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A new website reports on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community

The late Hasidic composer Ben Zion Shenker sings, wearing a yarmulke and holding a mic, at a male-only sing along known as a k<em>umzits </em>that took place in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Jon Kalish
The late Hasidic composer Ben Zion Shenker sings, wearing a yarmulke and holding a mic, at a male-only sing along known as a kumzits that took place in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Imagine buying an expensive electric vehicle that has internet connectivity but deciding to disable it. That's what a business is doing for ultra-Orthodox Jews who own Teslas in order to ensure that the drivers and their passengers don't see anything on the internet considered immodest according to rabbinical standards. The intricate details are reported in one of the latest stories from Shtetl, a new website designed to provide an inside view and a critical look at the insular world of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Secular news organizations and mainstream Jewish journalism sites do cover the Haredi community, but their access — as outsiders — is limited.

So, Shtetl bills 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 that refers to the small Jewish towns formerly found in Eastern Europe.

The insider perspective

Naftuli Moster
/ Jon Kalish
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Jon Kalish
Naftuli Moster

The founder and editor-in-chief of Shtetl is Naftuli Moster, a 37 year-old activist-turned-journalist. Moster says the website will show that, just like those small Jewish villages, the Haredi community is not monolithic and that, as a free press, Shtetl will portray the Haredi community, warts and all. He can do so, 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 Belz Hasidic sect. He is fluent in Yiddish and was a student of the Haredi yeshiva system.

For years, Moster agitated over what he sees as the inadequacy of secular education in the yeshivas. He founded a nonprofit, Young Advocates for Fair Education or Yaffed, and ran it for 10 years. He says his activism brought him death threats, as well as angry attacks in the Haredi press, which adamantly defended the adequacy of the yeshivas' secular education.

"Until now, it was the Haredi leaders who controlled the media and held the media accountable to them, rather than the other way around," Moster says. "Many Haredi media outlets will tell you explicitly that they are overseen by a rabbinic advisory board that tells them what can and cannot go in."

A small collection of interns, freelancers and the website's sole staff reporter, 23 year old Lauren Hakimi gather and write the news on the Shtetl website. Hakimi is not Haredi but has traveled to Brooklyn's Haredi neighborhoods to learn and write about them.

"I remember when I got off the D train and stepped into Borough Park, it felt a little bit like being in another country," she says. Although not yet fluent in Yiddish, the lingua franca of the Haredi world, Hakimi is learning the mame- loshen, or mother tongue. She observes the Haredi dress code that calls for modesty when she's in the community by wearing casual business attire.

Shtetl's mission and obstacles

A Haredi family photographed inside Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, which is designed for Orthodox Jews.
/ Jon Kalish
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Jon Kalish
A Haredi family photographed inside Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, which is designed for Orthodox Jews.

Moster says the stories on the Shtetl website aim to present what's often missing in the Haredi press: stories about contentious issues such as corruption, white-collar crime and sexual abuse. One recent Shtetl feature details how Haredi Jews took over a village in the Catskills by claiming it was the primary residence of Jews who spend most of their time living in Brooklyn. Another, written by Hakimi, describes a series of anonymous ads for a family court judicial candidate in one of the Haredi towns in the suburbs north of New York City. 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 advertisements said this judge will side with the more religious spouse," Hakimi says. "They said, 'Elect this guy and he will side with us in family court matters.'"

Shtetl's "warts and all" coverage of the Haredi world stands in sharp contrast to the focus of Hamodia, a Haredi daily newspaper and website. In its section about the Haredi community, there are stories about the passing of Haredi rabbis, the vandalization of kosher restaurants in Los Angeles and videos of prominent rabbis delivering a dvar torah, a talk about the holy texts that includes anecdotes and stories used to introduce concepts.

"Journalism in the Haredi community is a different animal," says Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the primary representative of Haredi Jews in the U.S. "Their goal is to present accurate good news about the community and they make no bones about that. They don't claim to be journalistic in the sense of NPR or the JTA (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency) and they're not ashamed of that."

Shafran is no fan of Shtetl, which he says appears to be focused on the crimes of the Haredi community.

Despite criticism, Moster says with the coverage Shtetl provides, he hopes to attract a broad audience, including average New Yorkers, politicians, academics and activists. But the most important target, he says, are Haredi readers.

Some long-time observers of the Haredi community are dubious about Shtetl's chances to attract the ultra-Orthodox. Samuel Heilman, one of the foremost academic authorities on Orthodox Jewry, is among them. The retired sociology professor from Queens College now lives in Israel and is critical of mainstream Haredi media, which he calls "Fox News for ultra-Orthodox Jews. It is what Haredi people want to hear and gives the party line," he says. So, Heilman suspects the only readers that Shtetl may attract in the Haredi community are those who are thinking about leaving it.

The late Lower East Side mystic Lionel Ziprin listens to a radio documentary.
/ Jon Kalish
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Jon Kalish
The late Lower East Side mystic Lionel Ziprin listens to a radio documentary.

"It's not for the Haredi world as much as it's about the Haredi world for the non-Haredi world," he says.

Even so, Heilman believes some younger readers in the Haredi community who have embraced technology and are more willing to move beyond the traditional rules of the Haredi leadership may check out Shtetl.

"The truth is that all the great rabbis, they're not surfing the web. They don't know about a new website that opened up yesterday or this afternoon," Heilman says. "But the hoi polloi do. And so, they can go to places and see things that the old people can't even imagine exist."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle Shtetl faces in its quest to gain an audience in the Haredi community, though, is whether its potential readers will actually be able to access its content.

Fordham University anthropologist Ayala Fader has followed the long history of efforts by Haredi rabbis to control new communications technology, including audio and video tapes, usually by insisting that they can only be made kosher by controlling the content.

According to Fader, smartphones present an unprecedented challenge for Haredi leadership.

"Because of smartphones, suddenly you had the entire internet in your pocket. And no one was looking in your pocket," says Fader. However, most yeshivas require parents to install software filters on their phones to prevent accessing objectionable content.

Naftuli Moster says the chances are that the Haredi software filters have either already blocked or will block Shtetl in the future. But he notes that lots of Haredi Jews have a simple work around for that.

"Many people in the community have one smartphone that has that filter installed and another that doesn't," he says with a chuckle. "And it's almost like an open secret in the community, even amongst the leaders, that [people] have two phones. And that's how they're really able to access anything on the internet."

That would now include Shtetl.

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