Defying Their Rabbis, More and More Haredim Go Online

Only a few years ago the community used the Internet in secret, but now it has become nearly legitimate. ‘There’s a crazy mass of Haredi users,’ says one industry leader.

Eitan Hawkster

A young Haredi man, wearing black and white Hassidic garb – a long coat and hat – rushes in panic into the waiting room of the famous rabbi, filled with sacred texts.

He passes other Hasidim waiting for the rabbi’s blessing and tells the rabbi’s personal assistant, “the one who deals with sacred matters,” and schedules the rabbi’s visitors.

“I need to see the rabbi urgently! I need a blessing for a match!” he begs. The assistant, with his long beard and long curly sidelocks, firsts wants to know about the young man’s studies in yeshiva.

“I’m learning the tractate of Baba Kama in the Babylonian Talmud, the tractate of Brachot in the Jerusalem Talmud – and physics,” he answers.

The tough and experienced assistant is not flustered. “Quantum mechanics or relativity?”

“Quantum,” answers the student.

“Photoelectric effect or quantum vacuum zero-point energy?” he asks.

“Zero-point,” he replies.

“What was your last test grade?”

“It was 98, on the first try. I never take make-up exams,” says the young man.

Then the assistant lowers his voice: “I have an excellent match for you – my daughter.”

This clip is part of a digital campaign put online by the Jerusalem College of Technology – Lev Academic Center, which offers academic studies for Haredim.

JCT is not the only one. Bezeq, Israel’s biggest telecommunications company, recently produced a clip aimed specifically at the Haredi community for its cloud services. The story line revolves around a housing project for the Haredi community, which almost becomes worthless before being saved at the last minute by a copy of the plans stored in Bezeq’s cloud database.

It was just a few years ago that the rabbis fought the Internet with all their power and the few Haredim who dared to use it did so in secret. The rabbis still look askance at online activity, but gradually the Web has come close to winning legitimacy. Today, more and more websites are being set up and the number of users has skyrocketed. Even the big advertisers like Bezeq are rushing into the Haredi digital market.

The phenomenon has many social and cultural implications for the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society and the workplace, not to mention many new business opportunities. Google has jumped on the bandwagon and organized the first conference of its kind for Haredi advertisers last week called “A Friday night of cholent and digital.”

Held in cooperation with the Haredi advertising agency Max Digital, Google presented ad tools for the Haredi community.

Call to advertisers

“Our message at the conference is to call for all the Haredi advertising agencies to become our competitors. We need to reinvent the Haredi advertising market,” says Simcha Margaliot, one of the partners of Max Digital. Haredi advertising firms need to stop telling their customers there is no digital in the Haredi community, just because they don’t know how to deal with it, he says. “Digital works in the Haredi sector. The field is already ripe and there’s a crazy mass of Haredi users.”

The number of Haredi websites is growing rapidly and Haredim, who traditionally have been very heavy consumers of news, are showing a lot of involvement on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as in Haredi WhatsApp groups, where there are huge numbers of very long discussions.

SimilarWeb, which tracks Internet traffic usage, says the number of monthly visits to Haredi websites is rising fast. There are already 13 active content sites dedicated to the Haredi community, some of which are run by Chabad, which is not considered to be part of the Haredi mainstream.

SimilarWeb’s data show that in April 2013 there were 2.6 million visits a month to Haredi websites through desktop computers. By April 2014 this fell to 2.3 million, mostly because of a major switch to mobile browsing. But a big jump in usage occurred over the past year: Last month, the number of visitors from desktop computers rose to 4.1 million, an 80% increase.

At the same time, SimilarWeb started checking the mobile surfing numbers and discovered the Haredi community to be a major mobile Internet consumer: Many parents have a smartphone or tablet for Internet, but not a computer connected to the Web at home because Haredi educational institutions forbid it. In many other cases, young people and yeshiva students use their own phones at their yeshivas, which have no computers of their own.

Last month, SimilarWeb found that there were 1.9 million visits to the mobile versions of Haredi Internet sites, which means a third of Haredi Internet use is via mobile devices, phones and tablets. Add in desktop and other computers, and Haredi websites draw some seven million monthly visits.

The leading Haredi Internet site, by a large margin, according to a joint survey by Max Digital and SimilarWeb, is Kikar Hashabbat, which has been a partner of Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ynet site since 2012. Kikar Hashabbat gets almost 3 million monthly visits.

Hadrei Haredim, an older and even better-known site, which has changed ownership several times and uncovered many scandals, was in second place with 1.7 monthly visitors. Third place went to niche site belonging to Chabad, COL, which covers Chabad news and reports on the activities of the giant sect’s representatives scattered all over the world. It had 490,000 visitors a month.

Ifat Media Analysis, which monitors the Israeli advertising market, estimates that Haredi advertising is a 150 million-shekel ($39.4 million) a year market. But while the general advertising market has been stagnating in recent years, the Haredi market has been growing as more and more companies discover the potential in the market and adapt products and advertising messages for it.

The exception was 2014, which saw a significant drop in Haredi advertising, in line with the general market, because of Operation Protective Edge. Today, most Haredi-directed advertising appears in the newspapers, which is still the strongest medium for the community, but with a steady leakage to digital.

Daily media use in Israel in 2015 is 62% digital, a trend that applies to the Haredi community, too, says Itai Rauch, who is responsible for advertising agencies at Google Israel. Today there are quite a number of Haredi websites and Youtube channels, but digital advertising aimed at the community is still in diapers, he says. Advertisers are now starting to learn and take advantage of the potential of digital media to reach this group in a more exact and segmented fashion, says Rauch.

Max’s Margaliot, himself Haredi, has worked for seven years in Internet marketing, running ad campaigns for companies both from inside and outside the community.

Convolutions

The Haredi ad business is going through the same convolutions as the general ad industry did a few years ago, when agencies fought going digital because it didn’t pay as well as the traditional channels. Haredi ad executives are used to working with the influential newspapers in the community and are in no hurry to move to the Internet.

“Our goal is to teach all the Haredi ad men to use the digital media,” Margaliot says. “It will help everyone.”

The use by large companies of Internet for Haredim today is out of date, says Margaliot. Some of the digital activity only “retargets” the potential customers, and is being used to identify Haredi users and then market to them in the future, often through the old-school channels.

Often Haredim refuse to identify themselves over the Internet, using it as a tool just to find the information they want and then calling on the phone to complete the sale or sign up.

What has kept some companies from entering the Internet ad market for Haredim is the fear of an angry response from the Haredi rabbis. But this is changing.

It is a “conspiracy of silence,” says Yehudit Ifrah of the Mutag Bepirsum ad agency.

“There is still no official approval to use the Internet. But we have also seen in the last two years that there is a lot more usage via cellular, and the applications being built for it testify to that,” she says. “ But we must note that the language in ads still remains Haredi – and there is no breaking down of the limits there.”

In fact, some advertisers have no choice but to use digital advertising because the Haredi newspapers censor or outright ban certain ads, such as those for higher education. It is not just that the Internet allows advertisers to reach their target audience – sometimes it is the only way to reach them, especially the young people, she says.