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FOCUS ON ISSUES Online and active: Jews use Internet to promote causes

WASHINGTON, April 17 (JTA) — Chris Kantrowitz was surfing the World Wide Web one day when he came across an Internet site in London dealing with Palestinian issues. The 22-year-old college senior struck up an e-mail correspondence with the Web master, a Palestinian student who, not unlike himself, held passionate views about the Middle East. “Our opinions are based very much on emotion and rooted in our own traditions,” says Kantrowitz, who attends the University of Oregon at Eugene. “But what we’ve begun to learn through each other is the history of our peoples, the histories of the land, and the way each of us perceives it.” His experience is just one of the many ways Jewish activists are using the Internet to make connections, affect change and bring the Jewish and non-Jewish world together. This month, at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, Online enthusiasts and Jewish information junkies stopped off at AIPAC’s “Cyber Cafe” to check out the latest techniques and technology for getting plugged into the world of Jewish cyber activism. Whether using mass e-mailings urging college administrators and faculty to start up Jewish studies programs or appealing to members of Congress to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, Jewish activists are finding the Internet an increasingly indispensable tool. “Online activism is self-motivating because it’s something you can do from the comfort of your own home, and you can be very effective and prolific,” Kantrowitz says. Other examples of Jewish use of the Internet include college students developing Web pages to counter Holocaust revisionists and a small Russian Jewish community reaching out to the world through a Web site in an effort to save its synagogue. At the AIPAC conference, one elderly Holocaust survivor was reunited with a fellow survivor whom she hadn’t spoken to in 50 years after she sat down at a computer on a whim, wondering if she might be able to locate him. Through a simple search, Helen Glatt of Potomac, Md., was able to find a Web page containing a story written by her friend’s son, charting his father’s path through nine concentration camps. The Internet is also changing the face of pro-Israel lobbying. “The key to successful lobbying is to provide information,” says Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC. “Information is power,” he adds. “If we can inform our constituency who then turn around and talk to members of Congress,” then we will have “achieved our goals. That’s why we’re using the technology.” For many Jewish Internet navigators, the Online world offers a vital means of establishing links with other Jews. “For us, communication is key,” says Steven Berkowitz, 18, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “Being out in Oklahoma, which isn’t exactly the center of Jewish life, you really need e-mail to be able to get connected to other pro-Israel activists.” One of the most popular hangouts for Jewish cyber-goers is the Jewish Community Online site on America Online (keyword: Jewish). The site features a variety of discussion groups, links to Jewish news sources and live chats on topical Jewish issues. “I meet people in the `JComm’ every day that teach me something new,” says Sue Levine, a message board supervisor for Jewish Community Online who works out of her home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “It’s very non-threatening,” she says. Whereas “in a synagogue you might be afraid to ask the rabbi something because he’ll think you’re dumb,” she adds, the anonymity of JComm “gives you a little more freedom to ask questions.” Sahar Oz, a 20-year-old junior at Penn State University, sees the Internet as an invaluable “educational tool” that “gets a lot of people around my age interested and active.” His personal Web page features links to such sites as “Free Ron Arad,” the missing Israeli pilot, and AIPAC’s Cyber-Center for Pro-Israel Activism (www.aipac.org). But it isn’t just young Jews who are wired these days. Shari Rosen, 68, and her husband Herbert, 73, are junkies through and through, spending hours each day clicking between Web sites for the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com), the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (www.jta.org), AIPAC — “anything Jewish,” Shari Rosen says, adding that they’re now on their third computer. The Highland Park, Ill., couple have been politically active for years but have no fond memories of the olden days when they used to send letters to members of Congress through “snail mail.” “Now it’s easier,” Rosen says. “Everything is more accessible.” When they go to visit their children in Israel or head out to Palm Springs, Calif., a laptop becomes a requisite appendage. “I can’t imagine life without it,” she says. “We’re
hooked. ”

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