Forward Thinking

WhatsApp Is Way of Life for Israelis

By Marcy Oster

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(JTA) — When my simple Nokia flip-phone broke last year and could not be repaired because it was so old, I upgraded – kicking and screaming – to an iPhone.

My 14-year-old son – who is dying for a smartphone but has to make do with his iPod – handled downloading the apps, telling me he would put on all the essentials. One of the most useful ones turned out to be WhatsApp, which allows me to send free text messages throughout the world and to be part of texting groups.

The app, which has only been around a few years, recently made some headlines for being the latest piece of technology banned by haredi Jews. Der Blatt, a Yiddish-language newspaper published by members of the Satmar Hasidic group in Brooklyn, reported last month that rabbis overseeing divorces say that WhatsApp is “the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the Forward reported this week.

In the United States, WhatsApp is gaining in popularity, particularly among niche users like teens, immigrants, people with friends and family abroad – and, apparently the fervently Orthodox — but it still lacks the wide, mainstream audience enjoyed by social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google Chats.

Not so Israel. Here, WhatsApp is a way of life. I’m on several WhatsApp groups – including one for parents of my younger son’s Little League team, one for parents of my youngest daughter’s youth group and a family group that consists of me and my three oldest children (asking them to do chores when I am away from home became so much easier!).

I clearly do not use WhatsApp to its fullest potential. My kids’ phones are constantly dinging with messages from their friends and their groups of friends. On Saturday night after several dings on her phone, my oldest daughter took a look and started shouting – one of her former high school classmates had just announced her engagement to their entire graduating class, who have their own WhatsApp group.

My younger daughter who is a senior in high school recently got her first smart phone, and we did it in part because of WhatsApp. When she missed several social events because the news had been distributed only on WhatsApp, we told her to designate friends to call her when such news went out. But when her teachers started sending out notices for extra study sessions leading up to the Bagrut exams on WhatsApp, we knew we had been out-app-maneuvered.

I don’t know if WhatsApp has penetrated the haredi Orthodox community to that extent, but it’s clearly in wide use since a Satmar-run web and smart phone filtering company feels the need to develop a mechanism for blocking photos and videos sent through it. The WhatsApp filter will be available next week, the Forward reported.

I have no doubt that many haredi WhatsApp users are debating the finer points of the Talmud in their WhatsApp group, but others may be using it for (gasp) socializing.

I guess the next technological breakthrough will have to be a WhatsApp filter blocker.


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