News Startups Guide

News and investigations from within ultra-orthodox Judaism

May 26, 2011

FailedMessiah.pngST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — A few days after a team of Navy SEALS killed Al Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden, Shmarya Rosenberg, whose website is perhaps the Internet’s only English-language news source devoted to news from the insular world of ultra-orthodox Judaism, received a tip from one of his readers in Brooklyn. The reader had e-mailed him a scanned picture from a Yiddish-language newspaper that included the now-famous Situation Room photograph of President Obama and his national security staff receiving updates on the operation in Pakistan–except that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Council Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason, the only two women in the photo, had been airbrushed out.

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    • To Rosenberg, a former member of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement whose website has been instrumental in bringing scandals and controversies from within ultra-orthodoxy to the secular world’s attention, the photo was nothing special. “I almost didn’t print the Hillary picture,” he says, explaining that he initially thought the picture was almost too mundane to be worth publishing. “Taking women out is so common now in these publications that there’s nothing special about it, except that it was that picture, and that picture is so iconic. It was a combination of that and it being a slow news day so I thought, ‘alright, I’ll put it in.'”

      He published the photograph on the night of May 5th, a Thursday. Rosenberg, who is a practicing orthodox Jew, was religiously prohibited from using a computer on Friday night and all of Saturday. The next time he checked his site, he found that the post had gone viral. “Saturday night, after Sabbath was over, I took a look and it was like the world exploded,” he says, adding that he got nearly 100,000 page views that weekend alone. Outlets ranging from the Jerusalem Post to the Washington Post picked up the story and linked to Rosenberg’s site.

      It was hardly the first time that Rosenberg’s one-man muckraking operation had exerted an outsized impact on the rest of the media. Failed Messiah helped bring kosher slaughterhouse owner Moshe Rubashkin’s allegedly fraudulent and inhumane business practices to the world’s attention, a saga that the Jewish and even secular press followed for over five years. And Failed Messiah has published hundreds of posts on allegations of child abuse by ultra-orthodox rabbis, an effort that resulted in Robert Kolker’s 2006 New York magazine piece on alleged serial abuser Yehuda Kolko, among other stories.

      Despite this relatively mainstream attention, Rosenberg says that his site has had the biggest impact within ultra-orthodoxy itself. “What I do is create space so that dissident voices that are still within the ultra orthodox community have a little bit more room to work,” he says. On an issue like child abuse, he says, his work allowed ultra-orthodox Jews to “be able to talk about the abuse itself even if it’s only in a very limited way, and to be able to hint that there’s something wrong with the leadership.” He says that he receives dozens of tips a week from ultra orthodox Jews. And tellingly, his traffic dips during the Jewish penitential season in early autumn, a sign that a significant portion of his readers are observant Jews.

      “All the people who read me and leave comments suddenly feel tremendously guilty because God might punish them,” he speculates, noticing that comments and page views decline around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two most important Jewish holidays. “You can see it happen.”

      Rosenberg’s career as a journalist began accidentally. In the late 1980s, Rosenberg was a Lubavitcher rabbinic student active in the movement that was working on behalf of Ethiopia’s Jewish community, many of whom wished to immigrate to Israel. He wrote a letter to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, the leader of the Lubavitcher movement, asking his opinion on the movement’s obligation to their Ethiopian co-religionists. Rosenberg never received a reply, but in 2004–ten years after Schneerson’s death–a newspaper in Israel published a letter the rabbi had written Rosenberg, but had never sent. The letter was, as Rosenberg would later put it, “mean, spiteful, and uncaring about the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry.”

      “When you put that letter next to the letter I wrote to [Rabbi Shneerson] what you see is a man who’s a racist, who’s not following Jewish law, who’s not making any kind of logical argument, and who was lying,” says Rosenberg. In 2004, he created a website to publish this exchange with Schneerson–and was swiftly excommunicated by his fellow Lubavitchers.

      “I lost every friend I had basically overnight,” says Rosenberg. “People wouldn’t talk to me.” He claims he was physically threatened by Lubavitch supporters. “I’ve had the FBI out here, I’ve got death threats, I’ve gotten a lot of crap,” he says.

      Rosenberg, who was at various times in charge of the movement’s offices at the University of Pennsylvania and the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, suddenly found himself on a lonely quest to shine a light on his former community. He started by aggregating news stories about corruption or extremism within the Lubavitcher community, and soon began receiving tips from readers in ultra-orthodox strongholds like Brooklyn. The site gradually evolved into a more journalistic enterprise, although one that hasn’t proved lucrative. Failed Messiah has been banned from Google Ads, which considers the site’s single-minded focus on ultra-orthodoxy to be a violation of its rule against sites targeting a single group of people. He has had to depend on direct-sale advertisements and donations, even though he says that Failed Messiah is a news-gathering operation that falls within Google’s terms of agreement.

      Rosenberg’s site gets around 500,000 page views a month, a volume that he estimates would translate to between $2,000 and $3,000 a month from Google Ads. He says he earns about a third to a half as much off of direct ads, and makes some money off of PayPal donations. Rosenberg plans on suing Google as soon as he’s financially able.

      “I have a whole list or advocates from within the community who’ll say I’m completely necessary and that what I’m doing is saving lives and [the loss of revenue from Google is] killing kids,” he says in reference to his work in exposing child abuse scandals. “You’ll drive me out of business, and kids will die as a result.”

      Failed Messiah might be an established source of information on a hyper-insular community. But Rosenberg gives every indication that his most ambitious crusade is still to come. Data



City: St. Paul

Armin Rosen is a former CJR intern.