A decade ago, brawling between two ultra-Orthodox factions over real estate in Jerusalem would almost certainly not have been reported in the community’s media. Neither would a bitter debate over ethnic segregation in a girls’ school, or an incident in which a member of a Hasidic sect in New York attacked and badly burned a community dissident.
All of these stories have appeared in the past year, part of a flowering of journalism that is both driving and being driven by a gradual opening in this stringently conservative world.
The ultra-Orthodox are experiencing an unprecedented proliferation of Internet sites, radio stations, call-in news lines and newspapers increasingly independent of rabbinic control and willing to touch topics that might seem entirely mundane to an outsider but which, in the confines of this religious community, have long been taboo.
“It used to be that people were happy to live in their little caves, but now we all need to know what’s going on everywhere. It’s like air,” said Nachman Tubul, a lanky, bearded 27-year-old who runs a wire service called News 24 out of a tiny storefront in Jerusalem.
Tubul was interrupted by the repeated ringing of the three cell phones concealed under his knee-length black coat.
No ultra-Orthodox reporter would say they want to upend their community’s beliefs. But there is little doubt about the subversive nature of what they are doing, intentionally or not, when they give their audience a window on the outside world and a mirror in which to view their own.
The term “ultra-Orthodox” — the Hebrew equivalent is “Haredim,” or “those who fear” God — is shorthand for sects that share loyalty to an eastern European ideal of religious study, large families, modesty, charity and a rejection of secular society.
The community of 700,000 — around 9 percent of Israel’s population — is extraordinarily closed on itself and tightly governed by its rabbinical leadership. Many men choose lives of Torah study and welfare assistance instead of work. The very idea of news is still viewed as a somewhat disreputable distraction from more important pursuits like religious reflection. Television, the Internet and secular radio stations and newspapers are banned outright by rabbis — though, at least in the case of the Internet, increasingly without success.
The Haredi media revolution is linked to small but significant signs of change. More ultra-Orthodox men and women are joining the workforce and pursuing professional training. More are online. And their birthrate, still high, has inched downward in the past 10 years by 15 percent.
Until little more than a decade ago, Haredi media consisted mainly of a handful of dull newspapers that served as mouthpieces for ultra-Orthodox political parties.
But today, for example, a news junkie can dial the popular paid phone-in news service known as the “Haredi Voice,” run from Jerusalem by the journalist Meni Shwartz-Gera.
This month, a caller might have heard an update on the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the condition of a venerated rabbi on his deathbed in Jerusalem, or on the case involving the New York Hasidic sect — a combination of news from the outside world and from within the community.
A half-dozen or so call-in services of this kind — known as “nayis” lines, that being the Yiddish word for “news” — allow people to check the news without being seen to do anything more controversial than talk on the phone.
Shwartz-Gera prides himself on being the first ultra-Orthodox outlet to report the 2008 arrest of three young seminary students in Japan on drug smuggling charges. Among the ultra-Orthodox, he said, the word “drugs” had nearly never been uttered publicly before. When he reported the story, he said, others followed suit.
“I’m not doing anything revolutionary,” Shwartz-Gera said. “We’re all living in the age of the Internet.”
On Tubul’s news service, much of the content comes from a network of citizen reporters. He has sources he calls “sleeper cells” in rabbinic courts equipped with MP3 players they use to record audio. When one powerful rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, recently excommunicated a disobedient member of his political party, one of Tubul’s sleepers surreptitiously taped him and the recording was out the same day. Methods like this would have been unheard of not long ago.
Tubul’s agency, he said, “doesn’t take sides” and will talk to anyone. He noted that he has interviewed an openly gay lawmaker “despite his problematic sexual tendencies.”
Not everything is permitted. Direct attacks on important rabbis are off-limits, and sex remains taboo. During the rape trial of Israel’s disgraced former president, Moshe Katsav, ultra-Orthodox media reported that Katsav was in court but never reported why.
Reporters also must take into account unique restrictions like the rabbinic prohibition on the “evil tongue,” meaning speaking badly of others. The stricture is sometimes circumvented by criticizing organizations, rather than the people who head them.
Also barred are photographs of women, which are considered immodest. The current leader in the Haredi newspaper market, for example, the independent weekly Mishpacha, publishes a women’s magazine without a single picture of a woman.
That makes a glimpse behind the scenes all the more surprising. At Mishpacha — which means “family” — more than half of the 250 employees are women, including reporters, graphic designers and the managing editor of the paper’s English edition. This, too, would have been unthinkable until recently.
The newspaper has set a new standard for its competitors, printing glossy supplements and human interest stories. Reporters have gently tackled previously untouched topics like child abuse and divorce. The paper’s agenda, which has included offering legitimacy for choosing to enter the workforce, has drawn the ire of some of the traditional Haredi papers it has eclipsed.
The issues published in the weekly paper “are the things people will be talking about around their Sabbath tables,” said managing editor Shoshana Friedman.
“It’s not a threat to us that our readers see what’s happening in the world,” she said. “I don’t think people gain anything from being kept in a little black box.”