For Orthodox Jews And Israelis, Whatsapp Outage Highlighted Basic Community Infrastructure — And Its Vulnerability

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A man takes a selfie while visiting the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former head of the Lubavitch movement, on November 2, 2018 in Queens, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Asher Lovy was expecting a flood of notifications on Monday morning when he posted information about a sexual abuse case to several WhatsApp chat groups devoted to tracking the work of his organization, which provides support to survivors of sexual abuse within the Orthodox community.

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Instead, he heard nothing. WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app he uses, was down, along with Facebook and Instagram, three of the most widely used social platforms in the world.

“I was worried that people who were trying to reach us wouldn’t be able to,” Lovy said. He began to worry about what would happen if the outage extended later into the week, when Za’akah would ready its mental health hotline for Orthodox Jews who have crises on Shabbat, when many other services are closed or inaccessible.

“We have people contacting us on WhatsApp to get referrals for resources for therapists or lawyers, or just to talk and receive support,” he said. “I get texts at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning from people in crisis who need support or resources, who do they reach out to if not us? … The thought of Whatsapp going down on Shabbos is terrifying.”

Lovy’s fears did not come to pass: WhatsApp was back up after eight hours, along with Facebook and Instagram. But the outage, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said was the most significant interruption in service in years, brought into sharp focus the degree to which WhatsApp is baked into the communication infrastructure for most of the world’s Jews — and how vulnerable that infrastructure may be.

With more than 2 billion users worldwide, WhatsApp is by far the most widely used instant messaging service in the world. Its simple platform, which works even on older flip phones, is the communication standard in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, and its early adoption in Israel and the relative unpopularity of iPhones there means it remains the country’s text messaging app of choice.

In the United States, its dominance is perhaps most clear in the haredi Orthodox world.

Even as Orthodox rabbis were warning about the dangers to religious life posed by WhatsApp way back in 2014, as Facebook began to consider acquiring the platform, the app became popular in Orthodox communities as an easy way to communicate. “The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the Hasidic newspaper Der Blatt reported in Yiddish that year. Its dominance in the communities only increased over time, with misinformation and anti-mask activism spreading quickly through group-text channels that were already well established before the pandemic.

Whatsapp

(Carl Court/Getty Images)

It’s not just rumors that take hold on Orthodox WhatsApp chats. “We run all our groups of employees on various businesses through WhatsApp,” said Mordy Getz, a community leader who owns a health clinic and Judaica store in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

A unique confluence of factors drives the penetration and lasting power of WhatsApp in Orthodox communities.

Many community members have filters on their phones to prevent them from accessing external websites and social media platforms, so they receive all their information through WhatsApp, according to Getz. (This creates its own problems, as misinformation can circulate easily and quickly without the ability to fact-check.)

What’s more, WhatsApp’s integrated voice notes option allows people with wide-ranging skills in written language to communicate with each other, a potential issue in communities where critics have charged that yeshivas do not always leave graduates with a strong secular education.

And WhatsApp video and phone calls don’t carry long distance calling fees. For Jewish families in which some members are Orthodox and others are not, or some members live in Israel and others in the Diaspora, WhatsApp can serve as a vital convening ground.

“Every Orthodox Jew has people in Israel and Europe,” said Getz. “You have to have WhatsApp if you want to talk to them.”

When that stops working, the distance can feel greater.

Orli Gal, a Philadelphia nurse, said her family, which includes people in Israel and across the United States, would have been celebrating a milestone in her sister’s medical training over WhatsApp Monday when the outage cut off their communications.

“We’ve got people all over the world, and some of them are pretty elderly. This is the only way they know how to get in touch,” she said. “WhatsApp is the only thing that connects us all.”

Mendel Horowitz, a therapist and teacher in Jerusalem, was suddenly unable to be in touch with his 20-year-old son, Alty, who was vacationing in Egypt’s Sinai Desert with friends.

“I don’t want to say I was up all night worried because I wasn’t,” he said. “But it was on our minds that this is the only way to reach him and we can’t.”

The outage got Horowitz thinking about his own family’s reliance on WhatsApp and whether it was wise given the app’s vulnerabilities. “It’s not an emergency, but it gets us thinking about the next time somebody goes somewhere, we should have a plan B,” he said.

Horowitz wasn’t alone.

If WhatsApp were to disappear, “there would be no backup infrastructure” for communication within the Orthodox community, said Lovy.

The outage, Gal said, “mostly made me rethink: Why did we allow Facebook to buy it in the first place?”


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