September 12th, 2011
08:34 PM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - Showing that modernity might, just might, find its place even in a world predisposed to the most traditional of customs, in walks FaceGlat: an ultra-Orthodox Jewish answer, at least for some, to Facebook.
Among the most conservative of Orthodox Jews, often referred to as Haredi Jews, modesty reigns. Women wear long sleeves and skirts, and they cover their hair after marriage. Men dress as their ancestors did centuries ago. The genders are separated in synagogues, on wedding dance floors and, in certain neighborhoods, on buses.
CNN reported this year on one community newspaper that went so far as to erase women from an iconic news photograph, all in an effort to uphold its values. The paper later apologized, not for its beliefs about modesty and featuring women in photographs but for how the matter was handled.
So social media – which, in the case of Facebook, invite sharing, tagging and gawking at photographs, among other interactions – may not be the most welcoming space for people with this kind of faith.
A 20-something self-taught website builder out of Israel, Yaakov Swisa, seems to be trying to change this.
Ynetnews, an English-language Israeli news site, reported in late July the establishment of FaceGlat, a Swisa-made social network that segregates men and women, blocks immodest advertisements and pictures, and uses a filter to keep language in comments and status updates clean.
“People who are God-fearing and care about their children’s education cannot tolerate the ads and pictures one sees on the regular Facebook,” Ynetnews wrote, quoting Swisa. “I personally know people who have deteriorated spiritually because of all kinds of things they were introduced to there.”
The name FaceGlat is a blending of Facebook with the word glatt, as in “glatt kosher,” the highest level of kosher when it comes to Jewish dietary laws surrounding meat.
FaceGlat, Ynetnews reported Swisa as saying, is “not an alternative for Facebook” but rather “a cleaner option for those who are already there. If it encourages people to open accounts or waste their time instead of studying Torah – it’s a failure. It’s not worth a thing. I promised myself that if that happened I would close it down.”
According to a Le Monde report, posted late last week on Worldcrunch, a still-open FaceGlat has more than 2,000 users and is getting about 100 new accounts per week.
Le Monde said Swisa is administering his fledgling site with “a lot of improvisation.” And even though upon signing up with FaceGlat, members are separated by gender into two distinct networks (click left to join the women, right to join the men), the French newspaper reported that Swisa is looking to purchase software that will automatically find and delete photographs revealing too much skin. Le Monde also said that although his website is available in English and Hebrew, Swisa plans to translate it into Russian and French.
“Orthodox Jews need the Internet, at home and at work alike,” Swisa told Le Monde. “My website allows them to browse freely, while offering maximum security.”
Swisa, who could not be reached Monday for comment, reportedly is a resident of Kfar Chabad in Israel. That village is connected to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic Jewish branch that represents just one expression of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Chabad-Lubavitch is known for its outreach in the secular world and has long used technology “to broadcast Jewish values to a global audience,” said Yaacov Behrman, a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
“Internet, as all media, has both positive and negative aspects,” Behrman said. “The decision of whether to have Internet in the home or not is an individual one. It is imperative for parents to monitor the level of access made available to their children,” and that’s relevant no matter how religious the family is.
But for many others living in the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox world, use of media – including television, films and secular newspapers - is greatly discouraged. Social media, especially, are “like the Wild West,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an advocacy organization for Haredi Jews.
“Internet is fully accepted for work purposes” and can only be used in the home with “strict control,” Shafran said. “Social media is still where the line is drawn.”
He said, “The very medium itself is something we tend to shun because it’s something that’s not easily contained. Once a person’s involved, it tends to take over one’s life. … We prefer people to meet their friends by turning to them and talking to them.”
So whether FaceGlat can gain much of a following in the social media scramble remains questionable. Even Behrman of Chabad-Lubavitch, who emphasized that the new site has no official connection to his movement, isn’t a member.
“Nope,” Behrman said. “I use Facebook.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.