By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
As for you, Jewish parents, do not forget that it was at the time when you yourselves were young that the decline began. Sin has made giant steps since you were young; keep guard over your children! Some already move in the direction of this sin in the tenth, ninth, eighth year. Test the schools, the playmates, the servants, the friends of the house! Know that vice enters into the circle of youth by every way.
Sound familiar? An exhortation, perhaps, from a recent article on Jewish parenting? Actually, these words were composed almost a century and a half ago. And while their author, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, often wrote with a prescience that bordered on the prophetic, he probably could not envision the challenge that the Internet poses for the observant home.
Since we last visited the issue of Internet safety in the Winter 5757 issue, the Net has changed. Much of that change has been for the worse, at least from the standpoint of a community that regards kedushah as a commandment, not a suggestion. Here are some of the facts:
More and more of us – parents and children – are becoming dependent upon the Net for some of its wonderful features. (According to one report (IsraelWire-6/22), even the Eidah HaCharedis of Meah Shearim had to reconsider its initial blanket ban on the Net. After so many argued that it was an indispensable business tool, the dayanim of the Eidah reportedly agreed that each individual would have to examine the exigencies of his own situation.)
The Internet continues to offer easy access to the worst perversion imaginable, and often makes our kids easy targets for predators waiting to take advantage of them. Purveyors of smut have become more brazen. It used to be true that no one was lured into “bad” sites unwillingly. This is no longer the case. Responding to a more competitive market, pornographers seed their websites with frequently searched-for words, like “kids’ games.” When people run searches for these innocent words, the filth sites show up among the legitimate ones. And to evade the scrutiny of Net filters tuned to respond to certain key words, they disguise their wares with alternative spellings, like “$ecks.” They have also found ways to defeat the products that can filter and block objectionable material.
Against this background, we look again at protecting the Jewish home from the problematic parts of the Net. Littleton drove home the point that parents can be terribly ignorant of what their children are getting into. It should be no surprise that the weeks after Littleton saw a huge surge in sales of Internet filtering packages. These are products that allow a supervisor to disable his computer from downloading certain kinds of material, e.g. sexually explicit, violent, hate oriented. A recent survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that nearly a third of households with children use such devices.
The number of filters has proliferated. So much time at the workplace is wasted on workers surfing, or downloading anything from games to pornography, that business owners fuel a market previously frequented by parents alone. (Many of these owners are driven by legal, as well as economic, concerns. Workers who frequent salacious material within view of coworkers can bring sexual harassment lawsuits upon their employer.)
Complaints about these products, however, persist. On the whole, they are inefficient gatekeepers. They often block access to sites that are not offensive at all, while failing to keep up quickly enough with the volume of new garbage they are supposed to keep out. Some companies have devised ways to decide “on the fly” that a site should be blocked. In other words, they examine material as it is being downloaded, rather than depend on lists of sites that have previously been found to be unacceptable. These, however, are rarely quick or smart enough to block the download before much of the damage is done.
No solution has been found for dealing with search engines. A filter might very well block the user from reaching their actual sites, but not before he/she has gotten a liberal dose of indecent language and thematic material. Block search engines altogether, and you are left without a portal to the Net.
Still, some sort of protection is better than none. The May 4 issue of PC Magazine at http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/utilities99/parfilt01.html is must-reading. You will save considerable research time by reading this summary of the features, strengths and weaknesses of eight popular products. (A more exhaustive treatment of a dizzying variety of filtrations devices can be studied at http://www.worldvillage.com/wv/school/html/control.htm.)
Here are some of the considerations to keep in mind: Will you be able to set hours and preferences for different members of the family? Can you make your own additions to, and deletions from, the database of blocked sites? Is the “bad list” updated automatically, or will you have to remember to regularly take the time to manually bring the program up to date? How much will a subscription set you back for the weekly updates of some products?
Before you purchase, keep in mind that several of these products offer free but time-restricted versions for approval. This means that they will work for a brief evaluation period, and then cease functioning. (The last time we visited these products, they provided free scaled-down versions that worked indefinitely. We can only see this switch as a sign of their popularity and confidence.) You can find two of them, for example, at http://www.cyberpatrol.com/download/default.htm and http://www1.surfwatch.com/download/free.html.
