A print announcement of our first website
A print announcement of our first website

In the late ’80s, we were riding the ‘information superhighway’

Suppose it was the late 1980s. Suppose there had been a rush of technological invention in the past few years, including a way to network computers so you could communicate with people far away. Suppose you wanted to find the Jewish corners of this new and exciting frontier of communication.

You could turn to the Jewish Bulletin, as this paper was known at the time, for some help.

“Suppose you are a Jewish student, or a professor with a computer account at a local university, or you work for a large company. In most cases, your account is connected to an international web of services and electronic connections called Internet,” we explained.

But what was “Internet”? We were ready to demystify this new and exciting technology through stand-alone articles and a column titled simply “Online,” written by Ari Davidow. We announced “Online” in September 1988, along with the launch of a puzzle and a funny advice column: “And for mavens of microchips, Online, another new feature, tells what’s on the two Jewish computer bulletin board systems (BBS) being run from the Bay Area.”

Back in those days, a lot of column space was spent explaining just how “Internet” worked. It was all about networks, we explained.

By hooking all those networks together, one can send non-commercial mail and messages to any other such system in the world at no charge. Not everyone realizes, however, that there are several specifically Jewish services available through those networks.”

Or, to put it more succinctly: “If you have a computer and a modem, there is an entire Jewish community and a wealth of information available to you free.

Those communities were text-based online spaces that operated similarly to how forums work today.

One popular spot was the WELL, a subscription-based online community co-founded by Larry Brilliant (a Jewish epidemiologist with a penchant for technology).

The WELL offers Torah commentary, articles from the Jewish Bulletin and Tikkun, a local calendar of events and a Jewish software library. The WELL also offers Bay Area and national Jewish resource guides,” we wrote.

A look at our description of what was being discussed in the WELL’s Jewish section (or “conference”) from 1988 shows that the topics that interest Bay Area Jews haven’t changed much.

“Politics — especially the Palestinian uprising — have been a hot topic on the message section for some time, but there also have been lively ongoing discussions on mysticism, circumcision, Jewish feminism, and the movies shown at the recent Jewish Film Festival,” we wrote.

The Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan was very online in 1995.
The Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan was very online in 1995.

Another local option for Jews online was Henani, based in Palo Alto.

“On the Torah section, there are comments on Ethiopian Jews, women and halacha (Jewish law), religious laws, the future of modern Orthodoxy in Israel, and intelligent life on other planets,” we wrote.

With the growth of the internet came, inevitably, online antisemitism.

In 1992 we reported on a UC Berkeley grad student who had alerted the campus to rampant antisemitism and hate speech he found online.

David Kaim “was stunned to discover screen after screen of anti-Semitic material, mostly entries describing how the Holocaust was a gross exaggeration by a Jewish or Zionist conspiracy and that Jews should apologize to David Duke for defaming his character. Kaim had tapped into Internet, a computer network that connects up to 5 million scientists, researchers, students and other academics around the world.”

“Hate groups” in the U.S. “have found computer ‘cyberspace’ to be a direct, instantaneous, cheap, mainstream medium in which to disseminate their message,” according to a 1995 report we picked up from the Washington Jewish Week; it covered a Senate hearing on online extremism, in which senators — including Dianne Feinstein — debated whether regulating speech online was warranted.

But “Internet” also brought community.

In 1994, we introduced readers to the Davis-based couple who founded “the Jewish Information Network” (“If, for example, a person from San Francisco and a person from New York were to ‘log-on,’ or access JIN, they could instantly send messages to one another”) and in 1995, we reported on the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan’s “Silicon Valley shtetl along the Information Superhighway.”

“Because of its location,” we wrote, “many of the congregation’s 90-member families include at least one member in the computer industry; others have access to the Internet through nearby Stanford University. System software allows information to be posted and sent to all e-mail addresses on the shul’s mailing list.”

And 1995 was the year that this paper launched a website: “The Bulletin officially launches its online version today, making it the first Jewish weekly newspaper available in its entirety on the Internet’s graphical area known as the World Wide Web.”

It was a big deal for the paper, and we put the news on page 1. The website had articles, a search bar and links to 30 other Jewish websites — but no photos, since they could “take up to several minutes to download,” which was “impractical.”

“But the technology probably will advance quickly enough to remove this obstacle in the near future,” we added. (Spoiler: it has.)

The launch of the website engendered some soul-searching at the Bulletin.

“More and more publications will be going online in the next several years, and some pundits even predict a day when newspapers will be available only on the Internet. But [publisher Nora] Contini said Bulletin readers need not worry about this prospect. ‘There will always be a print edition of the Jewish Bulletin,’ she said.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.