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From Internet Pals to Real Friends, Blogs Remaking Jewish Community

May 9, 2006
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When birthright israel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation were looking to bring young Jewish innovators to Jerusalem for a conference on Jewish identity-building, they used the fastest, most effective way to get out the word: a blog. Sure, they also had a mailing list of former birthright israel students, since the July conference, called “Return on Investment,” was being timed to celebrate the arrival of birthright’s 100,000th participant.

But in hiring the team behind, a popular Jerusalem-based blog, to advertise and run the four-day event, organizers knew they’d get applicants from around the world and attract cutting-edge project ideas.

They succeeded: Participants are coming from Hungary, Russia, Venezuela, India, Holland and a host of other countries. Their projects range from the Genocide Intervention Network — a Web-based non-profit that has raised $250,000 for Darfur refugees — to a Queer Shabbaton in Amsterdam.

“We were looking for people with strong opinions of what the Jewish community should be doing, or who are already putting those ideas into play,” says Jewlicious co-founder David Abitbol. Even before the conference gets under way, some participants are beginning to talk to each other online, creating the basis for what organizers hope will become a community of young Jewish activists that crosses international boundaries.

It’s happening all over. Blogs are how much of the under-30 crowd gets news, expresses opinions and finds friends. They’re a recent phenomenon, just a few years old, but are multiplying fast, and they link to each other: Read one and you’re immediately plugged into a network of similar conversations.

“It’s been very quick, but it’s made a tremendous impact on how people interact and how we contribute our voice to the ongoing conversation,” says Laya Millman, who works on

Each blog is unstructured, free-flowing and highly personal, but together the most popular Jewish blogs are creating a global virtual community of young, media-savvy Jews, where people who have never met face-to-face are intimately bound up in each other’s lives.

Activists increasingly are translating the Internet’s organizing potential into real life.

“They’re moving from being a virtual community to a physical community,” says Roger Bennett, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Many of the participants in the July event, called ROI-120, are bringing such projects to the conference.

One participant is Ariel Beery, 26, a Manhattan-based Jewish activist and co-editor of BlogsofZion. Beery sees Jewish blogs as 21st-century versions of the European coffeehouses of a century ago, places “where people would get together, argue and write something up. Each cafe would have its own literary journal; communities were built around the written word.”

The blogging world, he says, is “developing its own language,” which he sees as the precursor for a new worldwide forum for discussion and activism.

“In the past, your Jewish community was your synagogue, your Bundist knitting circle,” Abitbol says. “Today I’m in communication more with people in different countries than I am with people in my synagogue. We’re seeing a call for a way to unite all these people over the Internet, so if something is happening in France, someone on the Lower East Side can hear about it. If a group in Hungary is seeking to redefine what it is to be a Jew, people in New York can comment on it.”

Abitbol and Millman were sharing their thoughts recently at Jewlicious@TheBeach.2, a conference for Jewish students and recent college graduates organized by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and Rachel Bookstein, campus rabbi and director, respectively, at several local Hillels.

This spring’s conference was the Booksteins’ second effort at turning virtual communities into face-to-face friendships.

It seemed to work. All over the conference, people smiled and hugged as they put faces to the personalities they knew from Jewlicious, Jewschool, Canonist, and a dozen or so other popular Jewish blogs.

“You’re TAltman?” one young man shouted gleefully as he outed a popular blog contributor, who acknowledged the recognition with a smirk.

The personal bonds created by these ongoing Web conversations can be strong. New York writer Esther Kustanowitz, who runs three blogs and contributes regularly to others, met several bloggers from her sites at the conference. They’d never met before, but she says they felt like old friends.

“It’s a subversion of the usual construct of celebrity,” she says. “You know people not by how they look, but from the inside out.”

At one workshop, Abitbol talked about a guy who mentioned Jewlicious on his blog and said he was about to visit Israel. The Jewlicious folks — who, like many bloggers, scan the blogosphere for references to their site — picked up his remark, got in touch with him, met him at the airport and took him to Ein Gedi. When they found out he hadn’t had a bar mitzvah, they organized one at the Western Wall.

From blogging to instant best friends. It happens a lot, frequent bloggers say.

But are those virtual ties real? Not always, Kustanowitz cautions: “The intervening layer of technology can create false intimacy, as well as bring people together.”

Katlyn McKenna begs to differ. A communications lecturer at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University, McKenna researched relationship-forming on the Internet for her doctorate. She found that people who meet online reveal more about their true selves, like each other better and stay together longer than people who meet first in person.

McKenna started her own blog a year before she moved to Israel last fall, and found herself part of a worldwide discussion about aliyah. Within 24 hours of her arrival, she was hearing from people who read her blog, and had “an instant community” of new friends.

“The federations are freaking out,” says Abitbol, who says gets 10,000 hits a day. They needn’t feel threatened, he says, if they would accept that young Jews are scattered, secular and unaffiliated, and that the old ways of bringing them together no longer work.

“In the past, if you wanted to communicate with fellow Jews, you went to synagogue or the JCC. Now some people are uncomfortable in those traditional places; they want to get together online. We’re trying to offer a Jewish option,” he says.

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