From Koogle to Yideotube, efforts to provide a kosher Internet
Reporting from Bnei Berek, Israel — From a drab office in this ultra-Orthodox Jewish stronghold, three devout young women hunch over computers and surf the Internet — looking for pornography, celebrity gossip and a laundry list of other items banned by their rabbis.
It's odd work for this trio, dressed modestly and wearing wigs in keeping with their beliefs. But it's their job at Israel's first ultra-Orthodox Internet provider, Nativ, as it tries to launch a product that could transform the traditionally sheltered community: kosher Internet.
Because racy images of women are the most common offensive content found, the company decided it would be less objectionable to hire women to scour the Internet so ultra-Orthodox customers can surf without worry.
Lea Bernat, 22, a former kindergarten teacher, clicks through hundreds of web pages a day, using specialized software to open links and disable problematic content. "If it's clean, we release it," she said. "If it's really unclean, we tell the customer that the site isn't approved."
But is it kosher?
That's the question facing many ultra-Orthodox as they move online and are greeted by a fast-growing industry seeking to cater to their special needs, even though no one agrees yet exactly what a kosher Internet should look like.
There's Koogle, a Google-inspired searchable directory of kosher businesses offering, say, bargains on "modest" wedding dresses. Many rabbis frown on YouTube, so Yideotube offers a "daily online source of carefully screened videos," ranging from spoofs of anti-war activists to tips for buying a ceremonialkittel robe.
Worried about violating prohibitions against working on the Sabbath? Software vendor SaturdayGuard sells technology that enables websites to block access for Internet users, depending upon their time zone, between Friday and Saturday night.
There's even an online support group, GuardYourEyes.org, specializing in helping Orthodox Jews break "lust addictions" arising from Internet access. In addition to the usual 12-step programs and daily "strengthening" e-mails, the group offers tips for curtailing inappropriate surfing, including using software that automatically sends lists of visited websites to your spouse or rabbi.
Modern technology has long been viewed by many ultra-Orthodox rabbis as incompatible with a spiritual life. Television is banned and only "kosher" cellphones, which carry rabbinical stamps and have disabled Web browsing and text messaging, are accepted in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities here.
Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis initially labeled the Internet as the biggest threat yet to Judaism, likening it to eating pork and calling it "1,000 times worse" than TV. As the technology spread, rabbis softened their stance and by 2005 allowed limited Internet use for work purposes only.
Now, as the Internet permeates most aspects of life, from banking to registering children at school, more Haredi families have no choice but to go online. About one-third admit to having Internet access at home, though the actual figure is believed to be about 50%.
With an outright ban on the Internet no longer feasible, ultra-Orthodox rabbis are realizing that their only option is to create a kosher variety.
"The overwhelming majority understand that if you can't fight it, join it," said Avi Greenzeig, believed to be Israel's first "kashrut monitor" — similar to those who inspect kosher restaurants. He was hired by rabbis to edit and censor one of Israel's most popular Haredi websites, Behadrei Haredim. "People can live without television, but the Internet is different," Greenzeig said. "It's impossible to tell people to go back to the caves. Technology is moving forward and people must move with it. But there are limits."
From the website's nondescript Jerusalem office, where there is no sign on the door and writers use pseudonyms because of the stigma of working for an Internet company, Greenzeig reviews every article and reader comment before it's posted online.
Greenzeig, only 24 and working at his first job, is younger than the writers and editors. But as the official eyes of the rabbis, he carries considerable clout because he's regularly in touch with the religious leaders.
A piece about a rabbi accused of sexually harassing male students? Greenzeig spiked it. He also killed a review of a band that performs for mixed audiences of men and women. Because the website workers are also Haredi, there's never a problem with profanity or inappropriate pictures, but Greenzeig says he often edits reader comments when they are disrespectful or criticize rabbinical decisions.
Creating a truly kosher Internet is no easy task, partly because of the unreliability of commercial filters. Already, frustrated Haredi youth are asking websites such as Answers.com, "How Do I Get Around Kosher Net?"