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News for On-line Jews: Jewish Community, New Site on America Online, Casts a Wide Net

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Log onto the new Jewish Community site on America Online and a synthesized male voice welcomes you with a breathy “Shalom.”

It seems a fitting way to enter the Jewish Community site, which is trying hard to be warm and welcoming in a medium that is inherently impersonal.

In existence since mid-December, the Jewish Community cybersite is attracting a remarkable number of Jews to its varied offerings on Jewish culture, tradition, religion, cooking and lifestyles.

It seems to be drawing Jews of varied interests and ideologies, who – in the site’s third week of existence – are logging on for a total of more than 500 hours a day.

As a point of comparison, a Christian community cybersite on America Online that is more than a year old and serves a larger population than the Jewish community, gets about twice as many visitor-hours each day.

“We’re doing damn well after two weeks,” Marc Klein, publisher of the new venture, said in an interview from his office at the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, the San Francisco area weekly at which he is editor and publisher.

Only subscribers to America Online can access Jewish Community, but Klein estimated that about 10 percent of AOL’s 4.5 million subscribers are Jewish.

He wants Jewish Community to be “the central address” for the on-line Jewish community, he said, adding that the project does a good job of casting a wide net.

It offers specialized bulletin board discussion groups for Jewish singles, youths and parents; Reform Jews; Orthodox Jews; gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews; Jews in “local communities”; and people who work in Jewish education, Jewish federations or Jewish journalism. Discussion groups also exist for rabbis and cantors.

And there are separate discussions dedicated to news of particular Jewish interest.

With photos and text, the site also offers tours of Jewish museum in Prague.

Jewish Community is also offering Jewish virtual courses, similar to the kind someone could find in synagogue adult education.

After two weeks, nearly 400 people had downloaded the first course, an introduction to Judaism that is taught by Rabbi Danny Horowitz, the spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue in Prairie Village, Kan.

Within the Jewish youth area, a discussion of interdating elicited posts from teens who made clear their struggle with the issue.

A girl with the on-line moniker “Moon Petal” wrote, “I recently started dating a guy. He is not a jew and from a german background. His father was born and raised in germany and has german symbols up all over his house. Do I have a right to feel uncomfortable?”

Dan Horowitz wrote that “Alot of the girls in my school are such japs it’s hard to find someone Jewish. Any Jewish girls from the Philadelphia suburbs interested in a relationship with a 17-year old Jewish guy? E-mail me!”

News stories from Reuters and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency are available, as are articles from several Jewish weekly newspapers from across the United States and a handful of magazines, including The Jerusalem Report, Hadassah, Lilith and Moment.

A feature called “This Day” mentions the Jewish holiday on that date,” if there is one, a historical tidbit and a Jewish trivia question.

A survey queries visitors each week. The first survey of whether religious symbols should be permitted on public property got 605 responses.

Slightly more than half – 53 percent – said they should not. The rest thought they should.

The second survey question, on whether Israel should turn the Golan over to Syria as part of peace Negotiations, prompted a heated debate from respondents.

Some wrote of the need to make painful concessions for peace. Many wrote of their love of the Golan, after having hiked or camped there during trips to Israel.

The singles real-time chat groups are less heated – politically, anyway. On one a woman posted only this line: “Hi! I’m in Chicago and I wear a 38D.”

Most of the singles chat is more sedate.

One, ostensibly for 20-somethings from the Midwest, included 18 participants from Southern California to Atlanta to New York City.

Each night of the week, the singles chat is tailored to people from different areas of the country and different age groups.

As in any singles bar, there are spurts of small talk that sometimes do not get much past the weather and a few forays into Jewish geography.

The site wants to be all things to all people. To be a place where Jews of every ideological and religious stripe can feel comfortable expressing themselves is a good goal.

But doing all things well for all people is difficult to achieve and, in so doing, Jewish Community is not provocative.

It is trying to serve the Jewish organizational establishment the same way that it serves Joe Jew out in cyberspace.

So far, most of the discussion groups designated for a range of disparate Jewish groups, from the Jewish Fund for Justice to the Jewish War Veterans, have no messages.

Still, Jewish Community is casting the wide net for which many Jews, particularly those who are not otherwise connected to Jewish life, seem to be grateful.

One visitor to Jewish Community, whose e-mail handle is “Kahncave,” sent Klein and his staff a message.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. Just as I am struggling with my Jewish identity, you came along and offered this wonderful opportunity for information and contact with others.”

Klein said, “This is something Jews have needed and we never realized just how much, but the e-mail is telling us. We feel we’ve done a real mitzvah.”

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