New forum launched in cyberspace, linking 300,000 Jews across country

A new Jewish community is springing up in the diaspora.

Residents can chat with Jewish neighbors, meet single Jews, tour Jewish museums, query rabbis and Israeli diplomats, share kosher recipes, peruse Jewish publications, buy books on Judaism and learn a bit about nearly every aspect of their religion.

And they can do it 24 hours a day, without ever leaving home.

Welcome to Jewish Community Online — a new forum premiering this week on America Online.

"It's a Jewish community center in cyberspace," said Marc S. Klein, publisher of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and of the separate nonprofit organization Jewish Community Online.

With an estimated 300,000 Jews among its more than 4 million subscribers, America Online (AOL) is the nation's largest commercial online service. Until now, however, AOL's Jewish offerings consisted only of Jewish library materials that users could download and three "message boards" that allowed subscribers to post notes on Jewish topics.

"AOL didn't have a broad Jewish area that Jews could call home," Klein said.

The project's genesis occurred last winter.

"It became clear that the Internet and online technologies were taking off," said Nora Contini, associate publisher of the Bulletin and of Jewish Community Online.

A Bulletin reader in the South Bay offered to help put the newspaper online every week via the World Wide Web. That project was completed this summer, when the Bulletin became the first Jewish weekly newspaper with every issue published in its entirety on the Web.

While laying the groundwork for the Web site, Klein and Contini also became interested in producing a national Jewish forum and approached several online services. They soon decided to hook up with AOL, Contini said, because of its already large and growing membership, its user-friendly approach and its emphasis on building community.

To handle the national project, Klein and Contini created the separate nonprofit organization called Jewish Community Online.

They hired two full-time technical and content producers, Benjamin T. Rosenthal and Debby Gelber, as well as a summertime consultant, Jonathan Glick. Bulletin staff member Li Gardiner created the graphics.

The result is a forum with more than a dozen subject areas including Israel, Youth, Family, Food, Holidays & Spirituality, Arts & Culture, Matchmaker and News.

Within the areas are dozens of paths to explore. Arts & Culture, for example, leads to an exhibit called "Be Fruitful and Multiply" from Tel Aviv's Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. The tour includes full-color paintings by Marc Chagall and the 1090 C.E. will of a pregnant Cairo woman who feared she might die in childbirth.

Another path in Arts & Culture leads to a photographic tour of Jewish sites in the Czech city of Prague. Other paths lead to lists of Jewish celebrities, a guide to Jewish cultural groups nationwide and a children's story called "Nathan the Needle."

Holidays & Spirituality includes commentary on the weekly Torah portion from four Jewish perspectives. For each Jewish holiday — including the upcoming celebration of Chanukah — information, history, activities and recipes will be available.

The News offers up-to-the-minute stories on Jews and Israel via the Reuters wire service, as well as articles from local, national and international publications such as the Jerusalem Report, Moment, Lilith, Hadassah and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

Contini believes those areas will draw in Jews, but that interactive features such as the live chat rooms will keep them coming back.

Chat rooms allow subscribers to communicate online instantaneously by typing in short messages that appear on everyone's screens. Jewish Community Online offers two chat rooms — one for a general audience and one for singles. Each room can hold up to 48 people. When the 49th person logs on, a new room is created.

The chat rooms will also host live question-and-answer sessions with guest rabbis and Jewish leaders.

The forum's other interactive features include a section for personal ads organized by geographic region, a store for purchasing Jewish books, online classes and a section where subscribers query Jewish experts about religion, culture, family matters and Israel.

Klein hopes "Ask A Question" will allow Jews to broach subjects they might be too embarrassed to take to a rabbi, such as: "How can I convince my spouse we shouldn't have a Christmas tree?"

But he also hopes that non-Jewish spouses and non-Jews in general will feel free to turn to the forum to learn more about Judaism.

In an effort to reach all Jews, the forum includes an area for gays and lesbians.

"There will be elements that find it controversial," Contini acknowledged. But Klein added that he doesn't want to turn anyone away. "Our aim is to be inclusive," he said.

In order to offer the broadest sweep of Judaism on the forum, the project recruited numerous national Jewish organizations. Those include the Association of Jewish Family & Children's Agencies, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, the Jewish Outreach Institute, the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services and Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Because the bulk of online users falls between the ages of 18 and 35, Klein said he hopes the forum reaches out to some of the very Jews who might not otherwise be involved in organized Judaism.

"Many of them are disaffected, alienated Jews, but at the same time they are somewhat interested in their background and history," Klein said.

The new forum will allow them to "read all they want to know about Judaism." Hopefully, Klein added, they'll see a broader and more diverse Judaism than they knew existed.

The forum is expected to expand rapidly. Projects planned for the near future include a nationwide Jewish job bank and a store for purchasing kosher food, Judaica and Jewish music.

"This area will only grow," Klein said. "We will be guided by users…We will try to respond to their needs."