Religious Groups Struggle To Contain Technology Use

Cell phones are increasingly ubiquitous among the very religious, from Hasidic Jewish communities to Amish groups. Some leaders are cracking down, especially on women’s usage.

A Hasidic Jewish man takes photos with his cell phone in Brooklyn, 2011. DON EMMERT / Getty Images

Last month, the leader of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews banned all smartphones for women. It was another step in a crackdown on technology use among Hasidic leaders that also included a huge, men’s only anti-internet rally at Citi Field in New York last month — which was tweeted about by some in attendance.

But Hasidic Jews aren’t the only religious group in America that’s trying to regulate what they see as the corrupting influence of information technology, especially on women. And their efforts may be emblematic of a larger pattern: as religious leaders try to restrict the internet and smartphones, these technologies grow ever more powerful and ubiquitous.

Shortly after the Citi Field rally, the Satmar Rebbe, leader of the community of Kiryas Yoel in upstate New York, decreed that while men could use smartphones for work, with internet filtering in place, women couldn’t use the technology at all — they’d be restricted to older, basic models. His followers have until the end of June to make sure they have an appropriate phone. For many Hasidic young people, this may be a big adjustment. Ayala Fader, author of Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, attended the women’s version of the Citi Field rally, held at a remote location in Brooklyn to comply with gender-mixing rules. She tells BuzzFeed, “Every woman and girl had her cell phone out” at the gathering. Most had BlackBerries or flip-phones, but she noticed iPhones in the mix as well.

Not all Hasidic Jews follow the dictates of the Satmar Rebbe — the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, which actively recruits non-religious Jews, has a popular website and a generally more open attitude toward technology. But Fader believes the Hasidic community in general has reached a “turning point” with respect to smartphones and the internet — even as leaders try to regulate them, they permeate the lives of most Hasids, male and female.

Cell phones have also become commonplace among a group long known for its resistance to technology: the Amish. The most conservative Amish groups, known as “old order,” don’t allow power lines or telephone lines to enter their homes — their goal is to remain separate from the larger power grid and thus from the outside world. However, many of these groups do allow cell phones. The logic, says John Roth, author of Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice, is that you can turn a cell phone off: “There’s a greater sense that you are controlling the technology.”

But that view, he says, may be somewhat naive, as cell phones can quickly come to control their users. “The impulse to glance at a text when you get that little buzz,” he says, “is overwhelming.” Whether cell phones are really a good idea remains “a contested area,” says Roth — but in practice, most Amish communities now use them.

Even the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, a fringe Mormon group known for the restrictive (and sometimes abusive) rules of its leader Warren Jeffs, has seen a rise in cell phone use. Stuart A. Wright, author of Saints Under Siege: The Texas State Raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, says that internet use is closely regulated by FLDS leadership, and individual fathers and husbands have the authority to circumscribe their wives’ and daughters’ technology use. Nonetheless, women and girls do have cell phones — some of the only documentation of paramilitary groups raiding an FLDS compound in Texas in 2008 came from girls’ cameraphone photos. Says Wright, “I assume that there are restrictions on what the girls can do with these phones, but I was surprised to learn they had cell phones at all.” At least in 2008, what they ended up doing with them was very influential.

Girls from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints take photos at a 2009 gathering. LM Otero / AP

This may be key to the turning point Fader mentions. As much as smartphones and the internet bring in elements of the outside world that may make religious leaders uncomfortable, they also let members of religious groups send information out. Scholars wouldn’t have known about the presence of paramilitary groups like SWAT teams at the 2008 raid if not for FLDS girls and their phones. And the rally at Citi Field gave Hasidic Jews and their concerns a higher public profile than perhaps ever before. That may not be entirely comfortable for them — Orthodox Jewish blogger DovBear (who also tweeted from the rally) wrote back in 2006, “Some Orthodox bigots still talk of saying things about non-Jews ‘behind their backs’ in an era of ubiquitous recording and communication. They’re chuckling behind their homemade ghetto walls while satellites zip overhead.” He offers his own blog as an alternative, informed, he says, by “the realization that transparency is here whether you like it or not.”

Not all religious leaders agree with this. The debate over the internet continues in Hasidic communities — another, smaller gathering on the issue is scheduled for today in Borough Park, Brooklyn. But if Hasidic leaders decide to ban smartphones and the internet entirely, they may ensure that, by definition, the only information about them that makes it to the outside world is unapproved and unvetted. Contrast that with Chabad, which uses its website very consciously to spread its teachings (a recent article is even illustrated with a smartphone, the screen displaying Hebrew text).

It’s worth noting, too, that the people both Hasidic and FLDS leaders have been most interested in keeping away from technology — young women — have proved to be savvy users of it. Leaders may fear that women granted more access to the outside world will reject their way of life — and for repressive sects like the FLDS, that may be true. But some women have taken to the internet precisely to extol the virtues of their religious lives — witness a Hasidic woman’s spirited defense of her religion on xoJane. Her post was one of relatively few contemporary accounts of Hasidic women’s life aimed at non-Hasids (another was Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox), and for all the criticism it’s generated, it’s a worthwhile corrective to assumptions made by outsiders who don’t know the facts. Policies aimed at shielding women and girls from the outside world may also have the effect of keeping the world from knowing about them, which may be detrimental to all.

DovBear is likely right that increasingly, phones and the internet will enable outsiders to get a message about what life is like in even the most insular communities. And the ones that allow some technology use may be better able to define that message for themselves.

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