World Wide - The Forward



World Wide - The Forward
20 Forward March 28, 2008
World Wide
Jewish Web:
The Online
Jewish Communities Get
Connected in Cyberspace
By Maurice Sagalowitz
In the hours before the Sabbath arrives,
there are five men in their 20s and 30s
sitting in front of computers in the Boro
Park section of Brooklyn, scanning the
Web sites of The Associated Press
and Reuters for articles of Jewish
interest. At the office of Vos Iz Neias,
an English-language news blog run
by members of assorted Orthodox
Jewish communities in New York,
the Internet is being used as a new
communal discussion and debate
forum, sidestepping the traditional
Yiddish-, English- and Hebrewlanguage newspapers that have
provided news for the ultra-Orthodox
community here for decades.
“The mainstream press here will only
print that Spitzer resigned, not that he was
involved with prostitution. We want to be
the premier news source, and we provided
accurate information about his resignation,”
an editor at Vos Iz Neias said in a phone
interview with the Forward. “We provide
clean news. We do not engage in lashon
harah [gossip]. We only print what is public
information.” The editor declined to give
his name, because use of the Internet is a
sensitive topic in his community.
With more than 1,000 unique visitors a
month, Vos Iz Neias is but one method
of approaching the ways that the Internet
has changed how the Jewish communities
around the country talk among themselves,
test communal boundaries and reinvigorate
communal membership. “We will have a
rabbi call us up and say, ‘I don’t know how
to use the Internet, but I can fax you over a
comment.’ They want to share with us, and
we want to be the Drudge Report of the
Jewish community,” a senior editor at Vos
Iz Neias remarked, referring to a popular
news aggregation Web site best known for
breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
However, with a profusion of Jewish
institutions creating ornate Web sites, and
design firms being contracted to build Web
sites for youth programs bent on retaining
alumni throughout the Diaspora, questions
arise about how effectively funds are being
disbursed to encourage online entrepreneurs
to build new Jewish infrastructure on the Net.
For Yosef Israel Abramowitz, who pioneered
some of the most visited Web sites in Jewish
cyberspace, including MyJewishLearning.
and, the growth of the
Jewish Internet evokes two fundamental
questions: What sort of audience will Jewish
Web sites reach, and how do we measure
their effectiveness?
“The highest traffic day on our Jewish
Internet sites was, interestingly, Yom Kippur.
I also think that the established Jewish
community, whatever that is, rarely takes
risks, rarely innovates but is comfortable
tweaking. I didn’t want to tweak; I wanted
to model for the community what could
be done,” Abramowitz wrote in an e-mail
from his home in Israel. “Two hundred
and thirty million page views later, I think
I can say that the experiment has been
But for Dan Sieradski, director of digital
media at JTA and the creator of Jewschool.
com, a lack of support for Internet-based
Jewish projects from some philanthropies
is based on an old-guard ignorance of
the Internet and on unfair assessments of
previous Jewish Web efforts. “Some funders
just don’t get it,” Sieradski said, referring to
a general lack of technological savvy. “Some
funders won’t support any project on the
Internet, because they’ve been unimpressed
by the success of a Jewish site that was
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Forward March 28, 2008 21
World Wide Jewish Web
Continued from page 20
designed poorly. If your Web
site doesn’t engender meaningful
connections to Jewish life between
individuals and Judaism, that’s a
specific site’s issue. It’s not a matter
of the entire Internet.”
As a result, blogs and Jewish socialnetworking sites being created in
recent years have provided a forum
for young people to engage in Jewish
culture and identity outside of an
institutional framework, highlighting
a sense of protest that can be felt on
such a Web site as Jewschool, which
describes itself as “an ever-expanding
network of Web sites, projects, and
events which promote critical thought
and provide engagement opportunities
for disenfranchised Jews alienated —
and bored to death — by the Jewish
In a similar vein, one can receive a new
type of Jewish education on the Web.
“These days, if people have a question
about Judaism, they’ll almost certainly
go online before calling a rabbi or buying
a book,” remarked Daniel Septimus,
editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.
com. “The question we as a community
need to ask is, ‘What do we want
them to find?’ I want people to find an
open, pluralistic, intellectually rigorous
Judaism with different entry points for
“People in previous generations use
the Internet in a professional, business
sense — for example, for e-mail,”
remarked Esther Kustanowitz, a 36year-old editor and writer who created
two blogs, JDatersAnonymous and
My Urban Kvetch, and contributes
regularly to new Jewish publications.
“Our generation is much more a DIY
[do it yourself] generation…. As Jews,
we have the idea of being the eternal
stranger. If a person can walk into a
foreign space and already have a sense
a common experience from an online
community, Jewish geography really
Kustanowitz’s efforts also highlight the
connection between a new, Internetbased Jewish community and the need
to translate that community on the
ground. By organizing public events
around these communities, the director
of Jewlicious, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein,
collaborated with contributors David
Abitbol and Kustanowitz, among
others, to create the Jewlicious Festival,
a weekend conference in Long Beach,
Calif., that invites readers of Jewlicious.
com to celebrate Jewish life and culture
and attend workshops and talks led
by innovative Jewish leaders. The
Jewlicious Festival brings together a
diverse group of Jews whose common
experience centers on the Web site,
where topics range from Jewish
environmental values to video clips of
new Jewish musicians.
Kustanowitz is also a senior editor
of PresenTense, a magazine that aims
to invigorate Jewish culture in the
Diaspora. The magazine encourages
dialogue by pairing Jewish culture
with new perspectives in technology,
Zionism and entrepreneurship. The
emergence of PresenTense is, according
to Kustanowitz, a result of the
Internet enabling diverse geographical
communities and a wide range of
interests to intertwine and contribute to
the magazine. “The new issue will focus
on emerging communities. Currently,
we have had PresenTense salons in New
York, Toronto and Israel, in addition to
other cities,” she said.
Ultimately, the success and failures of
the Jewish Internet are still in motion.
With foundations taking a renewed
look at funding Web-based projects,
the focus is on creating a superior
product, much in the same way that
any new Web site is designed. “I believe
it’s better to create specific, Internetbased Jewish projects that create a small
but committed group of people rather
than large projects that measure their
success by the number of hits they
receive a month,” Sieradski said. “To
create a new Jewish sect, so to speak,
using the Internet. I believe there’s a
value in that.”
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Secular Culture & Ideas takes a sharp look at
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