Blogger Focuses on Orthodox Foibles

By Anthony Weiss

Published July 24, 2008, issue of August 01, 2008.
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Picking up the phone at 4:30 in the afternoon, Shmarya Rosenberg answered in a voice still bleary from sleep. He explained that he was just napping after having blogged the whole night, and most of the morning.

“It’s hard to do one of these blogs,” Rosenberg said. “It owns you. It’s terrible. If I had any idea four years ago that it was going to do this, I don’t think I could’ve started it.”

Rosenberg is the man behind FailedMessiah.com, one of the essential stops on the Jewish blogosphere. Rosenberg blogs full time, often posting multiple times a day to report on the shortcomings that he sees in the world of Orthodox Judaism — a beat that endlessly supplies him with material. Rosenberg’s primary targets are what he sees as examples of hypocrisy and the misuse of power, and he is relentless in cataloging the failures of rabbis and others who hold positions of authority, citing examples ranging from a recent ban on a concert to corruption and child abuse. With the outrage of Jeremiah and the surgical delicacy of a meat cleaver, Rosenberg goes after his targets in plain and aggressive English.

“It’s raining nutcase rabbis over in the Holy Land,” one post begins.

“Rabbis Call for Jewish Terrorism, Vigilante Violence” is the title of another.

Though many of his frequent postings are links to news reports on other Web sites, Rosenberg also does original reporting. On July 9, he made headlines when he caught public relations powerhouse 5WPR leaving comments on blogs under false names. As this newspaper has reported, 5WPR denied his accusation, then reversed course.

Rosenberg says that he is driven by a sense of outrage and by a determination to look out for causes and people that are being ignored.

Also known to his friends as Scott, Rosenberg grew up in St. Paul, Minn., in a family that he describes as Jewish but not particularly religious. He became active in Jewish student politics when he was a teenager, and it was his activism that brought him to Chabad. In the summer of 1983, while still a college student at the University of Minnesota, he was making the rounds of local rabbis with a letter on the plight of Ethiopian Jewry when he dropped by the office of Rabbi Moshe Feller, a Chabad emissary.

“He read that letter in his office and cried,” Rosenberg recalled. “His was the most genuine response of anybody.”

Rosenberg became a Lubavitch, donning the traditional black hat and caftan and throwing himself into study and rigorous observance. He abandoned his ambitions of becoming a songwriter, and for the next 20 years he was an observant, ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Now, he says, “I lost 20 years, and it bothers the hell out of me.” Today he is in his late 40s and no longer actively religious.

Ironically, just as Ethiopian Jewry brought Rosenberg to Orthodoxy, it drove him away, leading to the birth of FailedMessiah.com. In 2004, Rosenberg came across an unsigned draft of a letter written by Chabad’s late rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, which was published in K’far Chabad magazine. Rosenberg recognized that the letter had originally been addressed to him, but never sent, in response to a letter he wrote two decades before, demanding that Schneerson focus more of Chabad’s attention on saving the lives of Ethiopian Jews. Schneerson, in his response, suggested that Rosenberg focus his efforts on helping Jews in his own community.

Rosenberg was outraged.

“He tried to make an equivalence, as if stopping a secular Jew in Minnesota and saying, ‘Put on a pair of tefillin with me’ is the equivalent of saving somebody’s life that’s dying in Ethiopia. I mean, it’s insane,” Rosenberg said. A Chabad spokesman declined to comment on Rosenberg’s interpretation.

With the help of some technically savvy Lubavitch friends, he posted Schneerson’s letter, his own letter and other supporting documents on a blog. The moniker Failed Messiah mocked the belief among some Lubavitcher Hadisim that Schneerson was the messiah.

That, according to Rosenberg, was supposed to be all. But Rosenberg worried that if he didn’t keep posting, his blog would be shut down, so he periodically added links to articles, mostly about Lubavitch messianism.

The response was more than he bargained for. Within a few months, he says, he was excommunicated from his synagogue and shunned by his friends in the Lubavitch community. He says that his blog was hacked and that he received death threats. The hostility only made him more determined. Rosenberg broke his own ties with the ultra-Orthodox world and kept on blogging.

Since then, he has blogged — almost literally — day and night.

“There is no day,” he said, “just one long, unending, bizarre blog with a few moments of sleep scattered through it.”

Rosenberg typically blogs all night and through the morning, sleeps a couple hours, blogs a few hours more and takes a nap; then the routine resumes. He occasionally leaves his apartment to go to the gym or to make a visit to a nursing home. His income comes from some freelance advertising consulting and from what little money he makes from donations and from sales of T-shirts and other merchandise (for example, a T-shirt picture of a bleeding cow with the caption, “I was slaughtered Glatt kosher and all I got was this horribly painful hook in my throat”).

Rosenberg has blogged himself to the point of exhaustion, and he has tried to quit. But he decided he would like to stay available to people who want to come forward about being abused.

It’s been a difficult career — some of it rewarding, some of it frustrating. But he says he has seen a few small signs that he and the other bloggers on his beat have made a difference.

“People are a little less willing to ignore a kid who says his teacher abused him,” Rosenberg said. “They’re just less willing to take the crap.”






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