Wednesday, November 04, 2015

New tech rules for New Square parents 

Each year, when registering their children for private school, parents in the all-Hasidic village of New Square must agree in writing to follow a detailed list of very specific rules — or risk the expulsion of their children from the only school in town.

For example, mothers are banned from driving, and they must shave their heads and wear only clothing that extends at least five or six inches below the knee. The far more abbreviated list of rules for fathers requires them to pray regularly with a quorum and refrain from cutting their beards.

This fall, however, New Square authorities introduced several new rules that reflect the community’s fears about the dangers of the Internet. The changes have renewed critics’ condemnation of the Skverer sect’s attempts to control its followers — particularly women.

The new rules include:

Mothers are prohibited from using smartphones — even for business purposes.
Mothers and fathers must cease using WhatsApp, a popular smartphone messaging application.
As announced last month on a large flier taped to the village's synagogue wall — no one may use cellphones without web filters.
Authorities posted the notice after it was discovered that some adults were keeping second, unfiltered phones in addition to their approved “kosher” ones.

The rules are the ultra-Orthodox sect’s latest attempt to keep the Internet out of the hands and minds of its followers for fear that exposure to the secular world will lead to moral decay and community disintegration. Radios, televisions, Internet connections and newspapers are also banned in the small Rockland County village. Guided by the community’s spiritual leader, Rebbe David Twersky, followers, known as Skverers, strive toward the Hasidic ideal of living a hallowed life, in which even the most mundane action is sanctified.

“We are human beings. We also have families and we live the way life was given to us,” said Yenti Holczler, a New Square grandmother of more than 50. “Our way of doing things is trying to do it spiritually, the way the Torah brings it for us."

The sect originated in 19th century Ukraine but the Rockland County village was founded in 1954. Former Skverer Hasid Shulem Deen said the rebbe and his advisors “are really afraid that people are undermining the insular nature of this community that they have worked for decades and decades and decades to maintain. They only way they can maintain that is to clamp down hard on the rules.”

As the home of the Skverer rebbe, New Square is the epicenter of the Skverer sect which Deen estimates may number 15,000 followers worldwide. The Skverers of New Square — with 7,700 people occupying less than half a square mile — are extreme, even among highly observant Jews, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization, Agudath Israel of America.

'Recipe' for rules

"You have more than 7,500 people who eat the same foods, go to same institutions, get the same kind of education and all look to the rebbe as paramount leader ... and are really dependent economically on being in this community," said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College CUNY and expert in contemporary orthodox Jewish communities. "That’s a recipe for a lot of rules.”

Though the community is small, it is growing very fast and contributes thousands of private-school students to the cash-strapped East Ramapo school district, which has struggled to balance the needs of public and private schools. And New Square's extremism —- particularly when it comes to cutting off women's access to information and transportation —- is troubling to defenders of civil liberties.

“If private citizens are asking people to voluntarily pledge to this kind of commitment, it would, in my opinion, be antithetical to principles and values of America," said Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "There should be an open, robust debate about whether this approach is consistent with what America and New York state are supposed to be about.”

Agudath's Shafran said followers find deep meaning in the rules.

“One way the community's religious leaders have of stating the standards they believe to be best for the community is to spell out requirements like those (cited) for enrollment in the community's private schools," he said.

The ban on women driving exists only in a few of the strictest Hasidic enclaves. And its requirement that men and women walk on opposite sides of the street to preserve modesty is also rare. The village's lack of interaction with outside communities and its use of Yiddish for nearly all communication contributes to its insularity.


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