Bay Area Jews get a room of their own in Digital City

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Applying the philosophy of "think globally, act locally" to a virtual environment, America Online has joined the move to create smaller cyber-communities across the country — including one for Bay Area Jews.

AOL launched Digital City San Francisco on Thursday, complete with a major forum created by Jewish Community Online.

Digital City comprises special chat rooms, events listings, message boards, singles ads, news, weather and traffic updates, wine commentary, travel tips and general information for 11 Northern California counties, ranging from Mendocino in the north to Santa Clara in the south.

The Jewish area of Digital City offers a comprehensive list of Jewish congregations, organizations and services in the region. The Jewish niche also includes a separate chat room, message board, weekly calendar listing, personal ads, Jewish Bulletin articles and links to other Bay Area web sites.

"People aren't only interested in national news and national events. They're also interested in what's happening down the block from them," said Marc Klein, publisher of both the Jewish Community Online and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

The concept, he noted, applies in particular to this region's widely scattered Jews.

"I think it will help build the Jewish community in the Bay Area," Klein said.

AOL's heavy presence in the Bay Area presages the potential popularity of Digital City San Francisco. Of AOL's 6.2 million subscribers internationally, 307,000 of those households are located in this region. The Internet service provider estimates that it reaches more than 10 percent of Bay Area residents.

Logging on to Digital City's "virtual Jewish community center" means that Bay Area Jews can do more than meet their counterparts in New York or Mississippi: They can now become cyberpals with Jews in Oakland, San Rafael, San Jose or Hayward.

They can also track down Jewish adoption services, kosher caterers, interfaith programming, services for the disabled, nursing homes and summer camps. Or, they can link directly into the Jewish Bulletin at http://www.jewish.com/jb/ on the World Wide Web.

Jewish travelers and potential residents can log on and peruse information about the Bay Area's synagogues, kosher restaurants and Hillel houses.

Advertisements from local businesses, such as Cody's Books in Berkeley, will appear in Digital City, including the Jewish area. Links back to JCOL also exist, including ones to an international newsstand, a download library, and a store with books, music and Judaica.

To build a base of personal ads, Bay Area Jews can post their profiles and photographs at no charge through Oct. 31. Singles also will be invited to face-to-face events sponsored by JCOL.

Digital City's Jewish format will continue to grow.

"Whatever the online community wants, we'll try to fulfill their needs," Klein said.

Since Jewish Community Online launched on AOL in December, it has steadily attracted devotees. About 50,000 separate screen names log onto JCOL each month, creating nearly 400,000 hits. The forum's weekly electronic newsletter goes out to nearly 11,000 households.

"It's become more successful than our wildest expectations," said Nora Contini, associate publisher of the Bulletin and JCOL.

A subsidiary of AOL, Digital City launched similar sites for Washington, D.C., and Boston in the past 11 months. Altogether, Digital City expects to launch affiliates in 20 cities across the United States this year.

Local Jewish sites will open in many of these other urban centers.

Digital City is available to AOL subscribers at no extra charge and will be open soon to non-AOL members on the World Wide Web.

For AOL subscribers, Digital City San Francisco can be found via keyword San Francisco and the Jewish area can be found with the keyword Jewish SF.

In addition to the Jewish area, Digital City San Francisco's other forums include Blackberry Creek for young children, Cyber Youth for ages 10 to 18, and Q-View for gays and lesbians.

"Clearly, I'm not representing what we have today as comprehensive," said Digital City "mayor" Bill Gorman, who is the equivalent of a general manager. "We can only do so many things at once."

Judaism, for example, is the only religion represented in Digital City so far. Gorman expects that will change.

Gorman decided to work with Jewish Community Online for several reasons, including the fact that it is based in San Francisco.

"I think the folks at the Jewish community forum `get it.' They've done relatively well on AOL," he said. "They understand what we need to do in interactive media."