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Thursday, February 6, 2014

WhatsApp Spreads Fast Among Ultra-Orthodox


Ultra-Orthodox leaders are targeting a new threat to their community: the smartphone messaging service WhatsApp.

Orthodox Jews have swarmed this service ever since a 2012 anti-Internet campaign tightened communal restrictions against social networking sites like Facebook. Now, some leaders are launching a new crusade against WhatsApp, an SMS-like tool that allows users to share digital media.

“The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” read the headline of a January article in Der Blatt, the Yiddish-language newspaper published by members of the Satmar Hasidic group.

Programmers at Meshimer Filter, a Satmar-linked Web filtering firm, are seeking to block filtered phones from sharing video, photos and audio through WhatsApp, according to a member of the Satmar community who uses the filter and who spoke with employees. 

The firm did not respond to a request for comment from the Forward.

“It’s not under the radar anymore,” the Satmar community member said.

At a massive June 2012 rally at CitiField in Queens, ultra-Orthodox rabbis set down a firm position against unfettered Internet use. The leaders called for the use of Web filters on all computers used by Orthodox Jews, and discouraged the use of social networking and video sharing sites.

Satmar Hasidic schools now ban children whose parents have Internet access in their homes, and require that parents use Web filters on their smartphones.

Ever since the bans, followers have sought to skirt these rules, and WhatsApp has emerged as a popular dodge.

Sources were generally unwilling to be quoted by name for this story, citing both general communal aversions to appearing in the press and specific concerns about being embroiled in the coming internal debate over WhatsApp.

Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn told the Forward that the app acts as a closed social network that provides quick communication among community members with little information let in from outside. “It’s self-created media, it’s not the outside media,” said one member of the Hasidic community in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. “[It’s] an inside ghetto media, not outside.”

WhatsApp is similar to the built-in text messaging app on a smartphone, but the messages are free and can be easily sent to large groups of friends. The group messaging function seems to drive Orthodox use of the app. Private, invitation-only groups exist among friends, relatives, neighbors and fellow yeshiva alumnae. 

The Boro Park Hasid said that he is in a group with family members, and that they use it to debate current events and Talmud.

Others described more mundane uses. “Saturday night, my friend sent out a message: ‘Anyone have [jumper] cables? I need a boost,’” the member of the Satmar community said. (He drove over and helped.) Two Hasidic men described friends using it to alert each other to police speed traps in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Use of WhatsApp spans the ultra-Orthodox gamut, from relatively liberal Boro Park to the highly strict and secluded town of New Square, in Rockland County, N.Y. Even former members of the Hasidic community use the app.

“I’m sick and tired of it a little bit,” said Lipa Schmeltzer, the Hasidic pop music star. Schmeltzer said that the number of groups he’s joined — most of them apparently music related — have become too much. “It’s not an easy task, to keep up with all these messages,” he said.

Hasidic users said that their WhatsApp groups don’t focus on national news, but do discuss local stories. The groups were exceptionally active following the disappearance of Menachem Stark, the Satmar developer kidnapped and murdered in early January.

“It was very popular during the whole Stark story,” said Joseph Oppenheim, a member of the Satmar Hasidic community and the owner of the iShop, a computer store and Internet cafe in Williamsburg. “You couldn’t get it on the radio and stuff, so this was the main source [where] people got the news.”

The software is free for the first year, then continued usage costs $1. The app claimed 400 million total monthly users as of December 2013. It’s slightly less popular in the United States than its competitor Facebook Messenger, but is widely used outside the United States, particularly in Africa and South America.                                                                    

Read more at: Forward

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