Jerusalem – The recent item in a Jerusalem Hebrew weekly that a downtown Internet café had opened a whole floor for young haredi men offering private booths for viewing pornographic videos was a titillating item for the average reader.
But for “Ya’acov” – an observant computer programmer living in the Jerusalem area who two years ago singlehandedly established a virtual “community” to help haredi men fight their addiction to porn – it brought only sadness. A happily married man with several children, Ya’acov had “personal experience among some family members” with this specific addiction and wanted to help sufferers.
His free English-language project, called Guard Your Eyes (at www.guardureyes.com and www.guardyoureyes.org), has already helped thousands.
THE WEB sites include 250 pages of information, all composed or collected by its founder. The site with the .com ending provided information such as how to filter out pornographic Web sites and Frequently Asked Questions, but the newer site is more dynamic and includes blogs and new articles. By the way, as his own sites sometimes use “forbidden” words, users may have to make it an exception so that filters allow access.
The project, says Ya’acov, has received the blessings of leading haredi rabbis who are aware of the problem in their communities. The project continues off tax-deductible donations and without help, but the man behind it says that despite the uncertainty, he is determined to reach more religious men and their families.
“I have seen the family problems that Internet pornography has caused. It is one of our generation’s biggest tests. We have to learn to deal with it. Pornography available in a public place is much more difficult to obtain.”
Ya’acov (who can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com) notes that nearly all modern Orthodox families are online at home. One rabbi Ya’acov quotes has stated that 80-90% of modern Orthodox men have been exposed to pornography. “But modern Orthodox don’t make such a big deal of it because they are involved in the secular world, so it doesn’t destroy the fabric of their community.”
The rate of haredi (Lithuanian-style and hassidic) who have Internet access is difficult to pin down; he estimates a minimum of 25%. Since many haredi rabbis realize that Internet cannot be banned from homes merely by “prohibiting” it, efforts must be made to prevent its abuse and protect men from addiction; a small number of religious women are addicted to pornography as well, but it is much less attractive to them, Ya’acov says, as “women tend to prefer an emotional connection to men rather than only lust.”
Pornography is “very powerful” and difficult to shake off for both religious and secular men, he continues. One can reach millions of images with a click of the mouse. “Once you start looking, you begin to think evil thoughts and become powerless. You can never get enough.” Ya’acov says the pleasure centers in the brain and the secretion of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are involved in the development of such addiction. “They can be more powerful than any drug. It doesn’t happen overnight. Pleasuring oneself [masturbation] gradually blazes neuron pathways in the brain, causing a man to want repeated stimulation.” Maybe, he suggests, genes are also involved.
If a man is raised religious and continues this way of life, says Ya’acov, he won’t eat non-kosher food or violate Shabbat, but he could nevertheless get hooked on Internet porn. Men may let their curiosity get the better of them. After all, the Web has become a routine tool for obtaining information and also for Torah study. But haredim who develop an addiction to pornography “eat themselves up alive. They are sure they are dirty people and that God despises them. They had always considered themselves believing Jews, and here they are unable to control themselves. They feel like hypocrites, and may question their own faith. Sometimes they hide it from their wives for years.”
THIS IS a “promiscuous generation,” says Ya’acov, although he concedes that there is plenty of promiscuity mentioned in the Bible. “But the religious – and especially haredi – communities see the subject of sex as taboo and don’t offer sex education to the younger generation until they are engaged. Many haredi youths have no idea how babies are made, even though their mothers are frequently pregnant. Sex is part of life, but Judaism recognizes it as kosher only in a holy context.”
He says he “tries to use the power of the Internet against itself.” So far, more than 700 people have become anonymous members of the “community” and automatically receive daily support (called hizuk in Hebrew) on how to cope with their addiction and eventually free themselves of it. About half of them are Israeli, with the rest from the US and other English-speaking countries. Ya’acov says he aims to make the information and support available in Hebrew and other languages. “We are building a forum in Hebrew for producing material for a Web site.”
As the Web sites cater to the religious community, many of the “treatment” techniques are based on the wisdom of Jewish sages and the desire to get closer to God. However, says Ya’acov, his approach uses or endorses all the contemporary tools for breaking addictions, such as psychotherapy, medication to minimize libido, 12-Step groups, online filters and accountability partners. The sites also have a “Wall of Honor” for members (using false names) to be recognized for abandoning their addiction. An English forum (one for men and one for women) allows people to voice their feelings and offer advice. One man writes: “You can’t wrestle with a pig and not get dirty. The thoughts will come – accept that. It doesn’t mean anything. At those times, try to just acknowledge that they popped into your head, wish them a friendly ‘Shalom Aleichem!’ and then move on to try and do something else. Worrying about them or doing something with the express purpose of getting rid of them just won’t work. Pray to God and say: ‘I know it’s my fault that I have these thoughts. I don’t want them. Help me to distract myself.’ ”
“The 12 Steps isn’t Jewish,” Ya’acov explains. “It was launched in the 1930s to help alcoholics, based on moral principles that when implemented could turn their lives around.” The technique can also be applied to pornography addiction. Abandoning the addiction is gradual, like “learning the Alef-Bet before learning Kabbala or Mussar [ethics literature],” he maintains. “We try to give people the tools they need to end their addiction. First you must become humble, want to make amends and take a personal accounting. Maybe addiction could turn out to be a gift from God, because you have to examine yourself from the beginning and start learning all over again.”
IN ADDITION to daily support on the Web, GuardYourEyes also offers a variety of other services, including anonymous phone conferences and handbooks. Suitable psychotherapists are presented in a recommended list.
The site has begun to be used by religious community leaders and educators who can download handbooks and distribute them among yeshiva students, says Ya’acov. “I would be very happy if there were support groups in yeshivas for those who need them if it were done discreetly.”
There are a few other sites, such as www. jewishsexuality.com, but it has only one page of material on pornography addiction. “There is nothing online like this,” maintains Ya’acov. “It is a revolution. I have hundreds of testimonials from people who say they have been helped, and even that their lives have been turned around. They learn that they are not just weak-willed; they understand that it is an addiction, an illness, and they are anonymously introduced to people who are worse off. I know the service is important also because numerous Jewish sites have posted links to GuardYourEyes.”
One member of his Web community wrote to Ya’acov: “I wasn’t talked to about this until I was caught two years after I was already addicted. I bet most don’t realize it’s an addiction similar to alcoholism.”
Another confides: “Over the years, I have tried nearly every conceivable method of trying to break this habit on my own, but none worked. So far, the thing that seems to be working best for me is just going on this site and browsing through the forums and posts, which are inspirational and infuse me with strength. There are other people who are going through the same trials as I am. God willing, we will all be successful.” A third writes: “Your Web site is like a rope thrown to a drowning person. You’ve saved me from the depths.”
Ya’acov would welcome suitable volunteers, and states that he won’t rest “until every religious Jew with such a problem understands that he is not alone and can get help.”