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WhatsApp is similar to the built-in text messaging app on a smartphone, but the messages are free and can be easily sent to large groups of friends. The group messaging function seems to drive Orthodox use of the app. Private, invitation-only groups exist among friends, relatives, neighbors and fellow yeshiva alumnae. The Boro Park Hasid said that he is in a group with family members, and that they use it to debate current events and Talmud.
Others described more mundane uses. “Saturday night, my friend sent out a message: ‘Anyone have [jumper] cables? I need a boost,’” the member of the Satmar community said. (He drove over and helped.) Two Hasidic men described friends using it to alert each other to police speed traps in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Use of WhatsApp spans the ultra-Orthodox gamut, from relatively liberal Boro Park to the highly strict and secluded town of New Square, in Rockland County, N.Y. Even former members of the Hasidic community use the app.
“I’m sick and tired of it a little bit,” said Lipa Schmeltzer, the Hasidic pop music star. Schmeltzer said that the number of groups he’s joined — most of them apparently music related — have become too much. “It’s not an easy task, to keep up with all these messages,” he said.
Hasidic users said that their WhatsApp groups don’t focus on national news, but do discuss local stories. The groups were exceptionally active following the disappearance of Menachem Stark, the Satmar developer kidnapped and murdered in early January. “It was very popular during the whole Stark story,” said Joseph Oppenheim, a member of the Satmar Hasidic community and the owner of the iShop, a computer store and Internet cafe in Williamsburg. “You couldn’t get it on the radio and stuff, so this was the main source [where] people got the news.”
The software is free for the first year, then continued usage costs $1. The app claimed 400 million total monthly users as of December 2013. It’s slightly less popular in the United States than its competitor Facebook Messenger, but is widely used outside the United States, particularly in Africa and South America.