Friday afternoon can be a stressful time in Stamford Hill, a working class neighborhood in northern London. The Haredi, or ultra orthodox Jews, are in a rush to buy challah, rugalach and other Jewish baked goods so they can take it easy after sunset, when the Sabbath starts.
Resting on the Sabbath is part of an effort to live as closely as possible to Jewish law. But despite this community’s traditional ways, they’re not opposed to newfangled things.
“Anything that can be used to enhance Judaism is welcomed,” says Rabbi Chanoch Kesselman. “But like so many things there are uses and abuses.
Rabbi Chanoch Kesselman represents the main Jewish authority in Britain, the rabbinate. Kesselman says the Internet, for example, offers access to valuable religious texts and discussions. But the rabbi says it can also lead to immodesty. He says that in the same way, cell phones can help people do business or help parents keep track of their children. But they also can lead children astray.
“The rabbinate was very concerned that cell phones with texting facility should not be used by youngsters,” says Kesselman.
Texting is not only a waste of time, the authorities found, it encourages “immodest” exchanges which would not happen on the telephone or face to face. So the rabbinate decided to give its official seal of approval to “kosher” cell phones, stripped down devices which can only receive and make calls. It helps the community feel more comfortable about choosing a phone, he says, much like shopping for kosher food.
“Using a phone with a similar seal on is similar to buying any article that is certified as kosher,” Rabbi Kesselman says.
The pace of passersby becomes more hectic as the Sabbath approaches. Menachem Weinstein is smoking a cigarette outside a synagogue. Before rushing off, he tells me that not all Ultra-Orthodox agree on the need for kosher cell phones.
“I think in this day and age they should be more focusing on, not disallowing stuff, but finding out why the teenagers, because that’s why they made the kosher phone, why the teenagers are abusing it. I have to run,” Weinstein says.
Weinstein races away. Shortly afterwards speakers blast out music, telling the neighborhood that the Sabbath is about to start.
At Rose Communications, the company which sells the phones, Maxi Rose says there are only about 20 to 30 thousand haredi families in the UK, not enough to make it practical for a cellular network to offer Kosher phone service.
“So no network would come really and make those changes,” Rose says. “So the changes had to made from the hardware and software in the device, rather than from network level. So the devices are modified. No cameras allowed, no SMS allowed, no Internet allowed.”
Rose says the phones have been a big hit. Not just to protect children, but among adults who prefer the simplicity. He says there’s also been a kind of crossover appeal, most of his online sales are to non-Jewish customers around the world, to places like Saudi Arabia.
Rabbi Kesselmen reports British Muslims telling him that they too are concerned about the decline in moral standards among Muslim youth. Just as halal or Islamic dietary laws are very similar to kosher, the rabbi says Muslims and other non-Jews have no problem following the lead of “kosher” phones.