Feminism, Sex Abuse, Occupation: Facebook Opens Haredi Floodgates on Taboos

A new cadre of ultra-Orthodox social activists is engaging their community in online discussion of heretofore hushed-up topics. Some are even promoting offline encounters as part of their daring mission.

Pnina Pfeuffer and Sam Green, founders of the Haredim Left, Haredim Right political Facebook group for the ultra-Orthodox.
Emil Salman

Some strive to promote discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others host spirited discussions on women’s rights and gender equality. Some encourage posts on anything tangentially related to Israeli identity. Still others work to galvanize interest around a single cause.

Whatever the case, these Facebook groups share a common purpose: helping ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis circumvent barriers that keep their voices from being heard, while encouraging frank and lively discussion. Sometimes it’s about starting a conversation simply for the purpose of having one. More often than not, it’s about helping to bring about social change.

Use of the internet and social media is largely frowned upon in many parts of the Haredi world. But recently, especially over the past year, Facebook has become the means by which a new cadre of ultra-Orthodox social activists is engaging the community in debate and discussion on issues relevant to broader Israeli society, smashing long-held stereotypes in the process.
Topics long considered taboo, such as sexual abuse of children, are now being discussed openly on these platforms, along with issues such as human rights violations in the occupied territories.

“There’s a tendency to think that all that the ultra-Orthodox care about in Israel is getting money for their yeshivas,” says Shmuel Drilman, one of the trailblazers of this new trend, and the founder of WeBetter, a digital advertising firm that helps clients tap into the Haredi market. “We have proved that this is wrong.”

Known in the community for his politically dovish views, Drilman founded a Facebook group about a year ago called Haredim l’Shalom (Haredim for Peace), which describes its mission as follows: “Just like they [Haredim] don’t all look the same, they also have different views, and we will focus on new ideas that arise from our special perspective that can contribute to the political discourse.”

Like many of the other new Facebook groups of this kind, Haredim for Peace – with more than 670 members at present – is closed to people who are not ultra-Orthodox.

Among the largest of these groups is Haredim Yisraelim (Israeli Haredim), boasting nearly 2,000 members. Breaking with the accepted norm, its founder Yehezkel Rosenblum has let in a small number of non-Haredi members, who either grew up in the ultra-Orthodox world or have special insight into it. “I wanted to make the conversation more challenging,” explains the 48-year-old lawyer from the West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit.

Rosenblum was one of the founders of Tov, a now-defunct political party that sought greater integration of ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israeli society. His decision to create the Haredim Yisraelim group was prompted by what he describes as “the realization that a new and rather different generation of Haredim had come of age."

“They are totally Haredi, but also totally Israeli,” Rosenblum explains. “This is a complex animal that doesn’t fit the usual molds. So I created this group in the hope of helping members of this new generation explore their identity.”

Besides posting, sharing and commenting on the group’s Facebook page, Rosenblum encourages his members to interact in the non-virtual world as well, through the lectures and family activities he organizes. And he is not alone: Many of the other new Haredi Facebook groups view the promotion of offline encounters as a big part of their mission.

Asked if he learned anything new about his community since launching his Facebook group a year-and-a-half ago, Rosenblum says: “I was surprised to discover that there are indeed Haredi leftists – or perhaps I should say, Haredim who aren’t totally convinced the right wing has the answers.”

Although he and his co-administrators vet the members, any Facebook user can follow conversation threads in the Israeli Haredim group from afar. Rosenblum says he often comes under pressure to revise this policy and keep the discussions completely private, but he has resisted thus far. “For me, it’s important that people outside are also following what’s happening in these discussions,” he says.

By most counts, no more than about 3,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis are active in these Haredi Facebook groups – a mere fraction of the total population. “That’s the disadvantage of Facebook,” notes Rosenblum. “Most of our community isn’t there yet. On the other hand, the advantage for me is that those who are, are precisely the people we’re looking for.”

Because the numbers are relatively small, he is cautious about drawing far-reaching generalizations about new trends in Haredi society based on views expressed among his group members. “Not only do my members have a different profile from the average Haredi,” Rosenblum says, "they also have a different profile from the average Haredi internet-user.”

Racheli Roshgold (L), Avigayil Karlinsky, Tzviki Fleishman and Yaakov Matan, the founders of Lo Tishtok, in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

'Ripple effect'

Estee Rieder-Indursky, an ultra-Orthodox feminist activist, is not as quick to dismiss the significance of the phenomenon.

“You have to take into account that with social media, there’s a ripple effect that is stronger than the actual numbers,” says Rieder-Indursky, a 43-year-old journalist, who is completing her doctorate in gender studies and is active in several Facebook groups that promote women’s rights in the Haredi world.

In the not-so-distant past, women like her who were interested in breaking into traditional ultra-Orthodox media would often resort to using a male pseudonym or writing under their initials in order to conceal their gender. By allowing them to communicate with the world under their own names now, notes Rieder-Indursky, social media have helped foment a revolution. “The walls of paper that once kept us out have now collapsed,” she observes.

