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.”