Citifield: A Scorecard
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.