By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
His readers passed his stories around secretly, debated them over Shabbat dinners and in online forums. They were shocked and outraged, but they kept sharing. Major media outlets followed his scoops, from Haaretz to Gawker to The New York Times, which called his reporting “a must-read digest of the actual and alleged misdeeds of the ultra-Orthodox world.” One of his links was even spotted in a recently released batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Since 2004, Failed Messiah has been one of the most intrepid and damning blogs to report on issues in the Jewish world and the Orthodox community – and one of the most read. By 2015, it was attracting nearly 1 million page views a month. Now, after years of scooping some of the decade’s biggest Jewish scandals, the man behind the site, Shmarya Rosenberg, is handing over the reins and stepping down.
Whether you hail him as a whistleblowing watchdog, or revile him as a muckraking name-smearer, Rosenberg has played a major role in stirring this community, from New York to Kiryas Joel to Bnei Brak – all from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Jewish world will be quieter without him, unquestionably, and perhaps on the surface, more peaceful – probably at its own risk.
For more than a decade, Rosenberg has been exposing shady labor practices, financial scandal and sexual abuse, doing the dirty work that few journalists and editors have wanted to do, following tips they wouldn’t touch. “They have a business to support, people working for them,” Rosenberg told Haaretz.
“They say, ‘Good story, but if I do it, it’ll do too much damage”, or ‘He sits next to me in shul, I can’t.'” He said that most of the advertising in local Jewish newspapers comes through one advertising agency, which he called “a spigot that can be turned off” if it offends the wrong people.
“If you report these stories the way they should be reported, you report the truth, the dirt, you dig in and do it,” he said, “you’re gonna piss off a lot of people who will then hate you and who will do things to hurt you and hurt your publication. And these editors make compromises every day because of that.”
Public reaction, needless to say, has been ugly. Rosenberg is routinely called a Nazi, an anti-Semite, and a litany of the very profanities prohibited by the yeshiva world. The caricature of him, he said, is that every morning he rushes to his computer to “see what evil I can do that day.” The Yiddish-language papers of the Satmar Hasidic group refer to him as “oso ha-ish,” (“that man”) – “a name you don’t say because you wish he had never existed,” he noted, chuckling.
Rosenberg quickly became notorious, the stuff of gossip, a sport for men’s conversation in the public mikveh. Interestingly, Failed Messiah also became a blackmail device within the community – reports tell of religious businessmen threatening to feed information to the site to recover a debt. The Haredi media obliquely referred to the blog on many occasions, but would never mention Rosenberg by name, so as not to direct people to the site.
Rosenberg was born Scott Rosenberg – he became Shmarya when he turned religious, joined Chabad and became an outreach rabbi. But he began to grow disillusioned when Chabad leadership dismissed his efforts to help Ethiopian Jews.
He began to publish his criticisms of the establishment online, dubbing his blog “Failed Messiah,” a reference to the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and attacked the popular belief within the Hasidic community that the late Rebbe was the messiah.
“But soon it very quickly in my mind shifted to refer to the whole idea of traditional orthodoxy,” he said. “And it can extend to the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, too. Across the board, there is this belief that there is this mythical past which is much better than it was today. It just simply isn’t true.”
Then he moved on to other topics: science and religion, Israeli politics (bashing both the left and the right), hushed-up sexual abuse and financial misconduct of Jewish businessmen. He broke the news of Hillary Clinton being airbrushed out of a Hasidic newspaper in 2011, which popped up again recently in her now-public emails, and in 2004 he played a key role in exposing the Agripocessors kosher slaughterhouse scandal and the subsequent public relations cover-up.
As Rosenberg moved on to other issues, his faith dwindled. “God is in exile because we put Him there,” he wrote in a post in 2006. “I can’t bring God home, but I can stop covering for and associating with those who abuse Him.”
In 2007, he inserted a simple addendum to his ‘About Me’ page: “I no longer have an interest in being a rabbi.” When asked about his beliefs now, whether he still believed in God being in exile, he laughed bitterly: “I wrote that a long time ago.”
The Judaism he embraces is “a place where it’s okay to question,” he said. “But the reality is, in a large swathe of the Hasidic world, if you ask questions, you get the crap beaten out of you as a kid. You’re not allowed to challenge. You get thrown out.”
Though at one point Rosenberg considered himself secular, he persisted in exposing problems in the Orthodox world. “I knew it was having an impact,” he said. “I viewed myself as being a place where people who get screwed by the Jewish community … that there is a space where things can be vented, where anyone who wanted to see could see.” He also wanted Jewish communal leaders to know they couldn’t hide.
He expressed special disdain for the internal mechanisms of Jewish communities that are supposed to address these problems. “They said, ‘Let’s form a committee, with leadership, etc. We’ll root out these problems.’ But the rabbis never let it happen. And today, people can continue to walk away from the worst pedophile in the world, just because he looks religious … and no one does a damn thing about it.”
The Orthodox aren’t the only ones guilty of turning a blind eye, he was quick to point out, accusing leaders in the Conservative and Reform movement of ignoring various problems and alleged crimes in their communities.
“People knew there was something wrong there [in the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty fraud scandal]. There was no oversight from the Federation, from the board, no attention. Why do you not pay attention? Because if you look, you’ll find something bad! It’s because they don’t want to find anything,” he said. “You have these problems and no one is trying to approach them in any systematic way.”
Yet while Rosenberg attracts condemnation in public, that’s not always the case in private. “I find that off the record, people are not as hostile as you expect them to be,” he conceded. “People have told me that leaders, in private meetings, have agreed and said that I was right on some things. They know there’s a lot of bad stuff going on, but they don’t have the courage to do anything about it.”
Rosenberg cited a recent case in which he published the name of an alleged Orthodox Jewish child molester, which he pulled from a New York Police Department press release. He thought he was protecting the community; instead he was called a “name-smearer.”
“I’ve always been taught if someone is in perceived danger, and there is persistent strong information that the guy committed a crime, you’re obligated to warn people,” he said. But in the Orthodox world, “Lashon hara (gossip) is taught in this community without the nuances of what happens when the person being spoken of is a proper criminal. You learn very quickly you can call anyone names as long as they’re not dressed in a certain way.”
Failed Messiah has featured quite a few posts that turned out to be inaccurate rumors, but Rosenberg defends himself by saying he’s not alone. “Not a single newspaper or reporter in the world hasn’t honestly reported something and then the facts turn out to change,” he said. “You’re not all-knowing and all-seeing. You do the best you can with the info that’s out there.”
Rosenberg said he is stepping down from writing to pursue anti-poverty issues, working to “remove the stigma of being poor,” which he calls the “greatest indictment of the Jewish community today.”
The blog’s new unknown owners, who go by the mysterious name “Diversified Holdings,” wrote on the site that they are “a group of people dedicated to protecting the reputation of the Orthodox Jewish community” and are committed to “continue to pursue and expose people that create a desecration of G-d’s name.”
Rumors abound in the Orthodox world as to their identities and the financial windfall that might have come to Rosenberg in the process. To the latter point, he laughed. “If only. It would be great. I heard I got a million dollars from a Jewish billionaire. Please, you gather the evidence, so I can collect that money,” he said. “I just wanted to step away.”
Reflecting on the past decade, he’s adamant about his impact. “I have saved people’s lives,” he insisted. “By calling out criminals time and time again. Why doesn’t the wider Jewish community say anything about that? Why don’t they stop calling me a Nazi? Because they don’t care.”
He sounded weary yet almost nostalgic. “It’s very sad for me to leave,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up, because people rely on the site, I didn’t want to leave them. They became a second family to me. One big dysfunctional family.”