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From Koogle to Yideotube, efforts to provide a kosher Internet

COLUMN ONE

As more ultra-Orthodox Jews venture online, various providers in Israel are offering them pre-screened access so they can avoid inadvertently viewing any offensive content.

November 19, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

At the same time, Haredi rabbis remain deeply divided on what kosher Internet should look like, who should have access and which websites should be blocked.

"So far they haven't been able to find a clear line, as they have with cellphones," said Mordecai Plaut, an Orthodox rabbi who operates an English-language Haredi website. "They are still trying to figure out a way to throw out the bathwater and keep the baby."

For example, pornography isn't the only thing that upsets some rabbis. They've also expressed concern about websites that espouse other faiths, such as Christianity or Islam. They worry Haredim will waste too much time surfing trivial news and entertainment sites, and not spend enough time in religious reflection.

Access to the Internet has also exposed Haredim, who traditionally have taken their direction only from rabbis, to alternate opinions.

"It's also about control," said one ultra-Orthodox Internet professional who didn't want to be identified criticizing rabbis.

Hoping to fill the void, several Internet providers are developing customized products for the ultra-Orthodox community, combining filters, web-blocking software and dedicated servers designed to ensure control.

Nativ, which employs the female Web monitors, offers Internet service to about 20,000 ultra-Orthodox customers. The company, based in Bnei Berek just outside Tel Aviv, adheres to strict religious guidelines, employing only Haredi workers and taking instructions from rabbis.

Deputy chief executive Yechiel Twersky is dressed in a 19th century black suit with hat and sidelocks, yet has the very 21st century habit of checking his Blackberry while holding conversations.

Twersky installs "unhackable" programs on customers' computers to ensure that all Internet access goes through Nativ. The standard service offers about 2,200 websites, mostly government agencies and Haredi businesses. All forms of social media, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, are blocked, as are Google images. Customers who want access to anything else, such as a journalist who wants to read a particular news site or a doctor who needs a medical research page, must provide a letter from his or her rabbi. Then the female monitors inspect the site.

Software engineer Yaniv Sharon, a Haredi father of five from Rehovot, has tried all the providers, but says none offer the right balance of protection from inappropriate images and access to websites he needs for his Web-design business.

So Sharon is braving the Internet alone, even though he's worried about even inadvertent exposure to pictures of women.

"Just viewing such a picture damages the soul," he said. "I put my hand up and scroll the page down."

He's been advised to hang a picture of his rabbi on the computer to keep him focused. "It's a constant battle, though."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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