The ex-Jerusalemite behind New York's 'Haredi National Enquirer'
Chaim Shaulson, who made a career out of airing ultra-Orthodox dirty laundry in print, has started a successful blog he claims serves as a deterrent in his community.
After setting another "fire" in New York's ultra-Orthodox community that put him at odds with yet another Hasidic sect, posters went up in the city's Haredi neighborhoods communities in 1996 against Chaim Shaulson, publisher of the independent Hebrew-Yiddish tabloid Panim Hadashot ("A New Face").
Next to a photo of Shaulson, who was publisher, editor, writer and photographer for the controversial publication, the poster referred to Shaulson and his paper as "a cancer that it's permitted to eradicate." In typical Shaulson fashion, he photographed the display and published it in Panim Hadashot - which some have dubbed "the Haredi National Enquirer" - and enjoyed every minute.
It was not the first nor the last time that Haredi leaders and activists have tried to bury Shaulson as a journalist; he claims he was forced to flee Jerusalem to his current home in a New York suburb due to threats to his life.
Over the years, Shaulson, now in his 60s, has made a career out of bringing readers "the inside scoop" on what's going on in Haredi communities, both Hasidic and Lithuanian: the feuds, health issues, legal confrontations, inheritance battles and, of course, the gossip - all the dirty linen that the mainstream Haredi press would never dare print. Nor does Shaulson hesitate to call the most revered rabbinic figures "stupid" or "hypocrite," which naturally puts him way outside the pale as far as the Haredi leadership is concerned.
Last November, Shaulson went online with a Hebrew-Yiddish blog he calls Ba'olamam Shel Haharedim, (In the World of the Haredim), which has given him and his mission the type of exposure he previously could only dream of in 35 years of journalism.
He claims to get some 250,000 hits a day - though that can't be independently verified since Ba'olamam Shel Haredim operates via a blog-publishing service that hosts numerous blogs.
"The biggest problem in the Haredi public is that for decades we've been sweeping things [under the carpet], not wanting to deal publicly with important public issues," Shaulson told his blog readers.
"It got to the point where individuals have been controling the public and bringing us to the state we're in. That's where I come in - to expose this reality so that the public can know what's really happening, and that there's no choice but to work to change things."
No major slip-ups
While even his biggest fans concede he isn't always 100 percent accurate and doesn't always present the responses of those he writes about, Shaulson apparently has excellent sources and to date has yet to have a major slip-up. His only legal entanglement occurred over 20 years ago, when he was tried in New York for allegedly trying to extort $50,000 from the Satmar Rebbe in return for not printing information about him. Shaulson was acquitted.
He denies refusing others the right of reply. "There has never been an instance in which I didn't bring the response of someone who wanted to respond," Shaulson told Haaretz. "I don't call back after someone slams the phone down on me. But anyone who spoke to me got a platform, and the biggest proof is that my blogs are open to all. There is no Haredi blog or website that gives more freedom of response than me."
Ba'olamam Shel Haharedim has benefited since the popular website Behadrei Haharedim, (Behind Closed Doors with the Haredim), after years of provocative reporting, toned itself down in response to rabbinic dictates, and over the past few years has stopped publishing negative information about Haredi communities, particularly the stronger, more established ones such as the Gur Hasidim.
Shaulson, by contrast, has had no qualms about taking on the Gur, Vizhnitz and Satmar Hasidim, among other Haredi groups not known to take insults dispassionately.
He resolved early on not to make money from his publications; he made a living, among other ways, as a rabbi in Brooklyn and an editor of the U.S. edition of Maariv.
Shaulson decided early in his print days to stop accepting advertisements. That, he says, is how people who are made uncomfortable by the exposure have been able to pressure his rivals not to print things that the powerful don't like - by threatening advertisers or newsstands not to do business with papers that don't meet their "standards."
"Money is the weak point," Shaulson says. "Newspapers are afraid, they need money. There are sites that are dying to tell stories, but because they know they'll be closed down, they remain silent.
"I'm the opposite," he says. "At the start, Panim Hadashot had advertisements, but that was how they could fight me. So I declared: No more ads. I survived without ads all these years and that's how I finished them off, they didn't have anything to fight me with."
Shaulson was born to a long-established Jerusalem family affiliated with Chabad. His father, Shmuel Shaulson, was a deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a leader of Agudat Yisrael. Chaim Shaulson began his work in journalism in the 1970s, but also engaged in political activism with his father.
His first foray into publishing was called Tzofar ("Siren" ). It immediately set itself as an alternative to the Aguda paper, Hamodia, with articles that attacked senior rabbis, particularly that generation's leader, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, a determined opponent of Chabad who controlled the content of Hamodia in the days before Shas and Degel Hatorah split off from the movement and started their own newspapers.
Threats and flight
Tzofar evolved into Panim Hadashot. But in 1984, after threats by Shach supporters managed to do in some of his other businesses, Shaulson took his American-born wife and their children and bought one-way tickets to New York, where he put out his Hebrew-Yiddish paper and made his living from Maariv and his rabbinic position.
Last November he shut down the paper and started the blog. "I thought I'd do a post or two a day, that it would take me five minutes. Suddenly there was enormous interest, and what started as 50 posts a month became 200," he says.
"One day there were 12,000 actions on my page, just downloads and printing, not including regular surfing. I was shocked. There's no doubt that a blog is a thousand times more influential. A newspaper can't get everywhere, and this goes out immediately all over the world," he says.
Shaulson believes that the heavy media exposure the Haredi community has been getting has reduced all kinds of hidden abuses.
"Today there is a lot less terror and violence among the Haredim, a tenth of what it once was," he says. "It's over, they know everything's exposed. As long as it wasn't exposed, they were killing people. Today, they know you can't keep things quiet, they think a million times before they do anything."
Why is gossip about rabbinic families or rabbis' health issues legitimate material for publication?
"Ninety-five percent of the material I get goes into the garbage. You can't commit thuggery with information, but if there's a story about a fight between a rabbi's wife and her daughter-in-law, as a result of which there's a rift in a Hasidic sect, and from that people start a wider feud 'on principle' within the sect - people have to know that. People have to know the truth so that it won't happen again. If an admor [Hasidic leader] suddenly disappears, people have to know why. He's like a prime minister.
"I know that I have a deterrent power, in certain Hasidic courts they think twice before terrorizing individuals, lest something leak out to me. I have no interest in fomenting disrespect of rabbis, I have an interest in stopping terror and violence."
Are you under threat?
"First of all, the biggest threats relate to one's livelihood, and as I've already told you, I make a living as a rabbi. I'm set for life, thank God. I've married off all my children, so I don't need much money. That's why I sit quietly and write. That's why they have a serious problem. You can buy a man who's under pressure. I don't need anything.
"I get a lot of threats, and nothing in this world is ever certain. But I'm certain about what I do. My conscience is clear. I know my purpose in life. The more they curse me, the more successful I am. I know I'm doing the right thing. The truth hurts."