Ultra-Orthodox Jews surf the forbidden web

Hidden behind curtains in small booths decked along the wall of a dark internet café in the heart of Jerusalem, Jewish ultra-Orthodox teenagers explore a forbidden world.

More and more ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, youngsters are becoming interested in the secular world surrounding their tightly sealed society, and the web is today a central battleground between tradition and reform.

A young boy wearing a broad hat pulled low over his sidecurls stares around suspiciously before stepping into the café. He knows that if the wrong person sees him here, he could be thrown out of his community. He refuses to talk.

But Yitzhak (20) says he comes to the internet café “every now and then.
I watch the news and some DVD films and just check what’s happening in the world.”

Throughout history, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewry has been able to preserve its radically conservative traditions and resist outside influence by living in closed and self-contained communities.

Striving to live in spiritual purity according to Jewish law, many Haredis see the secular culture as a source for corruption and vice, and will have no radio or television at home.

But the proximity of the Haredi society to Israel’s secular population means that modern life and technology inevitably seeps into their world.

That, in turn, is shaking the bedrock of ultra-Orthodox society, and has enraged conservative parts of society.

“They are curious; they want to know more about the outside world. Their world can be very lonely sometimes, and here they find refuge,” says Michael Krumer, the owner of the Strudel internet café.

Almost all of his clients are ultra-Orthodox youngsters who use the web for e-mailing and surfing news sites.

Many also visit the dozens of ultra-Orthodox chat rooms created in recent years where they can exchange thoughts on issues such as the Bible, community gossip or any other topic.

Very few look at pornography, Krumer says.

The 35-year-old man recalls demonstrations against internet cafés in front of his shop.

The so-called “modesty patrols”—groups of ultra-Orthodox men who police their neighbourhoods to guard the community from immodesty and vice—have warned him several times to close.

Some café owners were forced to shut down. Two weeks ago, one café was gutted by what police suspect was a group of ultra-Orthodox arsonists.

“The patrols said they have cameras which take pictures of anyone entering and that the pictures will be hung on street walls. Students can be kicked out of their Yeshiva [religious schools] and might have problems in their matchmaking,” Eli, seated on a chair inside the café, says.

“I think my parents know I come here, but not all parents know. They don’t like it because they think their children can be tempted and fail.

“But that is wrong. I believe and like my way of living. This won’t corrupt me,” the 18-year-old Yeshiva student says.

Many Yeshiva rabbis repeatedly warn the young generation to stay away from internet cafés. If they are caught, or if someone even suspects they have been to one, they risk being ostracised.

Prominent members of the ultra-conservative community also warn of the destructive influence of the “outside culture” and especially the internet, which they fear will corrupt the purity of their lives.

“There are certain things that the internet helps, such as doctors and business, but it is clear that it holds many traps and obstacles,” says Rabbi Shmuel Haim Papenheim, the editor of an ultra-Orthodox magazine. “Instead of dedicating their attention to Torah studies, our children are being exposed to the internet.

“A very grave thing happened here in Jerusalem when a few entrepreneurs set up internet cafés that are extremely tempting to Yeshiva students who have no idea what it is.”

Jewish sages have ruled that the internet should not be let into homes unless a rabbi grants special authorisation.

Papenheim says that more than television and radio, the internet poses a real threat to the austere and pure way of life of ultra-Orthodox children.

“We must guard our children. The young generation is completely exposed and we must build walls around it because the other side is constantly trying to harm them.

But despite edicts, threats and warnings, some parts of the Haredi society no longer share Papenheim’s austere views, and do not see the use of internet or other secular commodities as a threat to their way of life.

“They are afraid that the Haredi world might collapse, but that won’t happen because they are believers. Instead of fighting and hitting they should try finding a compromise,” Krumer says.

Yitzhak, no longer a Yeshiva student, knows that after he gets married he will bring a computer into his home.

“The Haredis are also developing and bringing into their homes things the secular people have. The internet is slowly becoming legitimate,” says Yitzhak.—Sapa-AFP

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