On this week’s episode of the Reply All podcast, the second part to a story about the Internet encroaching on a world that has managed pretty successfully to block it out — New York’s Ultra Orthodox Jewish community.
(You can read part I here)
Shulem Deen used to live in an Ultra Orthodox Hasidic community called New Square. He spent all his time praying and studying the Talmud. He had an arranged marriage when he was 18, five kids by the time he was 27.
Somewhere in all of that, he got a computer. It came with a 3.5 floppy disc—a free AOL trial. Without realizing what it meant, Shulem installed it. And just like that he was plucked from his insulated life into a world of news, shopping and chat rooms. Eventually, he lost his faith and was banished from his community.
Shulem Deen now lives in Brooklyn. He’s a writer. And the one thing he misses most are his children; it has been seven years since he last saw them. There’s no way for him to check up on them. They’re not on Facebook. There’s no local paper with news about the yeshiva. To outsiders, New Square is a black box.
In the last few years, however, he’s discovered an opening, another way to reconnect with his community and the people he loves.
To explain how that opening came to be, you first have to look at Shulem’s story through the eyes of the Hasidim. At the time that he began taking baby steps into the secular world, the same thing was happening to other people in his community.
Footsteps, a New York organization that helps people who want to leave the Orthodox world, says that since 2009, it has seen a four-fold increase in the number of people reaching out to it. Restless Hasidic people were finding each other online. All kinds of resources were now at their fingertips. They were sharing information, airing information about things that happened within the community. And they were talking about a community which prides itself on being closed off to outsiders.
So, in 2012, an Orthodox group decided the time had come to reckon with the Internet. They organized something called the Asifa, Hebrew for “gathering.”
The Asifa was historic within Jewish circles. Citi Field, the baseball stadium in New York, was filled with thousands of Orthodox men—a sea of black hats and binoculars. The spillover crowd filled a nearby stadium, where people watched the event on video screens. All in all, about 60,000 people came together to protect their way of life from the Internet.
The Hasidim have been resisting the temptations of modernity for a long time—since the 1800’s when an Austrian rabbi, Chasam Sofer said, “All that is new is forbidden by the Torah.” Every time a new technology has come along, the Hasidim have taken what they like and left the rest behind.
Take the radio, for instance. Radios are strictly frowned upon in the Hasidic world; they are in banned in some communities like New Square. When Hasids buy a cassette player to play religious music, they break off the radio antenna. Or, if they want traffic news and interviews, they call a Hasidic hotline: 212-444-1100. It’s all over the telephone and one Hasidic person we spoke to called it his community’s “podcasts.”
So that’s how they fixed the radio problem. Hasidim could get everything you need from the radio, minus the chance they’d come upon a Miley Cyrus song or Viagra ad.
After the Asifa, the Orthodox elders decided on a similar strategy to deal with the Internet. They would mandate filters, so only work-related content would get through. If they could turn parts of Brooklyn into a shtetl, they could do the same thing online. They would make a Hasidic Internet.
And there are a whole bunch of businesses that made this happen: Hasidic filter companies, Hasidic Internet providers, Hasidic Internet cafes. We visited one Internet cafe in Williamsburg where the owner, Joseph, showed us how a Hasidic version of the Internet looks. Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times were all blocked. The New York Post came through, but with all the images and several headlines grayed out.
Joseph prefers his news this way. He doesn’t want to see anything disturbing, like the ISIS video. And he certainly doesn’t want to see anything that would make him question his faith. Joseph says he’s happy where he is. He loves his neighborhood. He has a big family. On Sabbath, he turns off his phone and plays with his kids. He doesn’t want that to change.
And that is why he was at the Asifa. To him, the idea of building this safe, shtetl-version of the Internet — it’s essential. Even if it seems against the whole nature of the Internet
“We are not naive,” says Joseph. “We know the Internet is here, it’s here to stay. We’re not fighting with the Internet. We’re fighting with ourselves.”
The Asifa was in 2012. And thanks to the work of Joseph and many other Hasidic tech guys, there is kosher corner of the Internet. You can use it and not be branded a heretic.
Which brings us back to Shulem’s story. One section of the Hasidic Internet that came into being after the Asifa was a web forum called Kaveshtiebel, yiddish for Coffee House. It’s a place where Shulem began spending time in 2012.
Kaveshtiebel looks like a stripped down Reddit. Everything is in yiddish. The usual forums and message boards — Reddit, Craigslist — the Hasidic filters would block them. But this one is generally allowed. There are the topics you’d expect to find — news, religion, the Talmud. But also people talk about things they wouldn’t talk about in New Square.
For instance, Shulem pulled up a thread about Serial, the podcast. “If he killed her two weeks ago, would he have told the cops he asked her for a ride that day?” one commenter asked in yiddish.
Even though Shulem is an atheist who left his community at great cost, he still misses some of the discussions and debates that were at the heart of his Hasidic life. Kaveshtiebel provided a tiny hit of that feeling. He could listen in on familiar conversations about religious music and texts. Or long arguments over whether the microscopic shrimp in New York City tap water mean that it’s not kosher. All in yiddish, the language that had been his for so long.
“It’s like coming back to your hometown,” says Shuelm.
When he goes back to New Square, Shulem says he’s spit at, called names. But here, on this forum, all these observant Hasids were welcoming him. For a few months, he made friends, caught up on gossip, settled in.
Until he got an email from a guy he knew — a mole of sorts. The man sent him a PDF of a behind-the-scene discussion about how to deal with the fact that Shulem Deen was a part of this forum. There were pages and pages of fierce debate over whether to allow this or not, whether a heretic deserved to be here.
It was a déjà vu moment for Shulem. It was the exact same debate as before, back in 2005 when a rabbinical council kicked him out of New Square. Except this time he could see it happening in front of him. There were people who thought he was pure evil, people who stood up for him, people who fell in the middle.
“It gives me a complicated feeling,” says Shulem. “They’re insane and they’re ignorant but some of them are really smart and even the ignorant ones are sometimes really funny and some of them are really sharp.”
In the end, the moderators at Kavestheibel decided to let Shulem stay. He’s glad, but also bitter about being put through another tribunal.
He still hangs around though because he sees himself in the people — people who would appreciate a good tish and then talk about Serial afterwards. They might see him as an outsider, but his hope is that they’re more like him than they know. That Kaveshteibel exists because the chasm between his world and theirs is narrowing. Maybe one day those worlds will close enough that his kids will be able to cross over.
Shulem can already imagine that his older son has gotten a hold of a smartphone. Maybe he has Whatsapp. Maybe he’s curious about the world, and one day he reaches out to his father. “I wonder what it’s going to be,” says Shulem, “In my mind I know for certain something’s going to be.”
About this, Shulem has faith.