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emunah of america
   EMUNAH MAGAZINE   -  Winter 2004
Jewish Life in Cyberspace
The nice part about it is that it is an e-community that parallels a physical community and allows deeper interaction between its members

by Sheryl Katz Elias

This past summer researchers attempted to test out the theory of "six degrees of separation" on the internet and found that even in cyberspace the rule held true. Sixty thousand participants from 166 countries attempted to get e-mails to 18 "target individuals" with whom they had no direct affiliation. The researchers calculated an average e-mail chain took five to seven people before the message found its way to the target's mailbox.

The study obviously did not factor into its data bank tightly-knit Jewish communities, where the rule has always been more like "four degrees of separation," and now, with the internet, has probably been reduced to about "two and a half degrees."

Thanks to the internet, people can now locate others with like interests--no matter how obscure-- in seconds and communicate with their newfound soul mates almost instantaneously. This, of course, is nothing new to inhabitants of Jewish communities. In fact, Jews were especially well positioned for the internet revolution. They have always done two things with great efficiency: wander (since biblical times, actually) and network ("Do I have a girl for you!").

Well before the internet, Jews invented a game loosely known as "Jewish Geography," which always commenced with the line..."Do you know....?" and concluded with the finding of common ties. Now that a much more sophisticated and expanded version of this game is being played on the internet through e-groups, it has taken on a new meaning.

A number of these internet groups have organized through Yahoo, which lists on its Home Page 2703 groups related to Judaism. Of course, the founders of these e-groups decide on its Yahoo designation, so the "Judiaism" category encompasses a broad spectrum of groups that claim to be Jewishly-oriented. ( A total of 41,234 groups are listed under the "Christianity" designation and 8807 under "Islam").

Under "Judaism," Yahoo has a subcategory which lists 291 "Congregations." On the top of Yahoo's list of Jewish congregations is TeaneckShuls. Founded on September 8, 2000 by Nathan Lindenbaum, who runs a propane gas distribution business, and Chaim Shulman, an attorney in Manhattan, TeaneckShuls had 95 postings in its first month of operation. In September 2001, the monthly postings vaulted to 396, and in September 2002 they rocketed to 1046 .

Now, it is possible for TeaneckShuls to get upwards of 80 postings A DAY. In July of 2003, TeaneckShuls hit a record 2048 posts in one month, placed by its more than 3200 members, most of whom reside in Teaneck, Bergenfield and New Milford, New Jersey. To deal with this increased volume, two more moderators were recently added to the TeaneckShuls team.

So what are these posts? You name it: listings of community events; synagogue announcements; requests for rides and toaster ovens and recipes; inquiries about jobs, exterminators, plumbers, podiatrists and karate classes; offers of used toys, cars, books, wedding gowns; funeral notices; pleas for housekeepers and babysitters. The limit is what your imagination can cook up, from the mundane to the sublime.

E-groups like TeaneckShuls are open books, revealing a community's joys and sorrows, conundrums and crisis, quirks and idiosyncrasies, and, most poignantly, its capacity to reach out and help. Just peek at the Raananalist, emanating from Raanana Israel, and you will find that life there is not that different from life in a United States suburb. People there, like here, are seeking a good personal trainer, a loving home for a dog, a nanny, a kosher pop tart substitute, and someone's phone number. There is very little that you cannot locate on these lists.

In fact, the way Chana Mesberg describes it, she found everything but her son-in-law on TeaneckShuls. Once the son-in-law-to-be was located-- off-line-- the Mesbergs bought a beautiful (once used) wedding dress for their daughter, found her a job, located an apartment for the newlyweds, and kitted it out with an air conditioner and furniture--all through TeaneckShuls. (Four degrees of separation, if that).

One of TeaneckShuls crowning moments was when the plight of a local florist in Jerusalem made its way to the list. The florist's business was buffeted by terrorist attacks and a sagging economy. It was on the verge of collapse. His story was publicized on TeaneckShuls and the response in terms of actual orders kept his business afloat. (No more than three degrees of separation here!)

While the vast majority of posts on TeaneckShuls are the stuff that we all grind through to get through an ordinary day, including a lot of requests for transportation to various destinations, some of it is of a more serious nature. One mother, after exhausting a number of remedies, turned to the TeaneckShuls community for advice regarding her baby daughter who has a genetic inability to tolerate sunlight. Another member of the community received an experimental cancer drug through contacts made on TeaneckShuls.

TeaneckShuls may be unique in its scope, but it is no longer unique in concept. Similar groups have sprung up in the Five Towns area of Long Island; Riverdale, NY; Fairlawn and Englewood, New Jersey; and Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, just to name a few.

Naomi Geffen, a two-year resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel writes of her internet group list:
I've picked up hints about how to exterminate insects, without exterminating my family, received recommendations for haircuts, seamstresses and car repairs...found a "shadow (kindergarten assistant) for my 3-year-old Down Syndrome daughter and was given the low-down on cilantro..."

Geffen proudly adds that she has not only been on the receiving end of the goodwill generated by the list, but, as the next door neighbor of the local well-baby-clinic, she has on occasion walked next door to book appointments personally for people who wrote to the list saying they could not get through to the clinic on the telephone.

Avi Lauer, an attorney who lives in Woodmere and is actively involved in a host of community organizations, started the FiveTownsJewishCommunity group solely as a vehicle for community posts from synagogues and local Jewish organizations. He found that with the exponential growth in the Five Towns area it was harder and harder to keep all the various "sub-communities" informed of events, programs, announcements and appeals. The group now has 700-800 members. Once that group was firmly established Lauer started a separate group for personal postings, FiveTownsShuls, which has about 200 members at present.

