Browser beware: Pitfalls of Web spark debate in Jewish community

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Those issues are just a few of the mini-debates circling within the observant Jewish community. An intriguing body of discourse on proper Jewish manners — or derech eretz online — is emerging, according to Avi West, executive director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.

The commandment to teach your children is regarded also as an instruction to teach your offspring a trade "to help them make their way in this world," West said. "Metaphorically, teaching your children involves helping them to become literate. Part of literacy today is being able to utilize technology" and distinguish worthwhile from worthless or prurient information.

West believes Judaism's encouragement of moderation would apply to the Internet, as well. Jews "should not avoid" the Web, he stressed. "You have to learn to control it."

West applauds the Web's potential for "distance learning" to compensate for Jewish teacher shortages. But a major pitfall is the information overload and abundance of unsubstantiated material. "You go into some of these chat rooms," said West, "and the garbage that is out there is unbelievable."

For that reason, fervently religious families tend to discourage Internet usage, said Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Project Genesis in Baltimore. He added that Internet usage can be appropriate among the religious for research and "with parental involvement." But "the level of filtration needs to be higher."

Another issue on the Web involves anti-Jewish hate groups and so-called Hebrew Christian missionary groups that link to traditional Jewish sites. Menken says those links to a site cannot be broken legally, and that even if it were possible to break those links, "we're not going to tell them to go away. Maybe by visiting our site they'll learn the truth as to who the Jews really are."