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Chameleon (Zikit, in Hebrew) could not understand. "Last night, I offered one kollel student who came to complain that he doesn't have any food for his children, a job in a Talmud Torah - and he was deeply insulted."

So speaks a participant in the Haredi Internet forum, B'Hadrei Haredim (or "in the Haredi inner sanctum" - a Hebrew pun). Chameleon continues:

"He'd rather roam around the kollel and beg for someone to sign a guarantee for NIS 2,000 from a gamach [charitable loan society] and at the same time look down condescendingly at Boaz, who cleans the synagogue every day. Why do you, Rabbi Moishe, consider yourself more important than Boaz? Because you play honor games and starve your children and household, while Boaz the righteous man merely earns a living?"

That is the beginning of one of the most important and pointed discussions ever to take place in B'Hadrei Hadarim. The discussion sheds light on the serious repercussions of nurturing the ideal of "Torato Omanuto" (the study of Torah is one's livelihood) in Haredi society and unequivocally and strongly advocates against parasitism.

Needless to say, never has such open criticism of such a sensitive issue appeared in the Haredi press or any other internal forum.

"The Sages resolutely stated `Flay a carcass in the street rather than depend on others for your living.' But the mentality of `is passt nischt' - Yiddish for `it doesn't befit me' - has spread in our midst," Chameleon writes with typical sarcasm. "Anyone aware of the miserable situation today knows that the Haredi educational method has gone bankrupt. People aren't taught to work and prefer to appeal to the gamachs and live from one handout to the next, the main thing is not to work and `be disgraced.' Today it's actually respectable to be a number on the lists of charitable committees - to become an official burden on the public coffers."

Later on Chamelon adds: "It is perhaps possible to come to terms with 500 loafers in the kollels, but only the kind that really will be studying. But not with 50,000 loafers in every neighborhood and two-and-a-half workers who support everyone."

This is not the first time that dirty laundry is being washed in public on the forum without fear of hilul Hashem (desecration of God's name). B'Hadrei Haredim has been operating for around a year-and-a-half on the Hyde Park forum site, and enjoys some of the forum's highest ratings and offers a free platform for Haredi surfers. According to those in the know, thousands of surfers visit the site. One participant in the forum says that some surfers give printouts of the forum's discussions to their friends and relatives who are not connected.

Self-criticism and the absence of self-righteousness are the biggest novelties in B'Hadrei Haredim. There you can follow pointed discussions of a series of issues that the Haredi public has thus far refrained from discussing in public - including among others, going to work and enlisting in the army, the problem of poverty, sex crimes (primarily in the mikvehs, i.e., ritual baths), quality of education (the level of the teachers, beatings, pirate transportation companies) and Haredi sexuality alongside sharp critiques of the press and disparagement of politicians and hacks.

The forum's participants - many of whom belong to the Haredi media clique, such as journalists, public relations people or aides to Knesset members - enjoy slaughtering sacred cows, the institution of matchmaking, for example, or the gamachs.

They even dare to criticize the rabbis and point to a drop in their stature. "Are the great sages of Israel and admors [leaders of Hasidic courts] of today really so different from the great sages of Israel and admors of 150 years ago?" Chameleon asks. "Or is it the public that has changed? I would certainly say that there are today some fairly average yeshiva heads whose new interpretations are as significant as those that appear in the writings of earlier scholars, those nefilei kedem [early giants] - and not one of them would today attain the degree of admiration the latter had. Maybe it's folklore? Or perhaps today's public will not allow such absolute control?"

And a surfer who uses the name Tzofeh u'mabit (watches and observes) responds to Chamelon:

"I believe that our generation really is an orphaned generation with no true great scholars. All streams of Judaism share this sense of being orphaned, and it's not because we know the great scholars better, but because that's what they are. This is a superficial and Lilliputian generation and the `great scholars' correspond accordingly."

The founder of this unique forum uses the name David10. As he refused to be interviewed for this article, the information about him was obtained from forum participants. David10 is a Lubavitcher Hasid in his late 30s, a former journalist in the general press who now does public relations for Tzirei Chabad (the Lubavitcher youth movement). He reads Harry Potter books, according to what he has said on the forum, and is known as the author of books about Chabad Hasidism, one of which even analyzes its messianic faction, for which he was persecuted for by members of his community.

One forum participant says that David10 may be trying to keep a low profile for fear that derogatory flyers against him and against surfing the site will be circulated.

The exchange of ideas and the criticism of intrinsic issues is only one aspect of B'Hadrei Haredim. One of its main goals is to establish a reliable source of information on the Haredi world, including what goes on in the back rooms.

