Web/Net week to launch magical moments for Jews

With Jewish sites on the World Wide Web and Internet proliferating as quickly as kibbutzim in prestate Israel, the People of the Book are quickly becoming the People of the Byte.

An estimated 5,000 Jewish Web sites dot the infinite landscape of the World Wide Web. And Jewish areas on computer services such as America Online consistently draw crowds eager for Jewish chats and cyberpals.

To celebrate and promote the boom in online Jewish activity, the first-ever Jewish Web/Net Week is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 22 to Friday, Feb. 27.

Naturally, the event has its own home page (www.jww.org), which will offer original programming and serve as a central link to 613 other Jewish sites, the same as the number of mitzvot, or commandments required of Jews.

Among the planned activities in cyberspace are online galleries filled with exhibits of Jewish artists; live audio clips of musical performances, debates and poetry readings; a marketplace of interactive games, activities and meeting places for children; and up-to-the-minute news feeds and mediated chats on current events.

At a virtual havdallah service broadcast from Jerusalem's Western Wall, Jews worldwide will be able to symbolically link arms and bid Shabbat goodbye. Educators can pop into an online classroom for free tips on integrating the Web into their Jewish classrooms. And at one of the largest online singles mixers ever, singles might just find a beshert (destined partner) across a crowded chat room.

"We're creating a magical moment in Jewish life," said Yosef Abramowitz, a Boston journalist, author and co-director of Jewish Web/Net Week. "We hope to spark lots of creativity."

Abramowitz and fellow thirtysomething Webmeister Martin Kaminer, a New Yorker who works for an educational software company, conceived of the idea following a conference on new media and Jewish community last summer.

Though a high percentage of Jewish homes have computers, many Jews online are apparently not clicking their way to the numerous Jewish Web sites. Abramowitz and Kaminer want to change that.

Come Jewish Net/Web Week, organizers hope to see 600,000 Jews connected to Jewish sites. That's the same number of men who, according to tradition, stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. If the event is a success, organizers hope to make it an annual affair.

The 600-plus Web sites featured during Jewish Net/Web week will represent a diversity of Jewish experience. They range from sites for the Reform movement and Satmar Chassidim to those for African-American Jews and for Washington, D.C.'s gay and lesbian synagogue. In addition, there's a site for Orthodox yeshivot in Israel as well as one for Israeli gifts.

During the weeklong event — which is partially funded by Kaminer's family foundation — Jewish communities from as far away as Sweden, Japan, Brazil and South Africa will link up.

Closer to home, AOL's national Jewish Community Online, which is owned by the Jewish Bulletin and based in its San Francisco offices, will serve as one of seven Jewish Web/Net Week's "anchor sites." Those sites will be actively involved in programming for the week.

"While we have scheduled chats every week of the year, we've at least quadrupled the number of chats scheduled during Jewish Web Week," said Nora Contini, associate publisher of the Jewish Bulletin and of JCOL, which can be reached on AOL at keyword: Jewish

That online area receives 2.9 million monthly hits.

Among the JCOL happenings scheduled for Jewish Net/Web Week: transliterated Hebrew and Yiddish chats; chats for seniors and singles; a Jewish cooking chat complete with recipe swapping; and discussions on such topics as Torah from a woman's perspective, the Israeli educational system and Jewish adoption issues.

Leading chats on JCOL will be rabbis from around the country, as well as well-known figures such as Bobby Brown, diaspora affairs adviser to Israel's prime minister; Eli Evans, author and director of the Charles H. Revson Foundation; and Craig Taubman, a popular children's songwriter and performer.

"We're using this as an opportunity to offer some interesting, controversial and topical discussions," said Marc S. Klein, publisher of both the Bulletin and JCOL. "We hope that a lot of people who don't normally visit our chat rooms will stop in."

A full list of JCOL chats is available on AOL at keyword: Jewishchat

Digital Story Bees, a series of women's storytelling evenings staged by San Francisco Web designer Abbe Don, are also among the Jewish Web/Net Week activities developed locally.

At organizations in San Francisco, New York, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg and on Don's Web site, Bubbe's Back Porch (www.bubbe.com), women will meet to tell their stories and post them on Bubbe's story archive.

The San Francisco and New York events will be hosted at Digital Clubhouses, state-of-the art facilities for staging multimedia events.

At South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, stories of women immigrants will be recorded.

"The marketplace of Jewish ideas will be displayed in full force during Jewish Web Week," Abramowitz said.

Indeed, organizers of the project emphasize the diversity of participants involved.

"We don't see in cyberspace the pluralism issues and divisiveness that so plague the Jewish people," Abramowitz said. "We're able to demonstrate a model of true klal Yisrael," or peoplehood.

Still, Jewish diversity today has its limits.

The Orthodox Union, which has put more money and effort into its Web site (www.ou.org) than many Jewish organizations, has declined to participate in Jewish Web/Net Week. It does not want to be associated with non-Orthodox groups for fear of lending them the O.U.'s imprimatur.

"Unfortunately, the environment being created by Jewish Web Week is not clearly defined as a Torah environment, and, therefore, linking to it would not be part of our mandate," explained Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, O.U. president.

"We do not link to other sites that may profess a worldview that we cannot condone or accept."

Responding to the O.U. decision, Kaminer said, "We have strong participation from across the ideological, ethnic and geographical spectrum. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome."

In fact, several Orthodox groups will be involved in the event.

In conjunction with Chabad-Lubavitch and a major foundation, Jewish Web/Net Week will present the global Good Deeds database. Starting at the beginning of the week, visitors to the site will see a spinning model of the Earth shrouded in darkness.

As the week goes on, people will post their good deeds to the sites and as they do, their countries will become visually brighter on the spinning globe. People can browse the good deeds database by act or by country.

For each act performed, the endowing foundation will donate 50 cents toward a charity in recognition of tikkun olam, or healing the world.