Profile: Jewish Web Entrepreneur Conquers New Virtual Lands

In 1994, a Brooklyn man made a major life change. He sold his medical hardware consulting company and moved with his wife and kids to Efrat, Israel, to get in touch with his Jewish heritage.

But when he arrived, Avi Moskowitz discovered that, in addition to not speaking Hebrew, he lacked a knowledge of Israeli culture and social networks, and felt segregated from mainstream Israeli life.

Moskowitz would eventually attempt to remedy that feeling of estrangement by creating Virtual Jerusalem, which would grow to become the NASDAQ-traded Virtual Communities Inc. At the time, however, he wasn’t aspiring to become anything other than employed and connected to Israel.

Moskowitz volunteered as a security guard, and as he drove around Efrat, he wondered how aware American Jews were about day-to-day Israeli life.

That is how he developed the idea of Virtual Jerusalem (www.virtualjerusalem.com). Through an interactive Web site, he could bring Israel into the homes of American Jews and create a virtual community where people like himself could belong.

This dream took him two years to realize.

“At the time, the computer was practically pasted together with miracle glue,” said Moskowitz in an interview with JTA.

From this low-tech beginning, Moskowitz added other virtual communities: Virtual Holyland for Christian Web browsers (www.virtualholyland.com), along with Virtual Ireland (www.virtualireland.com) and Virtual Italy (www.virtualitaly.com).

On Oct. 27, Moskowitz’s Virtual Communities, Inc. (VCI) merged with Heuristic Development Group and became part of the NASDAQ small cap market.

“I had this idea of Virtual Communities since day one,” says Moskowitz. “I’m not big on hype and saying that I’m taking on the world, but VCI is a big step. Most Internet companies have not gone beyond one community.”

Moskowitz says his cyberspace communities are successful because physical limitations are overcome. Via his Web site, Jews in smaller communities can now share viewpoints with Jews around the world.

It started as a frequently updated Israeli news source, carrying stories that might be left out of the mainstream media, but would be of interest to American Jews.

News from JTA is an integral component of the site.

“Mainstream news is usually slanted,” says Rhoda Dilbert of Woodbury, N.Y., who taps into Virtual Jerusalem a few times a week. “The site gives me a feeling of what’s actually happening, like I’m there.”

Moskowitz expanded upon this connection to Israel by weaving more interactive elements into his site, including e-mail, chat rooms, discussion groups, and a religious question and answer service staffed by 10 Orthodox rabbis.

He next added an interactive visual aspect by creating the Kotel Kam, a live camera that allows Internet viewers a peek at Jerusalem’s Western Wall 24 hours a day. Registered users can actually control the camera, which is affixed to a hotel in the Old City, from their home computers.

“It’s mind-blowing,” says Moskowitz.

But Moskowitz didn’t feel his Jewish community was complete until VJRadio, an Internet radio station, was launched. He said it improved the Internet experience, which until then was limited to “type and react.”

“With the radio, people can just listen and do other things,” he says.

On VJRadio, live news from Israel is read every half hour in addition to live interviews and Israeli music. “Suddenly, there is a real sense of community,” says Moskowitz. “People are not just reading or listening. They are experiencing it.”

Through the Internet, VJRadio bypasses license requirements for Israeli radio stations. As a result of the bureaucratic difficulties, there are no radio stations in Israel that broadcast in English.

“This makes VJRadio perfect for non-Hebrew-speaking Americans residing in Israel,” he says.

Approximately 75 percent of the site’s visitors are American Jews. After Moskowitz noticed a strong following of Evangelical Christians in the site’s guest book, he realized that Jews weren’t the only ones who would welcome an online community.

“Everyone belongs to a community somewhere, a place where that person feels comfortable,” says Moskowitz. “I realized that what I did with Virtual Jerusalem could be replicated for others.”

Today, with the help of a production team, Moskowitz can develop a virtual community in 90 days or less.

Moskowitz says his New York upbringing gave him a background for the virtual Irish and Italian communities, two ethnic groups that dominated New York when he was young. But mainly, his ideas for new communities come from U.S. census reports and focus groups.

His most recently developed Internet ethnic community is Virtual India (www.virtualindia.com). Moskowitz says that Indian immigrants are the largest group fluent in English, the language of the Internet.

And now that VCI is on the NASDAQ, Moskowitz believes that the possibilities for community development are endless. “It means that I now have people to rely on and more access to capital to expand,” he says.

Expansion for Moskowitz includes advising others who want to develop their own online communities. “We give them comfort and help them all the way through the process,” he says.

Currently, Moskowitz is consulting with an independent film company, the disabled and music enthusiasts on new sites.

Moskowitz, who moved back to New York after VCI merged with the publicly traded company, says he is exhilarated by his company’s success. “This is an exciting time. The market is so young, so new. There is no time for rest. Thank God for the Shabbat.”

He says he looks forward to the Sabbath for the chance to spend time with his wife and four children.

“It’s hard for people who know me to believe that I stop working, but I haven’t lost any business opportunities because of it,” he says. “Knowing that I have the Shabbat makes a big difference.”

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