In response to a report on a synagogue sexton who was accused of performing indecent acts on youths, David10 tells the surfer who provided the report, "Mendy, keep on sending the reports. What's to be done, the rug is no longer big enough to hide everything and the stories are seeping out." Then an interesting discussion begins on whether it is essential to report on sex crimes in Haredi society or if it is just sensationalizing the forum.

Several participants tend to regularly scan the secular and religious press and post any item or article related to Haredim as soon as it is published. The reactions, however, are often defensive and predictable. But more than anything else, this endeavor reflects the Haredim's almost obsessive interest in how they are portrayed in the secular media and perhaps also their desire to appear better in the eyes of the secular.

It is hard to ignore the cliquish nature of B'Hadrei Haredim. The feeling that arises after reading some clusters (a series of postings on a given topic) is that the forum is a gossip column in every respect. So a cluster about an important issue such as rapes in ritual baths is likely to elicit fewer responses than a rumor about the impending engagement of Menachem Toker, the Radio Kol Hai anchor who is considered the star of Haredi radio anchors. Either way, B'Hadrei Haredim offers secular surfers a rare opportunity: to observe internal Haredi discussions and private living room conversations as if with a unique ultrasound device.

It is possible to see what issues are of concern among themselves and also hear the tone of the conversations, what sparks a storm and what leaves surfers indifferent. Perhaps more than anything else, observing the forum enables you to get acquainted with the other, human side of Haredim - doubts, criticisms and sarcastic aspects are expressed and clearly formulated. At the same time, there is gossiping provoked by petty items and clear engrossment in internal politics; they are open about some issues, but conservative and fanatic about others.

Rebels at heart

The amazing thing about B'Hadrei Haredim is the play on words in its name (a variation on "B'Hadrei Hadarim" literally, the innermost, most secret rooms). In the innermost room, clouded in virtual mystery (the word, "room" also has a virtual meaning), the usual faithful citizens dare to speak out on what's on their minds and express their criticisms of what is rotten in the realm. And the question is: Is this underground forum nothing more than a place for griping. as some of its faithful surfers claim, or does it represent a potential for genuine protest, an organ for people with independent opinions that could rise to the surface and spread and influence the agenda of Haredi society?

Lazer Plass, a regular surfer on B'Hadrei Haredim who used to be Haredi and uses as his moniker the Hebrew acronym of "former Haredi" is convinced, "The forum's participants are rebels at heart. No rabbi has yet given approval for the Internet and the fact that they are connected is already a statement."

He says the forum is reminiscent of the enthusiastic surfing of Iranians. "After all, Haredim live in a kind of totalitarian state," says Plass. This is a significant phenomenon, he says, and estimates that thousands of Haredim visit the site and read the discussions, even if they are not active participants. "You can see on the forum itself that there's a huge difference between the number of reactions and the number of visits to each cluster," he says.

Plass, the media adviser of Prof. Uzi Even who runs the Tapuz portal's forum for people questioning their religious observance, does not hide his amazement over the openness of B'Hadrei Haredim's participants. Once, after surfing on a Shabbat, he was politely asked to respect the forum's participants. He agreed, but not before the issue was discussed on the forum. Since then, although he does not hide his real identity or his leftist views and even though he ostensibly represents everything that Haredim should despise, he has never been stoned in the virtual public square.

In contrast to Plass, Haredi media people are usually perplexed by the portrayal of the forum as an important, representative phenomenon and tend to belittle its value. At worst, they see it as a place "for promoting the interests" of its participants and regularly defaming certain figures.

"The forum is the dark room of the Haredi media," says Man D'hamar (an Aramaic phrase from the Talmud that means "opinion holder") one of the two deputy forum managers, a young Haredi journalist who writes for one of the Haredi dailies. "It's instead of sitting in Beit Sokolov over coffee and cigarette and finding out everything that's going on, for griping and venting your belly aches." Man D'hamar believes that the Haredi masses do not surf on the forum nor do businessmen because they don't have the time for it.

Unlike him, Dolly the Sheep feels the forum is like a support group. "For a while, the forum was a social venue for me. I'm sure that it serves instead of friends for quite a few people," she says. The sheep is an intelligent, 22-year-old, amazingly sharp-tongued woman from Jerusalem who is a graduate of a Bais Yaakov seminary and one of nine children. She describes herself as "a gray Haredit." She lives with her parents, whom she says she "taught" to accept remarks and actions that are contrary to their views. In the forum, she voices her leftist views, which have no outlet at home or in the Haredi press where she writes.

"Knowing about this forum provides a sense of release. Finally, you can freely express yourself without constantly thinking about what others will say," says Dolly the Sheep.

