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.
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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.
Yonatan Levkowitz, one of the co-secretaries of the Rabbinical Committee for Communications, is a much more significant figure working behind the scenes. He is a follower of Ger Hasidism, a community to which Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman also belongs.
Since 2016, Levkowitz hasn’t had signature authority on the committee, but his presence has an impact on its conduct. “He is the real boss,” said one source familiar with its work.
A report released in March by the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations sheds light on how the committee works and offers hints that someone is earning substantial amounts of money from an operation that is supposed to be not-for-profit.
The committee’s work was initially funded directly by the cellular service companies. In 2006, the panel received 620,000 shekels ($177,000 at current exchange rates) in payments for issuing kashrut certificates for phones and for operating a telephone service center that monitored “problematic” phone lines that offered erotic services, for example.
Surprisingly, in 2007, although the committee continued operating, its revenue sank to just 20,000 shekels. Where had the money gone?
The committee’s 2007 report said its operations had been transferred to private business interests, which it said had no connection to any committee member. The committee was limiting its activities to granting kashrut approval and public relations.
When the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations asked how a nonprofit entity could transfer its operations to a private business, the committee offered a new version of events: It was no longer active and had shut down its telephone center, and was therefore no longer generating revenue.
The revised version raises questions, particularly because the cellphone companies and committee workers have told TheMarker that the committee continues to grant kashrut approval and the call center continues to function. And funds continue to be paid – at least 200,000 shekels annually paid by the cellular firms – to anonymous private entities without any transparency. In return for the revenue, Dweck manages the censorship operations for the ultra-Orthodox community. Dweck and committee officials above him have absolute control over the flow of information to hundreds of thousands of Haredim – with the express permission of the cellular operators and the Communications Ministry.
The committee has over the years significantly expanded its operations, and under the direction of the rabbis has blocked virtually all content that was not a vital service or Torah lesson. One exception, based on documents TheMarker obtained, was a Haredi news service that paid the committee 2,100 shekels a month to be designated kosher.
Dweck currently manages system in reverse. Everything is automatically blocked, except for what is whitelisted as kosher and the committee isn’t explaining why. “Getting kashrut approval… doesn’t require us, who grant the approval, to reveal our considerations,” an official email from the committee stated.
‘What did I do?’
Dweck, who got sued, tried over and over to dodge the issue. “I cut your lines? What did I do?” he asked. “Why don’t you sue the Partner [Communications] employee who blocked this telephone? Do I need to give you an accounting?”
After the court heard Dweck out of the presence of the plaintiff, the judges ruled in Dweck’s favor. The court ruled that the plaintiff should submit a new application to have his line approved, and that the committee rather than Dweck personally was the proper defendant – even though he is the committee. TheMarker found that the line was still blocked as of early July.
Voice information services, which are very popular in the Haredi community, can be very lucrative for line owners using a revenue-sharing model between the line’s operator and the cellular company. One of the biggest companies in the Haredi community that helps services to set up interactive voice response technology is Yemot Hamashiach.
Owned by Menahem Lenchner, who is affiliated with Chabad Hasidism, the company has battled with the committee for years for repeatedly blocking lines without explanation that the company had set up for its Haredi customers. According to a lawsuit, the blocked lines included a service providing public transportation schedules, information from the Bnei Brak municipality, Torah lessons and the recitation of Psalms for a sick child.
Yemot Hamashiach has two competitors -- Kol Kasher and Kreuss Communications. If you call the committee, you get a recorded message recommending the voice services of Kol Kasher, which is owned by Arye Litzman, the deputy health minister’s nephew. Deputy Health Minister Litzman said in response that he is not familiar with Kol Kasher and that the company has never discussed the business with him.
Services such as shared voice messaging among family members as well as news and public transportation information are all off limits for Yemot Hamashiach, but they are offered by Kol Kasher.
Yemot Hamashiach took legal action against the committee after it blocked the company’s services. In 2014, the committee blocked a phone number that provided civil defense siren alerts but then backtracked.
The committee provided examples of what it said was hundreds of content services that it had approved. It claimed that Yemot Hamashaiach’s goal was simply to make money from connectivity fees, and that the purpose of its legal action was to completely eliminate the kashrut approval process.
