The questions come from the far reaches of the world; from a scientist in Antarctica, who is holding a seder thousands of miles away from his family, from a student in New Mexico wanting to know if smoking marijuana is permitted before Shabbat services; from a mother who wants vegetarian recipes for Passover.
These are some of the daily questions former Clevelander, Rabbi Yosef Kazen, receives and answers over the internet. Rabbi Kazen is director of the world’s largest Jewish website, Chabad of Cyberspace, which has received over one million hits since its inception in 1994. The Chabad in Cyberspace website is listed among the top 5% of best websites across the Internet, and for its innovation and popularity, it has earned a permanent pictorial exhibit at the American Smithsonian History Museum.
Rabbi Kazen spoke recently at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies (today a part of Case Western Reserve University) about Judaism over the Internet. The event was held in honor of the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson*, sponsored by Chabad House of Cleveland and the College.
“Internet technologies developed by the U.S. military during the Cold War now allow educators to spread Judaism around the world,” said the rabbi. “People can be united in their study of Torah.”
“Personal contact is the key,” says Rabbi Kazen**, who answers all emails personally and types at his computer until 1:00 am or 2:00 am at which time he will have answered on average 150 requests a day.
After receiving the email from the New Mexico student wanting to smoke marijuana, Rabbi Kazen replied that the boy didn’t need extra assistance to find his spirituality. He could meditate and study Judaism, absent any drugs. Four months later, after many conversations, the boy began to study at a New York Yeshiva.
For frequently asked questions, Rabbi Kazen draws upon answers that he keeps on file. Many who visit the website are Jews looking to rediscover Judaism. People of other faiths have also written to Chabad after discovering that their parents are really Jewish.
“Perhaps I’ve become a closet Orthodox Jew who will one day come out,” wrote one man. Other people write with questions about Jewish law as it applies to a variety of interesting scenarios.
“Jews are not the only ones surfing the web with the Lubavitchers,” notes the rabbi. The Chabad website which includes colorful screens of Jewish knowledge and information such as the weekly Torah portion of daily study, also captures the interest of gentiles. One woman, who maintains a frequent correspondence, expressed how important it was to her that Chabad Lubavitch in Cyberspace cares, “and I’m not even Jewish – yet,” she commented.
“Hopefully,” says Rabbi Kazen, “we’ve fostered a closer understanding of Judaism.”
“The next challenge,” explained the rabbi, “is to create a CD ROM of Jewish history. Also, under development is a multimedia project that will allow users to access text, audio and video.”
“The entire canon of Jewish literature has to be out there in an accessible way,” said the rabbi, “so that Jews can continue moving closer to their Judaism.”
(This was written in 1997 – YYK was ahead of his time and his vision helped prepare the way for information on the internet as we know it today.)
Rabbi Y.Y. Kazen, z’l, left behind his wife Rochel and six young children. Today his children continue his legacy of love of a fellow and a number of them are Shluchim – emissaries of the Rebbe.
*The Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson (1902-1994) Leader of our generation and lover of all mankind. When he was approached by YYK about using the Chabad name for the internet website, he approved and gave his blessing. His leadership is felt today in the continued establishment of Chabad Houses around the world, and the blessings people receive at the Ohel of the Rebbe – www.chabad.org/rebbe. This Monday, 14th of Kislev marks the anniversary of the marriage of the Rebbe to the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, zt’l, daughter of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson, zt’l (1880-1950).
**Rabbi Y. Y. Kazen (1954-1998) visionary and founder of Chabad of Cyberspace today chabad.org. He was a modern-day Maccabee not letting naysayers get in the way of his passion for spreading Torah Judaism and for his love and joy in helping his Jewish brethren and anyone who reached out to him. With a great sense of humor and selfless devotion, he was the personal virtual rabbi of thousand on the internet way before this became a popular medium. Written up in the book, the Soul of Cyberspace, author Jeff Zalensy writes, “Kazen made it a priority to respond to every individual. He spent an average of six hours a day responding to questions!”
“Rabbi Kazen is part of what makes the internet good!” Charles Rawls, co-founder of Dorsai Embassy, a precursor to the modern internet, exclaims. He adds that the vision of Kazen went beyond what was available in the late 1980s and spurred them to reach higher!
Engler Anderson states: Chabad of Cyberspace became the standard bearer for the Jewish internet world. Today Chabad.org, the Jewish informational educational website, is the longest running Jewish website out there, thanks to its founder.