Local mom-and-pop startup merges with N.Y. Internet group

An unusual office memo is tacked up at the headquarters of a local Internet company.

It's written in pink and purple crayon and reads: "I love my abba [Hebrew for father]. Love, Noah."

The memo's 2-year-old auteur is the cornerstone and catalyst of this Berkeley startup, a mom-and-pop operation housed in the toy-strewn Berkeley attic apartment of Jackie Needleman and her husband, David Cohen. The couple gave up their careers — he was earning a doctorate in religion and she was an investment banker at Salomon Bros. — to create their own Web site and dream lifestyle.

"We were so in love with the baby, with being together as a family. We thought, what can we do to keep this? What can we do as a family?" recalls Needleman.

With computer skills and a year's worth of savings, the pair started ParentsPlace.com (http://www.parentsplace.com), one of the first parenting resource centers on the Internet. Simply establishing a Web site earns the designer no money. After struggling to make a living through revenues from ads posted on their Web site as well as from designing online ads for advertisers such as Tide and Polaroid, the couple will finally draw a salary. Last month, the site was picked up by the successful Parent Soup Network of iVillage, an Internet startup in New York. Needleman and Cohen will retain managerial status.

The two will still work at home, which allows them not only to spend time with Noah, but also to complete their work before sundown every Friday. The observant couple belongs to Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

The ParentsPlace Web site will retain the format that has been yielding three 3 million page-views per month. (The site is not affiliated with the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services' Parents Place.)

"We're trying really hard to build a new kind of community, where you don't actually have to live nearby or necessarily have the same religious beliefs. We wanted it to be drawn along the lines of parenting, a love of kids," Needleman says.

A physician, dentist, midwife, teen expert and other consultants create four new articles daily. Information ranges from improving kids' math skills, to the best school-day breakfasts, to breast-feeding. Several staffers, at-home moms around the country, help answer incoming e-mail messages.

One of the most popular areas on the site are the chat rooms in which serious topics are discussed and bonds formed online.

"There is a big bereaved parents community. You may be the only one in your real community to have lost a child, but if you go online, you can find parents all over the world who can be there for you," Needleman explains.

Cyberbuddies have connected on the site to help each other lose weight after pregnancy, or to share the late-night loneliness of living and parenting on a military base.

The merger will allow the Berkeley couple to keep providing the kind of content they believe in while retaining the home life they have come to cherish.

"There are about 18 working hours in the day. We choose to work most when our son is asleep," says Cohen, sitting Indian-style with Noah in his lap.

The couple spends afternoons with the baby, and often works on the site until 2 a.m.

"I certainly wouldn't do it any other way," says Cohen. Other than the financial constraints the couple faced when starting up, he says the situation has worked out perfectly, allowing him and Needleman to help other parents while enjoying the everyday moments of Noah's life.

"I love it when he eats food I've cooked, when we have avocado sandwiches for lunch together. What could be better than that?" Cohen says.

He doesn't foresee returning to school to finish his dissertation on marriage in the early rabbinic and Christian eras. "We want to control where we're living," he says, pointing out that academic jobs are often in communities with little or no Jewish community.

"Priorities change," he says.

In Berkeley, Needleman says, "the observant community is not stifling and the people are terrific."

The merger may take the couple back to New York; both are New Jersey natives. But, if they stay in the East Bay, blocks from Noah's favorite park and not far from shul, they say the only change they'd make is to acquire a larger dining-room table — to accommodate Noah's toys, a computer and more Shabbat guests.