The Internet “is a wonderful tool” that makes it easier “to access a tremendous amount of information to be more productive, in the world of business, in the world of education, with a world of opportunities,” said Milwaukee Rabbi Akiva Freilich in a recent interview. “At the same time there are pitfalls.”
Concerns about such “pitfalls” are moving some in the Orthodox Jewish community — nationally and now in Milwaukee — to take action. They include Freilich, who is coordinator of the recently created Milwaukee Jewish Technology Awareness Group.
According to Freilich, the pitfalls are real and threaten children and adults. He said there are more than just pornography and gambling sites; even sites that don’t involve those can lead to forming unhealthy relationships and wasting time, which also go against a Torah way of life.
MJTAG, which was organized this past December, is an offshoot of Technology Awareness Group, an international movement to inform Jewish communities about this issue. The organization offers free assistance for improving controls over technology through filters and monitoring devices.
Moshe Drew, TAG’s president, said in a telephone interview that the non-profit organization is based in Lakewood, N.J.; and while it was founded in 2008, its “main launch” occurred at a gathering of more than 40,000 Orthodox Jews last May in New York Mets’ CitiField. This event was a rally to raise awareness of technology’s dangers.
Drew also said TAG has 25 offices in the U.S., Europe, and South America. More than 215 volunteers work for the organization, he said, and it receives an estimated 400 calls a day.
He added that the organization will serve anyone who calls, but it advertises only in the Jewish community; and while it puts advertisements on the Internet about where to call, “we prefer to push people to do telephone conferences rather that disseminate information over the Web.”
MJTAG has created a telephone line in Milwaukee, 414-228-0TAG, that people can call at no charge to receive instructions on how to outfit technology devices with better filtering/blocking controls.
According to Freilich, people have been expressing interest in this effort. For example, one man called who felt he wastes too much time on sports and wanted to block his access to some sports sites, Freilich said.
Milwaukee Orthodox community members organized several discussions on this subject in recent weeks.
Rabbi Nechemia Gottleib, co-director of TAG, spoke shortly after this past Chanukah at Congregation Beth Jehudah, the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study, and the Torah Academy of Milwaukee.
According to Freilich, who attended one of Gottleib’s presentations, Gottlieb said that many people have developed emotional attachments to technology that has moved well beyond practical necessity or convenience. A strong barometer of this, according to Gottleib, is that most people decide to have “just a few more clicks” before logging off the computer.
Rabbi Wes Kalmar, spiritual leader of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, an Orthodox congregation in Glendale, also expressed concern about Internet dangers.
People worry about children talking to strangers on the street, Kalmar said in a telephone interview; but now, children and adults can talk to strangers from the comfort of their own homes.
Kalmar said this issue goes far beyond the Jewish community. ASKT on Jan. 16 presented a non-Jewish authority on the subject, Erin Eaman. She is an advisor for TechMorsel.com, a company that gives advice on how to manage technology better.
At this event, which this reporter attended, Eaman discussed five topics: web safety planning, online behaviors, how to enable controls, resources and tools, and parental checklists.
According to Eaman, the average child spends seven-and-a-half hours connecting to media throughout a single day. In addition, Eaman said, “you become an identity on line that other people have access to. There is a digital footprint, an ongoing diary that won’t disintegrate.”
At the ASKT event, audience members spoke of how children can find ways to bypass blockers that parents have put in place. Eaman recommended a blocking site called NetNanny.com, whereupon an audience member on his laptop searched for “Net Nanny defeat,” and quickly found directions on how to bypass this blocker.
Eaman capitalized on this incident to point out, “It’s impossible to match age with technological ability.” For example, a child can call a more tech savvy cousin who can proceed to tell his family member how to bypass his parent’s controls, she said.
Eaman believes many have a “gut reaction that filtering is a jail sentence but really it’s a good opportunity to communicate with children.”
She suggested that sharing expectations about how technology is used in one’s family and what parameters parents have set will enable children to feel secure.
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer.