The jury's still out as to whether this elaborate and boundless tool will ultimately prove a panacea for civic engagement and community-building or whether it may be contributing to an environment where people live on iPods and computer screens, and simply have less face-to-face interaction with fellow citizens.
It's been more than a decade since Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argued that Americans were, in fact, "bowling alone," and becoming more disengaged from community, family and, in a larger sense, the body politic. It may be another decade before there's anything approaching consensus as to whether virtual participation and interaction may reverse that trend, or even further isolate individuals.
Nevertheless, constant efforts on the part of Jewish organizations and individuals keep springing up to utilize some of the latest developments on the Internet to create and grow virtual and real communities. A number of new Jewish-oriented Web sites, aimed at different audiences for different purposes, are, if nothing else, displaying their creators' faith that the Web can facilitate participation in Jewish life.
"The way I see people using the Internet to network virtually, it gives me a little bit more faith to the way humanity touches and talks to each other," said Harry Cook, a 32-year-old Center City resident who works as a political consultant, and on the side, has created a new Web site.
Cook, the father of a 9-month-old son, does not seem an obvious candidate to design a site geared specifically toward Jewish widows and widowers.
But that's exactly what he's done with DoubleChai.com, which he described not only as an older person's answer to JDate, but as an alternative to hugely popular social-networking sites, geared mostly toward the young, like MySpace.com or facebook.com. The Akiba Hebrew Academy graduate explained that the site can be used to find support groups, make new friends who share similar experiences, and yes, maybe even find a date or two.
The young father is not a widower himself. Cook said that when his father died in 2002, his mother — since remarried — had difficulty adjusting to her new life and meeting others facing similar issues. (He explained that it can be awkward for the newly widowed to spend time with other couples, even longtime friends.)
When his mother was finally looking to get back into the social scene, she found many of the popular Web sites a little off-putting, since they were frequented largely by so many users just beginning to date seriously. Cook said that he saw a need for a one-stop address where Jewish widows and widowers could do everything from find a minyan to say Kaddish to form an online discussion group.
Like a number of new Jewish-oriented Web sites, DoubleChai is currently in its beta phase, meaning that it's partially functioning but still suffers from a fair number of bugs, so has not yet been officially launched. While usage will remain free to members, Cook acknowledged that it's unclear whether DoubleChai will ultimately become a for-profit venture.
For him, the goal has been to fill a void — that and the desire to create something truly interactive seem to be recurring themes mentioned by the creators of any number of new online Jewish ventures.
Daniel Sieradski, 28, thinks that a click of the mouse can actually get people through the door.
"People are nervous about their own levels of inadequacy when it comes to Jewish knowledge. With the Web, someone can do things at their own pace and in their own way," said Sieradski, founder of the popular www.jewschool.com, as well as his own personal blog called orthodoxanarchist.com.
Specifically, Sieradski argued that the fear of stepping into a strange synagogue or having a lack of Jewish knowledge exposed in a Torah class are keeping a number of young or unaffiliated Jews from worship and study. (Others contend that lack of interest, more than fear of the unknown, is more to the point.)
To help remedy that dilemma, Sieradski has established shulshopper.com, another site still in its beta stage. It allows users to search for a synagogue within a geographic area. A user can specify his or her search using a number of criteria, including religious denomination, making room for distinctions like Conservative/ Conservadox.
But Sieradski said that what differentiates the site from being just another synagogue listing is that it allows browsers to offer comments about synagogues, providing readers a feel for a particular congregation's culture and worship style — something that could take interested individuals months if they tried visiting all the shuls in an area.
Sieradski admitted that a number of potential donors have expressed concern that users could post overtly negative comments about a particular synagogue — an invariable downside to opening up virtual space to public comment. He counters that the site will be monitored closely, and will not be used for people to carry on gripe sessions against particular congregations.
Yet Shulshopper is just one part of his grand — and, as yet unrealized — overall dream, called "Jew-It-Yourself," which would essentially be a comprehensive virtual community that would empower individuals to lead a Jewish existence.
One aspect that's still in the design phase is an online Beit Midrash, or "house of study." That feature — if he's able to secure enough funding to finish the project — would allow for both the teacher and group study models, and would facilitate multiple users looking at the same Talmud page simultaneously.
"On the one hand, we want to embrace the individual. We want to give them their own individual empowerment and access," he said. "On the other hand, we want to give them access to a greater community.
"This is way more than just a virtual thing," he continued, adding that he hopes people also use Shulshopper to find people in their neighborhood and create their own minyans. "This is a Web site based on getting you to meet with real people. We are not advocating you build a minyan online and daven online. That would be absurd."
Yet Daniel Rothner, founder of Areyvut, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that designs projects and curricula for Jewish day schools, said half-jokingly that the idea of a virtual minyan might not necessarily be so far-fetched, even if, on the face of it, it may not seem kosher.