The editor of the newspaper, Bakehilla (in the community), Dudi Zilberschlag, who is notoriously mentioned often on the forum, on the other hand, questions its importance, even though he says he has never surfed on it and has only heard about from the reports of others. He says it is a closed circle of frustrated people engaging in gossip and "sinking low" and claims that journalists from a competing paper, Mishpaha (family) make sure to regularly slander him on the forum. "This anonymity is a weakness," Zilberschlag says. "Where there are no restrictions, there is no order. I, for example, have never used an alias when writing a column." However, he says, the great enthusiasm over the forum stems from the fact that it is a closed society that is searching for a place for its protest. And, yet, Mishpaha also has received quite a bit of criticism. For example, the new economics section of the paper was put down as a collection of consumer bulletins and advertisements.

Still, it seems that B'Hadrei Haredim is observing the restrictions of polite discourse. That is in contrast to other Haredi forums such as Neta'im on the Tapuz portal, where in the past surfers managed to irritate and violently eject other surfers and those whose goal was purely missionary and aimed at bringing people back to religious observance.

Its success also possibly stems from the tough management style of the forum's founder, David10, who unsentimentally censors every offensive posting and relentlessly censures, at the risk of being a nuisance, anyone who deviates from the forum's rules.

A favorite pastime of surfers on the site is a perpetual guessing game and spreading of rumors about the identity of participants. The editor of the local paper, Hashavua Beyerushalayim (this week in Jerusalem), Yaakov Rivlin, is a regular surfer who uses two names, his real name and an alias (or several aliases according to other participants) and contrary to Zilberschlag, he says the forum offers an important alternative to the written media: "Whoever surfs is much more liberal in his opinions and his lifestyle than he is capable of writing about in his newspaper column. For the simple reason that there are some topics which if I write about them, they'll simply burn the newspaper."

Recently, Bakehilla canceled an interview with Eli Suissa for the official reason that it was "at the rabbis' request." On the forum, knowledgeable individuals related that Eli Yishai exerted strong pressure on Zilberschlag. Other surfers came to his defense. The full interview eventually appeared on the forum.

Despite the reservations of some surfers, it does seem that the forum is slowly formulating an agenda, with the help of the forum manager, which promotes controversial issues. Thus under the heading "Murder in a Haredi paper?" there was a discussion of the use of the word "murder" in reports in the Haredi press, which did not follow the general press in Israel in its coverage of the story of the murder of Hodaya Kedem. "The moment it became clear that it was a murder, the papers did a flip-flop backward," Man D'hamar wrote derisively.

Murder, like bank robbery or rape, is a topic that is not mentioned in the Haredi press. The standard excuse for this censorship is self-righteous: protecting the tender souls of the children who might read about these things.

Most of those commenting on the discussion did accept the censorship, but one surfer known as Mehagoren (from the silo), who raised the issue for discussion, commented in conclusion "Yated Ne'eman [a Haredi paper] this morning reported the discovery of the body of the Arab girl. She was murdered for some reason. Is the murder of an Arab man or women not a negative thing? Maybe it's actually positive!"

Crossing the line

A drama that occurred some two weeks ago (8.12.02) illustrates where the line that should never be crossed actually lies. One surfer, Deganit-Hala, dared to touch on a sacred issue: large families and the problem of poverty.

"What do you think about the high birth rate among our public?" she asked. "Does it stem, in your opinion, from a genuine desire for a large family, or from some social convention or a fear of using contraceptive means. It's a little scary to think about it, that people bring children into the world because the rabbi said so, isn't it? I personally feel that you have to want it and something like this can't happen because of a commandment."

However, the surfer did not leave it just at her own personal feeling. Her agenda is definitely a social one, and she clearly sought to prompt a response. "As a whole, in my opinion, it's unfair" she continues, "that the seminary girls are told that their role is to support the family, raise the kids and so on and not to dare, heaven forbid, to use contraceptives. What do you think?"

That was the beginning of a fascinating discussion of one of the most sensitive subjects in Haredi society - family planning and the link between encouraging a high birthrate and poverty. No less fascinating was the dynamic that evolved, as the debate intensified and became a gender issue, between the men and women, and also fascinating was the debate among the women themselves. But in the end, after a long cluster, the forum manager decided to quell the discussion.

"I am very happy that the forum started discussing real and infrequently discussed problems in our Haredi world," wrote Hitbaharut (becoming clear). She told of a marriage-counseling course she was taking under bona-fide Haredi auspices and explained that such a discussion of emotions and ideas would enable us to be "more sophisticated in our ability to strive for the good in our observance of the commandments."

While the vast majority of the men were hesitant about discussing family planning, the birth rate and poverty because "it is a subject that is worthy of modesty" as one surfer put it, the women actually wanted to talk about it. "Every one of us talks about in the innermost rooms with her friends," one surfer called Atara, wrote. "And why shouldn't we talk about it in B'Hadrei Haredim? A lot of sacred cows have been slaughtered here."