500,000 Cell Phones – Kosher, of course, and the Rabbinical Committee for Communications

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community speaking on their cellphones.

How One ultra-Orthodox Man Got Full Control of 500,000 Israelis’ Cellphones

While most ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel adhere to the rabbinic ban on using the internet, they do make use of a more primitive technology — phone services that provide updates on the news, traffic, finance and even family events or funerals supplied by small firms over a dedicated phone line.

“I have a 10-year-old son with diabetes. They fitted him with a sensor and a pump, and I can’t manage with it,” begins one message to Hakav Hamatok, a diabetes hotline, a typical example of the kinds of services available. “The readings keep jumping. Can someone help me?”

Hakav Hamatok offers ultra-Orthodox diabetes patients updates, lectures and recipes, along with the chance to confer with other patients and even the recitation of Psalms for very ill patients. There’s nothing obviously problematic from a religious point of view about Hakav Hamtaok, but the hotline’s number has been blocked for people with so-called kosher telephones – devices that also don’t have internet capability, which some ultra-Orthodox rabbis prohibit. A member of the Rabbinical Committee for Communications apparently found content on Hakav Hamatok objectionable as well.

Hakav Hamatok isn’t the only such case. The committee decides which content the ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi community, as it is known in Hebrew – has access to and has the power to enforce its decisions: The cellphone companies have given the committee access to an interface enabling it to block any telephone line it wishes.

A group of Haredi rabbis founded the committee 15 years ago to defend the community from the onslaught of the internet and the risk that Haredim would gain access to inappropriate content. A “kosher” phone not only lacks internet access. It also has no camera or music features. Even text messages are out of bounds because they can be used by dating services.

The new committee is a rare case of Haredi unity and extending into the religious Zionist community. Rabbis across the spectrum designated representatives for the project after which the committee opened negotiations with the cellular operators. Any company that refused to offer a kosher phone was boycotted.

The Haredi press came on board in an unprecedented campaign against “the hazards of technology” and in favor of kosher phones. Haredi streets were plastered with posters with polemics against anyone daring to carry an “impure” phone.

Today nearly all of Israel’s cellular operators offer subscribers accounts without access to the internet or text messages. Cellcom’s kosher numbers start with 052-76 while Pelephone uses 050-41. You can’t unblock the internet from these numbers or transfer them to other companies for “unkosher” services.

Kosher numbers are also used to virtually shame Haredim who don’t have one. If your line isn’t kosher, your children won’t be accepted into Haredi educational institutions, and your local synagogue may sometimes even be out-of-bounds to you.

Even the more moderate ultra-Orthodox factions have embraced kosher phones, which now are estimated to number 500,000 devices. Their use has recently also penetrated ultra-Orthodox communities abroad.

But, as TheMarker discovered through internal documents, unpublished reports and conversations with dozens of people, the committee is no longer the broad-based undertaking it once was. Today, Yehuda Dweck, a resident of Bnei Brak, has exclusive control of the flow of information to hundreds of thousands of Haredim – which he sometimes exercises arbitrarily and without any explanation, raising questions about his motivations.

At the same time, Dweck has leveraged his work with kosher phones into a thriving business owned by his wife. And he is now trying to gain exclusive control through the power that he has received from the rabbinic committee over the sale and distribution of kosher phones.

Who’s making money?

Dweck, who is in his 40s, looks like a typical Haredi yeshiva student. He is short and gaunt and sports a large, black kippa and a tightly curled beard. But he is actually a determined man who is ruthless in his pursuit of his goals. From his home on a side street in the center of his ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb, he controls the Haredi telecom market with the help of a laptop and cellphone – a kosher one, of course.

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