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A new website covers the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community


Getting unfettered news about close-knit religious communities can be challenging if journalists are not part of the group. When it comes to ultra-Orthodox Jews, mainstream Jewish news organizations do provide coverage, but ultra-Orthodox media outlets often ignore contentious issues. Now a new website focusing on that religious community offers news with an insider's perspective. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The website Shtetl bills itself as the Haredi Free Press. The term Haredi refers to Jews who follow strict Jewish laws and reject much of modern secular culture. Shtetl takes its name from the Yiddish word for the small Jewish towns in Eastern Europe. The founder and editor-in-chief of Shtetl is a 37-year-old activist-turned-journalist named Naftuli Moster. He says the website will show that just like those small Jewish villages, the Haredi community is not monolithic and that a free press portrays its community warts and all.

NAFTULI MOSTER: Many Haredi media outlets will tell you explicitly that they are overseen by a rabbinic advisory board that tells them what can and cannot go in.

KALISH: Moster grew up in a Haredi family with 17 kids, and he says his years agitating over the alleged inadequacy of the yeshivas' secular education triggered death threats. They also brought angry attacks by the Haredi press, where such contentious issues as corruption, white-collar crime and sexual abuse within the Haredi community seldom warrant coverage.

AVI SHAFRAN: Journalism in the Haredi community is a different animal.

KALISH: Rabbi Avi Safran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the primary representative of Haredi Jews in the U.S.

SHAFRAN: Their goal is to present accurate good news about the community, and they make no bones about that.

KALISH: Shtetl says its mission is to be a source of information that can hold the powerful accountable. So the website's sole staff reporter, Lauren Hakimi, has written about a security patrol leader pleading guilty to child sexual abuse and about anonymous ads for a family court judicial candidate.

LAUREN HAKIMI: They said, elect this guy, and he will side with us in family court matters. The advertisements said, this judge will side with the more religious spouse.

KALISH: Samuel Heilman, a retired sociology professor from Queens College, thinks a radical change is underway in the Haredi community, fueled by the younger members' embrace of technology.

SAMUEL HEILMAN: All the great rabbis, they're not surfing the web. They don't know about a new website that opened up this afternoon. But young people do. And so they can go to places and see things that the old people can't even imagine exist.

KALISH: Fordham anthropologist Ayala Fader has followed the history of Haredi rabbis trying to control new communications technology. She says the smartphone is an unprecedented challenge for them.

AYALA FADER: Because of smartphones, suddenly you had the entire internet in your pocket, and no one was looking in your pocket.

KALISH: Most yeshivas require parents to install software filters on their phones to prevent accessing objectionable content. But Naftuli Moster says many Haredi Jews have a way around that.

MOSTER: Many people in the community have one smartphone that has that filter installed and another phone that doesn't, and that's how they're able to really access anything on the internet.

KALISH: Including shtetl.org. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "OH, WHAT A WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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