Sunday, November 4, 2007

Do you need a Kosher Phone?

When Larry Pinczower switches on his cellphone, the seal of a rabbinate council appears. Unable to send text messages, take photographs or connect to the Internet, his phone is a religiously approved adaptation to modernity by the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli life.

More than 10,000 numbers for phone sex, dating services and the like are blocked, and rabbinical overseers ensure that the lists are up to date. Calls to other kosher phones are less than 2 cents a minute, compared with 9.5 cents for normal phones. But on the Sabbath any call costs $2.44 a minute, a steep religious penalty.

“You pay less and you’re playing by the rules,” Mr. Pinczower, 39, said. “You’re using technology but in a way that maintains religious integrity.”

A community of at least 800,000 people — out of 5.4 million Jews living in Israel, a country of 7.1 million — the ultra-Orthodox, though comparatively poor, form a distinct, growing and important market, and Israeli companies are paying attention. While there are rabbinical strictures against watching television, using computers for leisure, immodest attire and unsupervised mixing of men and women, the Israeli market economy has adjusted in creative and surprising ways.

Some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work regular jobs, preferring religious study. More than 50 percent live below the poverty line and get state allowances, compared with 15 percent of the rest of the population, and most families have six or seven children, said Momi Dahan, an economist at the School of Public Policy at Hebrew University.

But because they live in tight communities like this one, and obey their rabbis, they have significant power in the marketplace, as well as in the voting booth, said Rafi Melnick, dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.

“You see it in sectors like food, consumer products and transport companies,” he said. The Israeli airline El Al is now privatized. “But they continue not to fly on Saturday,” Mr. Melnick said, in order to keep ultra-Orthodox customers.

Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, studied ultra-Orthodox shopping patterns. “There are lines of cellphones and credit cards and Internet suppliers and software and DVDs and clothes and so many things produced or altered or koshered for them, because they have a certain organized power to get the producers to make what they want,” she said.

Beit Shemesh is a good example, a modern, attractive town of 73,000 people. There is a more secular part, with a large mall, and an ultra-Orthodox district, Ramat Beit Shemesh, which is divided into two. Bet, or B, is very strict, with 15,700 people. Aleph, or A, up the hill, is somewhat more flexible and contains 17,100 people, including a growing number of North American and European Jews who wanted to join an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.

-A Modern Marketplace for Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox

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