Once upon a time, there were twelve tribes in Israel; today there are dozens, if not hundreds.

Religious and secular we all know about, but there are plenty of distinctions as to what kind of religious/ secular tribe you belong to, as well. Each of these groups has its own institutions – houses of worship, schools, philosophers and persons of letters, de facto and dejure leaders, etc. And, their own Internet sites.

Even when it comes to news sites, the Internet has long ceased to be a place where you could just get the “straight story” (Jpost.com excepted, of course!). Today, there are all sorts of websites that, Rashomonlike, tell the same piece of news from alternative viewpoints – viewpoints that, in Israel especially, are notable for their religious orientation.

While there is plenty to say about secular websites (especially since “secular” is, in essence, a point of view about religion), I want to concentrate here on the phenomenon of “religious” websites – sites that cater to groups that have a common point of view about religious matters. There are sites for the national religious (“dati le’umi”) crowd and for haredim – and among the latter, there are sites for members of the haredi Sephardi, Eastern European, and hassidic communities, with many hassidic groups having their own sites.

Or no sites at all. Top Hassidic and Eastern European (“Litvishe”) rabbis long ago banned the Internet altogether, except for work purposes, obviating the need for haredi websites altogether. A notable exception is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has several websites where he publicizes his decisions on matters great and small (http://halachayomit.co.il, among others).

But even so, there are at least half a dozen Haredi sites geared towards people who are theoretically “covered” by the Internet ban, where they report on news from within their communities, and comment on general new stories. Note that all the sites in this story are in Hebrew, but you can easily translate specific web pages on the sites using Google Translate at http://translate.google.com.

Possibly because of the stigma attached to Internet use, none of the haredi sites even come close to the size of Kipa (www.kipa.co.il), a site geared toward the national religious community – one of the few that serves this group (While Arutz 7 also looms large as a site for national-religious surfers, it’s geared more toward politics and hard news, as opposed to Kipa, which is more of a “lifestyle portal”). Kipa has about 300,000 active users, says site editor and CEO Boaz Nachtstern, although he adds that the site does get some haredi visitors.

“We started out 11 years ago, offering first a way to sell hametz before Pessah over the Internet,” says Nachtstern. “Users could save time and trouble by selling hametz online, in a completely halachic manner.”

Since then, the site has grown by leaps and bounds, and today covers news relating to the religious community, and also hosts forums and discussion groups on almost any topic imaginable, from the cost of weddings to how to raise kids properly, to issues as loaded as how gays fit in – or don’t – in the religious community.

The essence of Kipa – and the haredi sites, says Nachstern – is the content the sites deal with.

“We have many stories that would just fall off the radar with a major news site, including stories about the positions of various rabbinical leaders on issues within the community and the nation.”

Another thing Kipa has in common with haredi sites is the fact that Nachstern consults with rabbis on many of the stories he puts online.

“I’ve never been told not to publicize a specific story, but we have written things in a manner that would conform with Halacha [Jewish law].”

Among the stories that Kipa has tried to approach in as level-headed a way as possible were the accusations against former president Moshe Katzav and, especially, the case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon, a story which, Nachstern says, is the most controversial issue Kipa has had to deal with to date.

Although Nachstern says he tries to be objective in his news stories, he doesn’t apologize for having an agenda – the one that the users of his site expect.

“Secular sites, and haredi sites, also have their agendas, which are very clearly stated. When there are conflicts between the national-religious and haredi communities, I naturally will report the story from our community’s point of view, as Haredi sites would from theirs.”

As it happens, I had a good opportunity to do a reality check on national-religious vs. haredi reporting on a conflict issue: A major brawl broke out in Beit Shemesh on Monday over the fate of a school building in the Givat Sharett neighborhood, adjacent to two large national-religious communities, and a large haredi area. It seems that the Haredim are opposed to the opening of a girls’ school in the building, while the parents of the girls attending the school say that the city promised that they would be able to use the building for studies during the coming academic year.

Kipa had a story on the incident, as did one of the Haredi sites, Bhol, and both stories read as expected: the Kipa story places the blame for the incident on “haredi extremists” attacking “national-religious parents” who were promised the building by the city and the Education Ministry, while the haredi site quoted at length the Beit Shemesh municipal spokesperson, who basically laid the blame on the “intransigence” of the school administrators, who insist on opening a girls’ school in “the middle of a haredi neighborhood.”

An analysis of the way this story was reported on the two sites – the nuances, approaches, and content – could keep us busy for a whole article, if not a month’s worth! But I think you get the idea. If nothing else, the Internet has given us an opportunity to give a fair hearing to the various Jewish tribes out there, before we decide which one to join.

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