough to figure out how to come up with protocols that will work for them, even if different from what was announced on the PA system. In that way, everyone wins.

There is evidence that this is exactly what happened. Hot-lines were set up by the next day in several cities, and they were servicing plenty of interested callers. More importantly, shul rabbonim in cities across America were already at work tailoring suggestions that would work in their individual kehilos. In at least one case, I know that the recommendations will be a joint effort of the rov and laypeople, because my own son was asked to chair the committee.

In the run-up to the original kabbolas ha-Torah, the Bnei Yisrael prepared themselves by three days of perishus, as an exercise of kedushah. I would like to believe that despite any errors, HKBH responded to the earnestness of Rav Salomon’s effort, and lit a fire under a great number of people and subgroups. Each in its own way will come up with solutions that will BE”H work in its locale and circumstances. Ironically, it will mean that the kinus, for all its flaws, will have importantly united all halachic Jews in the pursuit of kedushah.

Maybe the asifa can still become, if only in its aftermath, a kinus of all Klal Yisrael. We can still make that happen.

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57 Responses

  1. Silky says:

    Last Sunday, there was a “mini-Asifa” in a shul in Flatbush. Women were invited and attended in droves. The difference there was that the speakers were local rabbis who understood the people. They were able to speak in ways that their message could be taken. It was short and practicle. What the large asifa did, was to raise the understanding that something had to be done. It paved the way for this asifa.
    I hope we all can rise to the challange and give nachas to HaKodosh Baruch Hu.

  2. Dr. E says:

    Aaron

    Similar to the intended a priori message, that printed program never saw the light of day.

    Based on the Asifa and its aftermath, “Daas Torah” seems to have spoken and that’s the end of it. But, maybe not. For Agudah types over the past 15 to 20 years, the Daas Torah formulation has really been the mainstay differentiating factor between them and the Centrist and MO worlds. Now when you talk with many off-the-record, some are finally reevaluating the Daas Torah construct as a “moving target” which makes them uncomfortable as well, being citizens of the real world. As such, there has been quite a bit of internal conflict after the agenda was bulldozed.

    The way in which this cognitive dissonance is being resolved is sounding strikingly similar to a POV that until now was ideologically untenable, based on institutional, ideological, and social affiliations. Perhaps, even the Agudah types will revert to the (recently novel) concept of “ask your local Orthodox Rabbi”.

    So, maybe if the Asifa were just to accomplish this, “dayeinu”. Such is the law of unintended consequences.

  3. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    A sampling of inspiring reading from the Asifa booklet:

    “Baruch Hashem, we have reached this point. אילו קרבנו לפני הר סיני ולא נתן לנו את התורה דיינו – Just gathering together with tens of thousands of concerned Jews to make the commitment and proclaim “ נעשה ונשמע – We will act!” is the most empowering step in our newly launched War on Technology.”

    “The only real “solution” is to ban all access to the internet. And that, in fact, is what each of us who can do so must do. A yeshiva bachur, kollel fellow or a melamed Torah, all of whom are not required to have internet for their job, should not own or come in contact with any devices capable of accessing the internet — with or without filters.There is no excuse for using the internet where it is not absolutely necessary. Anyone who need not expose himself to a dangerous and highly contagious disease is forbidden by the Torah to do so, even if he takes all possible precautions.”

    So what in the world is Kobre talking about?

  4. Aaron says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein you shock me.

    Rabbi Wachsman clearly threatened all who do not follow the dictates of the Ichud Hakihilos with everlasting Hell. (ein lo cheilik l’olam haboh). This would include the vast majority of Klal Yisrael that uses filtered Internet access for non-business purposes. Yet you refer to him “as a clutch hitter who delighted his fans”.

    Rabbi Eytan Kobre told every media outlet that would listen to him that Chareidim are not luddites, and they do not want to ban technology. He insisted that the Asifa was about using technology responsibly. Page 80 in the Asifa booklet clearly states that “we have come tonight to launch our new war on technology”. I truly fail to see how misleading the secular public can possibly be a Kiddush Hashem.

  5. langer says:

    the exclusion of women requires reflective analysis.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    My nephew went because his rabbi told him everyone had to go and they gave out free tickets in his shul in Brooklyn. He did not get much from the Yiddish speechs but he said the chassidim did. They thught it was a great success. My wife commented that the fact that after the Holocaust there are 40,000 such Jews is a miracle. It is jarring that in 2012 in the USA, Rabbi Solomon had to apologize for speaking in English and describe those of us who speak English as our first language in a condescending way, not that he was belittling us,but that his audience does not think we are real Jews and he had to excuse us as “Mevakshei Hashem”,like people who speak English are nebech, Yidden who just aren’t really part of the inner circle of true Jews. This is not to say they are arrogant as much as to say they are living in a bubble . My personal dealing with Chassidim have always been very positive , they are charitable and good people,but they are not normative American orthodox Jews.Thus, their taking over the issue made the rest of the community feel out of place.

  7. Dr. E says:

    The Asifa was billed as an event that would seem to have a single and practical message. Not at all surprising, in light of the political dance the organizers had to play to make everyone happy, it fell way short. The chemistry in the clubhouse did not seem to be there and the Manager did not come up with a lineup for the game that had any cohesiveness. So, it was at best a long fly ball held up by the wind, which was recorded on the scorecard as just another out.

    The organization of the event was logistically sound. While the secular press was amazed by the civility of the event, I would think that the team management might have expected a Kiddush Hashem of a different form. So, while the ball left the park, it was a hit that traveled 450 feet from home plate, but in foul territory.

    On the roster, there was a plethora of players who could not (or would not) speak English, the only difference here was that this was not Spanish or Japanese, and there were no interpreters to filter the reporters’ questions.

    After the game and the direction that the team has taken recently (evident in a drop in the standings over the past 5 years), even most of the most diehard “homers” were inclined to consider rooting for the other local team. They have been disappointed in the direction that the team has taken since being purchased by new foreign ownership. Yes, there were fireworks, but they were akin to the display after the game on July 4, after the home team just lost both ends of a double-header.

    For the post-game interview, these are the top 5 questions that an inquiring and uninhibited press might ask some of the stars:

    • Have you ever owned or operated a computer, with or without being connected to the Internet, with or without a filter?
    • Do you pay the bills or manage the financial affairs in your household?
    • Are you aware of the importance of the Internet (and social media) has played in obtaining employment over the past 10 years?
    • What do you think about the use of the Internet for Torah study and shiurim (e.g., looking things up, Daf Yomi, Halacha, remote chavrusa learning through Skype)
    • What role do you think the Internet played in planning, publicizing, and executing such a successful Asifah?