The cellular companies responded to Yemot Hamashiach’s suit by saying they are operating in accordance with the law, which allows groups of subscribers to block some services. Users with kosher phone numbers sign a document in which they agree to adhere to the rabbinic committee decisions
A spokesman for the committee responduing to TheMarker queries said, “The committe was founded by Godeli Yisrael [important scholars] and follows their instructions. All the allegations originate from interested parties. Every user who purchases a kosher device did so of his free choice, and chose to adhere to the rabbis’ instructions to protect himself and his household from spiritual harm.”
Wearing two hats
The big money, however, isn’t in content services but the sale of cellular devices. The committee itself, or at least its members, have acted to dominate the marketing and distribution system while taking in millions of shekels. Anyone who doesn’t cooperate finds himself without kashrut approval – or with a blocked telephone.
Haredi sources say that for at least five years, Levkowitz has been involved in selling cellular devices that he was approving as kosher. Dweck has led an unprecedented move to take control of the entire value chain of the ultra-Orthodox cellular market.
He has done this by wearing two hats. On the one hand, he represents the committee. On the other hand, Dweck’s wife, Rachel, owns a cellular company called Shefi.
Dweck forces importers to market and distribute devices that receive kashrut approval solely through him. He operates a marketing network for everything through his Bnei Brak home. He has agents throughout the country who receive orders from him to ship packages of kosher devices from place to place. The income the couple earns from their cellular business is up to a million shekels in a good month.
An agreement one importer had to sign that was obtained by TheMarker reveals that, among other things, the importer is obliged to market the kosher devices “only through a marketer who is authorized by the committee.” In fact, the marketing is done by Dweck and his wife, who are the only ones authorized by the committee. Importers agree that, if the violate any rules – some of which deal solely with marketing and sales – they forfeit the right complain over the loss of kashrut approval.
The rabbinical committee decided that not only did the phone have to be kosher but so did the store selling it, meaning it could only sell phones deemed kosher by the committee.
Dweck spelled out the requirements last year: Retailers can’t move merchandise from branch to branch without the committee’s express approval. The name, address, phone number and other details of every buyer purchasing a phone must be given to the committee. Importers can only sell their phones at committee-approved stores.
In another email from August 2018, the committee informed store owners that a new model of phone has been given a kashrut certificate, but added “the approval only applies to devices sold through sellers approved by us,” in other words by the Dwecks.
Importers or stores that sell phones not approved by the committee face severe penalties – a loss of their kashrut certificate and even the possibility that phone users will get a message on their devices informing them that their previously kosher phone is now “treif” – unkosher.
Because the committee controls kosher phone numbers, it has the capability to identify and block users. Last year when Dweck got involved in a business dispute with the importer of Nokia phones, he used his power with the committee to block hundreds of users' phones. For its part, the committee says the numbers were blocked because even though they were not internet-capable, they could be used to listen to radio broadcasts.
The kosher market is not only big. It also has big turnover. The 500,000 subscribers who have one replace their phone once every two years on average, which represents up to 250,000 devices sold annually. At an average price of 300 shekels a phone, that translates into 75 million shekels in annual sales.
“The sales figures are crazy for kosher devices. These are very cheap phones and have to be replaced often. The segment of the population that needs them has grown a lot,” said one importer who asked not to be named.
Phones that get the committee’s approval are typically more expensive than ones sold directly by importers. “They don’t save anyone a shekel. They just confuse you. There are devices whose prices have fallen but in the [kosher] market they have risen,” said one source.
A Nokia model sold by Dweck can cost 345 shekels while in the open market it can be had for as little as 220 shekels.
The committee remains one of the last bastions of the old ultra-Orthodox community, the one in which powerful rabbis and Torah scholars have led their followers with a strong hand. Today, individual Haredim have more control over their lives and religious practice – except when it comes to a cellphone.
Some observers say the days of its control are numbered. Last month a petition signed by 50,000 Haredim demanded that the Communications Ministry provide greater oversight over a committee accused of self-dealing and political interference, the daily Globes reported.
“The horses have left the stable,” says one Haredi political operative. “The community today wants news and updates by phone. That’s not a problem. But instead of letting whoever wants to, the committee is following the dictates of the most extreme group, the Ger Hasidic court, which bans almost all content. That doesn’t make sense.”