"People are going to go online anyway," said the 35-year-old. "At every Internet site, you don't necessarily have that physical human interaction. But I think you are enabling people all over the place to add meaning to their lives. I think you want as many different entry points to Judaism for people as possible. The more, the merrier!"
Rothner, who, like Sieradski, hails from a Modern Orthodox background, is hoping to spread Jewish values and, clichéd as it may sound, make the world a better place through his new site: Kindnessaday.com.
The Web site is run in partnership with the New York City-based Judaica Press. Kindnessaday launched earlier this year and is, essentially, an outgrowth of the calendar of the same name, which links practical suggestions for good deeds with classical Jewish sources.
For instance, on Friday, Aug. 10, the day's suggestion was to "Send a long-overdue greeting card to someone, whether for congratulations or condolence." Below, there's a quote from Proverbs: "Do not forsake your own friend."
Designed mainly for parents and teachers, Kindnessaday also offers lesson plans and allows individuals to share stories of how they put ideas into action. But Areyvut's Shira Hammerman, 28, said that the site has just scratched the surface of its potential.
She's now working on a version of the calendar geared specifically toward young people. She also noted that, for the site to truly become an online space that fosters good deeds in the real world, there needs to be more room for a give-and-take with the site's users. That means, among other things, opening up the site so people can share suggestions, log comments and swap stories.
"This way, it can reach more people and have a bigger impact," she said.
Worth a Thousand Words
When it comes to the Internet, and the pitfalls and potential it offers, perhaps no site has generated as much buzz in the past two years as YouTube. Less than a year after it first went online, YouTube — which allows users to upload and share video clips — was bought by the search-engine giant Google for more than $1 billion. Recently, YouTube co-sponsored a Democratic presidential debate with CNN, perhaps cementing its status as an influential conduit in political and, indeed, mainstream American life.
Perhaps its success has something to do with the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words.
There's plenty of Jewish content on the site. Go to: www.YouTube.com, type in "Israel" and roughly 132,000 videos come up. The problem, according to Web designer Jeremy Kossen, is that "half the hits are going to be anti-Zionist or even anti-Israel."
Kossen, a 35-year-old who lives outside of Los Angeles, said that these comments often come up even when the subject has nothing to do with politics.
"I was looking at this Jerry Seinfeld clip on YouTube, and people were going back and forth on this anti-Semitic rant," he said.
He noted that, with the open nature of the forum — and the astronomically high number of postings and comments — it's a very difficult medium to regulate. And, in fact, with a medium that trumpets itself as a democratizing forum, any hint of over-regulation seems to fly in the face of the "Broadcast-Yourself" ethos.
"Our policy prohibits inappropriate content on YouTube, and that includes not only video content, but comments as well," a YouTube spokesperson stated via e-mail. "The users can flag content that they feel is inappropriate, and once it is is flagged, it is reviewed by our staff and removed from the system within minutes if it violates our community guidelines."
Never the less Kossen still sees the need for JewTube, a site that features Jewish-oriented content that would be regulated for appropriateness both in terms of content and reader comments. It offers everything from tours of Rachel's tomb in the West Bank to videos featuring the famous Borat character, as well as a number of video entries listed under the category "Hebrew Hotties."
"JewTube is about community. It's about connecting the Diaspora. It's about having a place where Jews can share videos with other Jews," said Kossen.
Launched just last month, the for-profit site currently has 126 clips divided into about 20 categories. Kossen expressed optimism that it will grow into something more than just a novelty or a Jewish version of YouTube.
Again citing the buzzword "interactive," Kossen hopes the site becomes a virtual meeting place for Jews of all types — a Web address that will host message boards, and serve as a vehicle for people and for groups involved in Jewish cultural enterprises and Jewish education.
'Knock-Off Web Site'
Can that happen?
David Abitbol, the founder of www.jewlicious.com, one of the best-known Jewish blogs in cyberspace, is skeptical that what he describes as a "knock-off Web site" can morph into something larger.
But he noted that stranger things have happened.
If anything, he thinks that the site could become popular among frum, or very religious, Jews who wouldn't visit a mainstream site like YouTube, but might check out a specifically Jewish address. (Of course, that may not quite square with the "Hebrew Hotties" entries, for example.)
But Abitbol — a 42-year-old resident of Jerusalem who, not surprisingly, considers blogs to be the most dynamic development on the Web as far as the Jewish world is concerned — admitted that his blog started out as a reaction to what already existed on the 'Net.
"The first blogs tended to be into coolness and hipness. That translated into a stance that was unduly critical of Israel and unduly critical of traditional Judaism," explained Abitbol. "With our blog, we wanted to show that we are just as cool as anybody, if not cooler."
In the end, he said that JewTube — like any new Web site — is a crap shoot. Nobody knows just what's going to happen or how it may influence world Jewry as it faces a myriad of challenges in the 21st century, both in the United States, Israel and abroad.
"It's just a matter of content," stated Abitbol matter-of-factly. "If there's enough content and some people are using it, then others will flock to it."