Imagine buying an expensive electric vehicle with an internet connection, but deciding to turn it off. That’s what a company is doing for ultra-Orthodox Jews who own Teslas to make sure drivers and their passengers don’t see anything on the internet considered immodest by rabbinical standards. The intricate details are reported in one of the latest articles from Shtetl, a new website designed to provide an inside view and critical look into the island world of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Secular news agencies and major Jewish journalism sites do cover the Haredi community, but their access – as outsiders – is limited.
Thus, Shtetl presents itself as the Haredi Free Press. The term Haredi refers to Jews who follow strict Jewish laws and reject much of modern secular culture. Shtetl is a Yiddish word for small Jewish towns once found in Eastern Europe.
THE INTERIOR VIEW
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Shtetl is Naftuli Moster, a 37-year-old activist turned journalist. Moster says the website will show that, like these small Jewish villages, the Haredi community is not monolithic and that, as a free press, Shtetl will represent the Haredi community, its flaws and all. He can do it, says Moster, because he knows the community well. One of 17 children, he grew up in a Brooklyn family that is part of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Belz sect. He is fluent in Yiddish and was a Haredi yeshiva student.
For years, Moster has struggled with what he sees as insufficient secular education in yeshivas. He founded a non-profit organization, Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFE, and led it for 10 years. He says his activism earned him death threats, as well as furious attacks in the haredi press, which adamantly defended the adequacy of secular yeshiva education.
“Until now, it was Haredi leaders who controlled the media and held them accountable to them, rather than the other way around,” Moster says. “Many ultra-Orthodox media outlets will tell you explicitly that they are overseen by a rabbinical advisory board that tells them what can and cannot go in. »
A small group of interns, freelancers and the site’s sole journalist, 23-year-old Lauren Hakimi, get together and write the news for the Shtetl site. Hakimi is not Haredi but has traveled to Haredi neighborhoods in Brooklyn to learn about and write about them.
“I remember when I got off the D train and walked into Borough Park, it felt a bit like I was in another country,” she says. Although he is not yet fluent in Yiddish, the lingua franca of the Haredi world, Hakimi learns the mame-loshen, or mother tongue. She observes the Haredi dress code which calls for modesty when out in the community by wearing business casual attire.
MISSION AND OBSTACLES OF SHTETL
Moster says the articles published on the Shtetl website aim to present what is often missing in the haredi press: articles on controversial topics such as corruption, white-collar crime and sexual abuse. A recent Shtetl The article details how Haredi Jews took over a village in the Catskills claiming it was the primary residence of Jews who spend most of their time in Brooklyn. Another, written by Hakimi, describes a series of anonymous advertisements for a family court candidate in one of New York’s northern suburbs Haredi towns. The family court race is of interest to Haredi Jews because, in some contested divorce cases, the less religious partner expresses a desire to leave the insular Haredi world.
“The ads indicated that this judge would side with the more religious spouse,” Hakimi says. “They said, ‘Elect this guy and he’ll side with us in family court cases.'”
Shtetl Media coverage of the Haredi world, “warts and all”, contrasts sharply with the focus on Hamodia, a Haredi newspaper and website. In its section on the Haredi community, there are stories about the deaths of Haredi rabbis, the vandalization of kosher restaurants in Los Angeles, and videos of prominent rabbis delivering speeches. Dvar Toraha lecture on sacred texts that includes anecdotes and stories used to introduce concepts.
“Journalism in the Haredi community is a different animal,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the leading representative of Haredi Jews in the United States. “Their goal is to present accurate information. good news about the community and they don’t hide it. They don’t claim to be journalistic in the sense of NPR or JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency) and they’re not ashamed of it.”
Shafran is not a fan of Shtetlwhich he says appears to focus on crimes of the Haredi community.
Despite the criticism, Moster says that with the media coverage provided by Shtetl, he hopes to attract a broad audience, including average New Yorkers, politicians, academics and activists. But the biggest target, he says, are ultra-Orthodox readers.
Some longtime observers of the Haredi community doubt Shtetl chances of attracting the ultra-Orthodox. Samuel Heilman, one of the foremost academic authorities on the Orthodox Jewish community, is one of them. The retired Queens College sociology professor now lives in Israel and criticizes mainstream Haredi media, which he calls “Fox News for ultra-Orthodox Jews.” That’s what the Haredi want to hear and that’s what sets the party line,” he says. Thus, Heilman suspects the only readers Shtetl What can attract to the Haredi community are those who are considering leaving it.
“It’s not so much about the Haredi world as it’s about the Haredi world for the non-Haredi world,” he says.
Still, Heilman thinks some younger readers from the Haredi community who have embraced the technology and are more willing to go beyond the traditional rules of Haredi leadership might check out Shtetl.
“The truth is, not all great rabbis surf the web. They don’t know of a new website that opened yesterday or this afternoon,” Heilman says. “But the hoi polloi do. So they can go places and see things older people can’t even imagine exist.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle Shtetl However, in its quest to gain an audience in the Haredi community, it is about whether its potential readers will actually be able to access its content.
Ayala Fader, an anthropologist at Fordham University, has tracked the long history of efforts by Haredi rabbis to control new communication technologies, including audio and video tapes, usually insisting that they cannot be made kosher only by controlling their content.
According to Fader, smartphones present an unprecedented challenge for ultra-Orthodox leaders.
“Thanks to smartphones, you suddenly had the whole internet in your pocket. And nobody was looking in your pocket,” says Fader. However, most yeshivas require parents to install software filters on their phones to prevent access to objectionable content.
Naftuli Moster says it’s likely that haredi software filters have already been blocked or will be Shtetl in the future. But he notes that many Haredi Jews have a simple solution to this problem.
“Many people in the community have a smartphone that has this filter installed and one that doesn’t,” he laughs. “And it’s almost an open secret in the community, even among the leaders, that [people] have two phones. And that’s how they can actually access everything on the Internet. »
This would now include Shtetl.