Amish, Hasidic Jews wrestle with taming or disdaining Internet

The growth of computers and cell phone use in Amish communities is causing divisions among members and raising new questions about the relation of faith and work and the future of the group’s renowned work ethic, reports the New York Times (September 17). The use of new technology has created a wave of prosperity among the Amish as they have moved from work in the crafts and agriculture. The prosperity is accompanied by the steady growth of Amish communities, showing 150 percent growth in 25 years. In the Lancaster area alone, there are a reported 2,000 Amish businesses, some of which are multi-million dollar enterprises. Most Amish draw a “very bright line between what is allowed at work—smart phones, Internet access—and what remains forbidden at home.” But such divisions are getting fuzzier, especially with the portable nature of the cell phone. The nature of the Internet cuts against the stress that Amish make about the importance of agreed-upon limits, but the Amish also voice more mundane concerns about the use of pornography and the formation of social networks in dating non-Amish members or leaving the community altogether among the young. Aside from the individualism promoted by communications technology, there is the fear that the availability of work through the Internet discourages manual labor and may steer the young away from the crafts and trades and the Amish work ethic. The young members interviewed tended to argue that these concerns are overblown and that they try to establish limits to their technological involvement, even as they are more pragmatic than their elders.

The Hasidic Jews are undergoing a similar dilemma in their use of the Internet, although they are moving more in the direction of censorship. In a paper presented at the August meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Montreal, Gabi Abramac of New York University looked at how Hasidism increasingly view the Internet as a major threat. She points to the Belz sect of the Hasidim banning the Internet in 2015, especially blaming the WhatsApp social media application for disrupting Jewish family life. Abramac posits that there are several strategies that Hasidic leaders have used to negotiate the changes wrought by the Internet. These approaches include prohibition, restrictions such as using the Internet for work but not in the home, and legitimization, which uses the new media to spread the Hasidic message. On the latter approach, the Baal Teshuvah-Kiruv movement of converts to Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Judaism promotes its message through sophisticated social media programs. Hasidic groups have also increasingly filtered the Internet and in some cases have distributed questionnaires about Internet use to children where they can report on their parents’ use of the medium. Abramac said that parents who violate these restrictions can be expelled from the group or find themselves losing status in their communities. At the same time, using the Internet can lead members to live double lives or provide assistance for moving off the Hasidic path altogether.