Kosher Cell-phones Bring Orthodox Yiddish Speakers Into the 21st Century

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews have already subscribed to kosher-certified mobile service, which limits access to inappropriate content; a new interface entirely in Yiddish has now been released to the Israeli market.

Being a native Yiddish speaker and observing an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle no longer means one has to live in medieval times.

A number of mobile phone providers have tapped into the religious market over the last few years, in an attempt to cater to the many devout Jews for whom telecommunications is often a cause of discomfort or concern but who recognize that modern life calls for modern measures.

Haredi work
Daniel Bar-On / Jini

The first step was a kosher-certified cell phone, approved by the rabbinical committee for telecommunications and deliberately devoid of many modern capabilities including text messaging, video options, internet and access to sex lines.

Picking up where its competitors left off, Israel’s second largest mobile provider, Partner, teamed up with manufacturer Alcatel-Lucent to adapt that idea and offer a more personal touch to Israel's Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox communities.

The result was a cell-phone model with an entirely Yiddish interface, replete with Hassidic folk ring tones, developed by Marc Seelenfreund, CEO of Israel's Accel Telecom, and a special team of translators.

Approximately 400, 000 people in Israel subscribe to the original kosher phone, while another 500,000 users have registered in the United States since the option went on the market some six years ago.

While most subscribers are indeed members of an ultra-Orthodox community, people from other walks of life have opted for the kosher phone as well, hoping to keep their children away from inappropriate content.

Seelenfreund believes that the kosher phone market will continue to expand as members of the ultra-Orthodox community strive to find a balance between their observant lifestyles and modern occupations.

“This is why we decided to offer a special product to the one-million-strong Haredim, or so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, who speak mostly Yiddish,” he says. “The new phone technology is definitely in conflict with their conservative way of life, so the products have to be as basic as possible."

Conservative Rabbi Shmuel Lewis says it is not technology, per se, that ultra-Orthodox Jews view as threatening, but rather the level of access it provides to forbidden temptations. “This community doesn’t want its people to be exposed to the outside world, so they are slowing down the process, but the question is to what extent will they succeed?” he asks.

While many Orthodox Jews view the Internet, in particular, as an unbounded way of accessing inappropriate information, others take the benefits of the world wide web in stride.

Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, of the Orthodox outreach educational center Aish Hatorah, believes that the internet can actually assist spiritual experiences and provide a forum for believers' social needs.

“Internet is a very powerful tool to reach non-religious people and help them to learn more about religious practice," says Coopersmith, who runs the movement's website, Aish.com.

“When we created Aish.com almost 15 years ago, we realized that technologies can also be used in our advantage, to enhance the sense of belonging to the community," says Coopersmith, adding that  Aish.com itself has inspired readers to increase their learning of Torah and affiliation with Jewish organizations.

Although he does indulge in new technologies such as Facebook and Twitter on behalf of Aish.com, Rabbi Coopersmith himself has a kosher cell-phone and no Internet access at home.

"I don’t want technology to take over my entire life, so I am open to it but within my limitations,” he said.

Coopersmith believes that Orthodox Jews on a whole do not want to be cut off from the world, they just want access in limitation. “It is precisely because the majority of them are open to technology that kosher phones exist,” he says.

Old tradition and modern technology can work well together, says Coopersmith, but only “as long as we have the freedom to practice our religion the way we want to, so that we can set our own terms on how to use new technologies.”