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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web a Risk for Ultra-Orthodox

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Ilana, a 27-year-old Israeli, has come to rue the day she ever bought a computer.

The petite mother of four never dreamed the terminal she brought home to study web design would make her an outcast in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town where she lives and turn her life into a waking nightmare.

Ilana's former husband, in the heat of divorce proceedings, complained to the ultra-Orthodox "modesty police" -- a self-organized community watchdog for breaches of religious purity in Israel -- about the computer she brought into the home and the CD-ROMs she viewed with her children.

Members of the modesty police confiscated the machine and threatened to take her children away in legal proceedings in ultra-Orthodox courts, she said.

But Ilana's "sin" is almost as widespread in her community as in any secular society, though few suffer such punishment.

Media experts on the ultra-Orthodox community estimate that computers have made their way into 80 percent of its households, many of which still shun such windows to the modern world as television sets and mass-circulation newspapers.

In addition, an entire industry of movies, talk shows and other entertainment specially tailored to the conservative morals of the ultra-Orthodox has emerged in the last few years in the form of compact discs viewed on computers.

But even the careful efforts to produce "kosher" content have not spared them the wrath of rabbis who issue decrees against the sinful CDs and view the computers on which they are screened as a gateway to yet another abomination, the Internet.

In some cases, one user is made to be an example.

"They called my mother and my two best friends and told them I work in a brothel. They also said I'm a lesbian and if [my friends] don't cut all ties with me, their children will be pulled out of the school system and their pictures would be plastered on every street," Ilana said.

"When you get a call from the modesty police ... you are scared to death, just like in Russia when the KGB came knocking," said Ilana, who immigrated from Moscow in 1990 and embraced the strict Jewish religious lifestyle as a teenager.

The allegations are among the harshest against a woman in the religiously conservative society, but opponents of computers mince no words against the technology either.

"We live in a licentious generation unparalleled since the days of the flood," declares a pamphlet issued by a self-appointed Rabbinical Court on Computers. "The modern age with its mighty means floods our streets with the culture of sinners ... Internet, movies, computer games, secular songs disguised as religious tunes, the garb of Sodom and Gomorrah ... Modernization turned our streets into hell."

The technology first made headway among the religious as an indispensable work tool in a country whose high-tech prowess is frequently compared to that of Silicon Valley.

From there, it was a short leap to using the terminals for recreation, an unknown phenomenon for the observant who believe they must live in God's service, not in pursuit of leisure.

"We wake up in the morning and know exactly how our day will look religiously speaking," said Yossi Miller, a developer of controlled Internet access for religious Jewish institutions.

"We know which shoe we will put on first ... which arm should be put into its sleeve first," he said. "So when you enter an environment where you are not sure of the quality of the material [movies or Internet], no one will be able to give that a stamp of approval."

Ultra-Orthodox defenders of computers say there is no way to stem the tide of progress. And they argue that the wildly popular homegrown film industry, replete with moral tales and lessons in Judaism, is a decent alternative to the steamy plots of Western cinema and television available everywhere in Israel.

"We have something they don't have in Hollywood, which is our message," said Yigal Hoshiar, a religious Jew who formed with his wife, Ayelet, the "Sparks of Holiness" production company in northern Israel.

Hoshiar has produced 30 short and feature-length films in the last few years. His movies follow stringent rules of Jewish modesty to allay the concerns of his audience: no sex, no violence, no women and always end with an educational message.

"Sometimes during production we have to make inquiries [with Jewish scholars] to make sure we haven't deviated. To make a mistake here is eternal, and the responsibility is so huge that we can't just hope for a miracle but have to film with forethought and care," he said.