In the final analysis, Net filters work like the fluoride claims on toothpaste tubes. They are effective only in a conscientious program of regular supervisorial care. Don’t assume that your kids must have Internet access. Consider the pros and cons, including the option of letting them have email access, but none to the Web or chat rooms. If you do decide to allow them entry into other Internet options, protect them from the uglier aspects of the Net.
A few years ago, we offered basic suggestions for the observant family. They are needed today even more than when we first offered them:
*Set rules and limits – how much time, what kind of material, which chat rooms are permitted.
*Use an effective filter – and let only one responsible adult control the password.
*Allow visibility – the computer should always be in a part of the house that will be observed by people other than the user.
*Keep tabs on where they have been – let your kids know that you will make spot checks of the history files that monitor where they have been, and will revoke computer privileges if they tamper with the caches that store them.
The Internet gathers not only some of the worst examples of learning experiences for kids, but some of the best as well. One of these must be Merriam-Webster’s “Word-Central for Kids.” (Start at http://www.wordcentral.com/dailybuzzword.html and keep exploring).
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, editor of Tradition magazine, once challenged his readers to consider whether they would store their tefillin in a brown paper bag. Of course not! We show that we treasure and cherish mitzvot by presenting them in esthetic containers. Why should Torah thoughts be different? Why must so many of us grope for the right word, and come up either empty-handed or with a verbal pop-top can for what should be a silver vessel? The Word-Central site is a wonderful, child-oriented resource center for improving verbal skills. Its most striking feature is a new vocabulary word that is offered each day, complete with definition, use in a sentence, and background on the word’s usage and development. For those who wish to forgo access to the site (a colorful affair, with a growing number of other goodies as well), Word-Central allows you to sign up for a free email version which will send your child a vocabulary word each day. It makes for some very painless but effective growth in more richly-nuanced speech. And if you feel jealous, visit http://www.m-w.com/service/subinst.htm, where you will be able to subscribe to a parallel service for adults.
Rashi helps with homework
Anything that helps parents help their kids with the homework helps, right? Judaica Press’ Complete Tanach With Rashi (Davka, $99, Win only) offers students young and old an opportunity to access reliable translation and explication of the entire Tanach without consulting multiple works. This is a first. Other programs offer translation of all Tanach, but little or no commentary. Until now none have offered the all-important illumination of Rashi. For the first time, we can check all the cross-references we want in one convenient place, and still come up with an approach that will meet with the approval of the rebbi or morah [teacher].
Complete Tanach does everything we would want it to. It searches well, copies beautifully to several word processors (including easy-to-read cantillation signs), links easily to both translation and commentary, and prints multiple windows.
There are a small but manageable number of minor problems. Hebrew verse numbers and headings do not paste well into Word, metamorphosing into gibberish that must be manually deleted from the text itself. And you can’t paste Hebrew text into Dagesh (the product marketed by by TES, Davka’s closest competitor) at all.
The illustrations and charts might be good presentation items in a report, but they are not helpful enough to really enhance our understanding of difficult material, like those that ArtScroll consistently provides. But Complete Tanach is strong enough to commend purchase even if they would be lacking altogether.
The best and most innovative ideas often keep right on coming from the same parties. At least in the opinion of this reviewer, what Bill Gates is to software, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald is to Jewish outreach. Rabbi Buchwald’s NJOP is responsible for such immensely successful programs as “The Beginners’ Minyan,” “Shabbat Across America,” and “The Hebrew Reading Crash Course.”
NJOP’s Virtual Shabbat struck me as sheer brilliance. Users explore different “rooms,” where they click on items which explain, teach or sing to them, whimsically and masterfully animated by Alan Oirich, as usual doing a job equal to the best in the non-Jewish world. No one has come up with a more upbeat and non-threatening manner to acquaint a novice with the sights, sounds, meaning and even halachic detail of Shabbat (and manage to sneak in great material on kashrut and bentching). The entire crash course is there as well, allowing someone who won’t take the classes to self-teach Hebrew reading, using the methodology that has allowed thousands to become literate within six sessions. The potential effects of this package are priceless; you can buy it from Davka (Win or Mac), though, for only $19.95.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein uses computers heavily as he directs the Jewish Studies Institute in Los Angeles, and serves on the editorial board of Jewish Action.