Can Jewish life thrive on the Internet

Something very real seems to behappening in the virtual world. For millennia, Jews in the throes of crisis have turned to their religious leaders and community institutions for support. They've gone to the local synagogue to share life's joys and sorrows, marshal support for pet causes, and most of all, to be with other people.

Now, increasingly, all these things are being done through the Internet, and this is revolutionizing Jewish life.

There is little question that a powerful transformation is taking place. The only debate is on whether it is for the better.

Recent surveys by the American Psychologist and Stanford University have contributed to a growing concern that Internet usage leads to social isolation and loneliness. At first glance it would seem obvious that "real" trumps "virtual," that there is no way one truly can find community by sitting in front of a box of wires, chips and screws.

But in the face of this, a search for the word "Jewish" on the popular search engine AltaVista yields 1,150,880 matches; try "Judaism" and you'll find 212,620 Web pages, and "Jewish Community" and you'll see 103,700 hits. Something very real seems to be occurring in the virtual world.

Egon Mayer, sociologist and research director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, agrees. The J.O.I. Web site receives up to 300 visits a day, primarily from those at or beyond the fringes of flesh-and-blood Jewish communities. During holiday seasons, those numbers balloon to over a thousand. The site,, was built in 1995 because Mayer's office was being "overwhelmed" with calls, especially from interfaith couples seeking answers not readily available elsewhere. It includes a bibliography on intermarriage and a comprehensive directory of resources, plus a bulletin board filled with notes of frustration and comfort from people with few other gateways into Jewish life.

Recently, a distraught Orthodox child of Holocaust survivors wrote in that his non-Jewish girlfriend had become pregnant. He was contemplating suicide. Mayer was able to assist this person directly, and a tremendous outpouring of support from contributors to the bulletin board no doubt also buoyed his spirits.

"This outpouring of mutual aid is the hallmark of community," Mayer said.

Where people used to go to the local rabbi with personal or halachic queries, now they can go online, to "Ask A Rabbi" at Jewish Community Online ( AOL keyword:, and choose from nearly 60 rabbis, from all denominations, including some who call themselves "post-denominational."

You can scan the bios, check out the list of categories and choose your rabbi. When the Talmud suggested that all Jews should "find a rabbi," it's doubtful that it envisioned this being done with a mouse. And it's doubtful that this diverse group of "Ask the Rabbi" rabbis would ever have found themselves sitting around the same table in the non-virtual world.

According to Marc S. Klein, publisher of Jewish Community Online, "Ask the Rabbi" is one reason why his site has become the pre-eminent portal to Jewish life on the Internet, serving more than 500,000 visitors monthly.

Rabbis routinely field questions ranging from simple agonies (parents dealing with intermarriage) to complicated (guilt over an elected abortion), to mind shattering (a 13-year -old dealing with a father's death).

Rabbi Jack Moline, on the "Ask a Rabbi" team, says, "The computer screen allows the anonymity which Catholics enjoy in confessional. What is true for correspondents is true for me as well. I can be much more direct about both my sympathies and my responses. However, I know that the only way for a fast answer to have staying power is to connect with a local flesh-and-blood rabbi." He adds that only about half the correspondents take him up on his offer to forward a name.

Anonymity is the key, according to Klein. "There is no such thing as a stupid question; there is no one talking down to you or staring you down."

That is one of the reasons why the Internet is such a comfortable medium of communication, especially for Jews, so often susceptible to insecurities about their religious practice and so quick to feel the weight of "holier than thou" eyes glaring down at them, whether real or imagined.

As immediate as e-mail is, it is still one step removed from the immediacy of a telephone or in-person conversation, and therefore far more conducive to the exposure of one's vulnerability and deep-seated beliefs. No wonder a 1998 study by the Barna Research group estimated that 25 percent of those Americans who are online use the Internet for "religious purposes" each month, mainly to communicate via e-mail or chat rooms about religious "ideas, beliefs or experiences."

Some rabbis, like Gerald Zelizer, feel that the Internet can convey only limited spirituality, precisely because it can't encompass fully the sensual aspect of being there in the flesh, the tastes, sights and sounds of religious experience. He calls the Internet "religion lite." Others sense extraordinary power in the ways people connect to others — and seek God — online.

If the Internet has become the confessional booth of post-modernity, it is also fast becoming the voting booth. Burning issues are discussed online the way they used to be at town meetings and bowling alleys, only with far greater impact.

Last spring, a rabbinic online discussion group exposed and publicized the mishandled distribution of the infamous anti-Semitic tract known as the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in a major bookstore chain. A tide of angry e-mails put a great deal of pressure on the chains and on Jewish organizations. Many likely responded without pausing to seek out all the facts of the matter, a hazard of e-mail's immediacy.

But no one can deny the force of the response. "We received a massive number of complaints," said Laura Kam-Issacharoff of the Anti-Defamation League to the Jerusalem Post. "The Internet has totally changed the way people are communicating," she added, noting that where her organization once would get dozens of phone calls from one community, they now get hundreds of e-mails from around the country.