In the short time that FiveTownsShuls has been operating, it has had its share of triumphs. A posting for schach (roof covering) for a sukkah from a local organization elicited an immediate offer of a donation, followed by two offers of schach and sukkah poles. When the first respondent was informed of the subsequent offers, he said he would donate the money anyway, because, after all, you need to buy decorations to make the sukkah beautiful.

Robyn Safier established FairlawnShuls with the idea of making Fairlawn a smaller place. Fairlawn, Safier explains, is a very long town, where two of its shuls are located almost two miles away from each other. FairlawnShuls makes it possible to compensate for that physical distance and get community information to everyone in town in one convenient "cyberspace community."

Good deeds abound in cyberspace owing to various e-groups. In Englewood, New Jersey, the newly formed EnglewoodShuls group, with its 200 or so members, recently sponsored a bone marrow drive, according to its moderator Alan Sohn.

In Riverdale, New York, attendance at a rally in response to swastikas scrawled on sidewalks was boosted significantly, thanks to those who received notice of the rally through the Riverdaleshuls group.

And the focus of these e-groups is not only limited to happenings in their own geographic area. Israel is often the beneficiary of the works of Jewish e-groups. The Queens Coalition for Israel Action organizes letter writing campaigns and sends format letters that can be cut, pasted and sent on to bolster support for Israel and counteract anti-semitism. Initiated by the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, the group encompasses 30 member shuls in the Queens area, spanning the spectrum of religious observance.

And not all e-groups are geographically-based. Five years ago, Ruth Wenig of Kew Garden Hills started a group to reach alumni of the former Hebrew Institute of Long Island (HILI). The (HILI) group, which consists of HILI alumni from 1952-1982, now generates approximately 700-900 e-mails a month. Through their alumni e-community, the members share birthdays and simchas and commiserate when tragedies occur. When the World Trade Center collapsed, for example, group members immediately headed to their computers to do a "cyber head count" to make sure everyone was alright.

Though a mega e-group like TeaneckShuls is empowered by the combined resources of its more than 3,000 members, the new e-group for Potters Bar and Brookmans Synagogue in England is proof that internet communities can work magic on a small scale, too. Rabbi Zvi Solomons set up the group to reach out to his congregation, which is comprised of 84 "member units," each unit representing either a single person or a family.

Rabbi Solomons finds that people are more open and willing to ask questions via the internet and he is in regular communication with congregants who he might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage in regular conversation. Turning to the internet to reinforce contacts in his community was a natural move for Rabbi Solomons, a graduate of Cambridge University and Jews College in London, who met his wife, Shira, an American who graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard, on J-date, the internet dating service.

For many, e-groups have become so much a part of the fabric of their daily existences that it is hard to recall life without them. But that wasn't always the case. In 1994, when the internet was still young enough that people who wrote about it actually included an introductory paragraph explaining what it was, commentators described it as having the potential to provide "a surrogate social life" for those who lived in "impersonal isolation in large cities." Despite the passage of nearly a decade, this concept may actually still apply to the type of internet community consisting of disparate individuals united only by their passion for say hamsters or Gilligan's Island or the Yankees, but it never really applied to groups that correlate to real life Jewish communities.

As Nathan Lindenbaum points out, "Teaneckshuls is fundamentally different than an ordinary virtual community. The nice part about it is that it is an e-community that parallels a physical community and allows deeper interaction between its members." Lindenbaum sees Teaneckshuls "as a tool for making the community work better."
The many success stories attributable to groups like Teaneckshuls confirm Lindenbaum's assessment. But there is also another side of such an e-group. It is the inevitable intersection of the cyber world and real life, which has led to its share of comic moments.
In Teaneck, it is not uncommon to be walking down the aisle of the local supermarket and have someone you don't know (or didn't know you knew) approach you to find out if you: got rid of the skunk under your front porch, found a drum set for your son, or located a place to stay for a week at Lake George. At that moment, it is abundantly clear that your request for advice has been read by upwards of 3000 people, who now carry around with them a little tidbit of your personal life. Just ask the guy who made an inquiry about caffeine suppositories on TeaneckShuls to get him through the Tisha b'av fast.
The original experiment that actually spawned the term "six degrees of separation" was conducted in 1967--way before the internet-- by a sociologist named Stanley Milgram. Milgram asked 96 randomly selected individuals around the country to send a piece of mail to someone who would get it closer to a target person in Boston, Massachusetts. On average, the mail went through six people before reaching the target, hence six degrees.

A similar experiment was inadvertently conducted on TeaneckShuls in September 2003, when Jerusalem resident Robert Kleiman ran into a problem. Kleiman sells tallitot (prayer shawls) that his wife Carine weaves by hand in their Jerusalem studio throughout the United States and Europe. As it turned out, Kleiman-- who lives blocks away from Café Hillel and whose apartment shook when a bomb was detonated there-- had forgotten to tie and affix the tzit tzit (ritual fringe) on one corner of a tallit sent to a customer in Englewood, New Jersey.

Kleiman called a friend in Teaneck and offered to Federal Express the strings if someone in the area could tie them on for him. A post to this effect was placed on TeaneckShuls, and in under thirty minutes seven offers of help were received. Within an hour, nine more responses came in. In all, 19 people came to the rescue, offering both to tie the knots and suggesting where the string could be purchased locally. The speed and volume of the response was overwhelming.

The bulk of the posts were forwarded to Kleiman, who, in his apartment in Jerusalem, learned how many people in Teaneck know how to tie tzit tzit, and, more to the point, how many Teaneckians care. (Two and a half degrees of “separation” -- maximum!)