Her initiation into online activism began when she met Esty Shushan, a Haredi pioneer in social media. Shushan, a 38-year-old mother of four, is the woman behind the first Haredi Facebook page dedicated to social change. A few months before the 2013 election in Israel, she created No Voice No Vote – a page that urged Haredim to boycott the ballot box unless the political parties representing them agreed to include women on their Knesset slates. Shushan may have failed in her immediate mission, but her Facebook page (with close to 11,000 followers today) has sparked a burgeoning movement, both online and offline.

One online spin-off, launched in 2014, is Feministiot Mitachat l’Payah (Feminists under the Wig) – a closed group of about 250 members, all women. A more recent newcomer, created in the past year, is Haredi Feminism: It is also a closed ultra-Orthodox group and has some 450 members, at last count, but it allows men to participate in the conversation as well.

Along with two other well-known feminist-activists in the Haredi world – Tali Farkash and Michal Chernovitsky – Shushan and Rieder-Indursky recently set up a new grass-roots organization, Nivcharot (Chosen, or Elected), dedicated to promoting their cause in the non-virtual world as well.

Another organization that started out as a Facebook page, this one devoted to exposing sexual abuse in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community, is Lo Tishtok (Thou Shall Not Be Silent). With close to 7,300 followers today, it has succeeded in creating a conversation about one of the most, if not the most, taboo subjects in the Haredi community, going so far as to post videos of sexual predators in action in an effort to get them locked behind bars.

Like many of their cohort activists, the four founders of Lo Tishtok defy the usual stereotypes linked to ultra-Orthodox Jews: women with large broods of children and men studying in yeshivas.

Fleishman, a 26-year-old Chabadnik with one child, is serving belatedly in the Israeli army while pursuing a degree in psychology. Avigayil Karlinsky, a 27-year-old mother of two, just completed a seven-year stint as a programmer in the high-tech industry and is now studying for her bachelor’s in sociology. Racheli Roshgold, a 29-year-old divorcee with three children who was raised in the extremely closed Ger Hasidic sect, is employed as a gynecological nurse at a religious hospital, and as a sex therapist at a private clinic serving the ultra-Orthodox. A victim of sexual abuse herself – and someone who is not ashamed to speak out about her ordeal as a child – Roshgold is a rarity in her community. Yaakov Matan, a 30-year-old father of three, is working as a counselor for troubled youth while studying for his degree in psychology.

Politics right and left

Devoted to a topic not quite as fraught, another increasingly popular Haredi Facebook group is Haredim Smol, Haredim Yemin (Haredim Left, Haredim Right). Launched this past year, it encourages ultra-Orthodox Israelis to lend their voices to the political debate in the country, no matter what their leanings may be. It already has more than 1,250 members, but co-founder Sam Green does not believe the numbers – whether in this group or any of the others – are the true measure of success. “What’s important here is that a community has emerged that wants something different and has now found an address,” he asserts.

A recently separated father of five, now studying for his bachelor’s degree, Green describes himself as right wing, but notes that “for a peace agreement with good guarantees – the type of guarantees we got when we made peace with the Egyptians – I’d even be willing to give back the Wailing Wall.”

His partner in the venture is Pnina Pfeuffer, a self-described leftist who serves as ultra-Orthodox outreach director of Darkenu, an organization that supports a two-state solution and represents what it calls Israel’s “moderate majority.” Her position at Darkenu didn’t even exist until a few months ago but, as Pfeuffer notes, “There is a growing understanding that you need to engage the Haredi community if you want political change in this country, and that if you want to communicate with Haredim, you need to be able to speak to them in a language and in terms they understand.”

Pfeuffer, a 37-year-old divorced mother of two, started out as a social media activist in the Haredim for Peace Facebook group, in which she is still quite active. Like many of her ultra-Orthodox peers in this realm, she sees social media not merely as a place for venting frustrations and floating ideas, but also as a springboard for social and political change in the real world. In recent weeks, among other activities she’s organized, was a tour of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem for a group of ultra-Orthodox journalists.

Although they find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Green has a great deal of respect for his co-administrator. “Pnina is the only leftist I know who does good work for the left,” he notes. “She simply does it in a way that doesn’t raise antagonism.”

That is not entirely true: When one mainstream Haredi publication got wind of her plans to bring members of the ultra-Orthodox press on the East Jerusalem tour, it announced an immediate and very public boycott of the effort. But Pfeuffer, who has grown accustomed to ticking off the Haredi establishment and getting flack for things she says and does, takes it all in stride.

“As a firm believer in full disclosure and honest reporting, I stay above board and state my intentions clearly,” she says. “My hope is that as time goes on, my efforts will be recognized as a viable option for cooperation between the Haredim and the moderate majority that view the Jewish state as a homeland for the many diverse groups living in it."