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Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace

Chabad Homepage screenshot from 1997

”When you go to the Internet and you read about Judaism, you go straight to the intellect and the stereotypes fall away.”

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen wanted to spread the message of Judaism to the world. He was, after all, a member of the Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, Chabad-Lubavitch, founded in the eighteenth century with a special emphasis on interpretations of the Torah and public outreach. But they also made a mark in the second half of the 20th century, under the guidance of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, when they put a lot more emphasis on that last bit, creating a wide variety of outreach and educational programs all over the world.

In so doing, they have been somewhat surprisingly technologically forward thinking. And as members of the Jewish Orthodoxy go, Kazen ranked among the most technically proficient. Early on in his career as a Rabbi, Kazen helped setup a telephone linkup that connected members around the world to the sermons and words of Rebbe Schneerson. As technology progressed, so did Kazen. He hooked up his computer to an Internet connection in the late 80’s and signed up for Fidonet, a rudimentary network of message boards. But he didn’t just sign up to chat about the weather. Kazen sought out those with questions about the Jewish faith, Jewish or not, and got to work answering them. One by one.

Fidonet soon led Kazen to email, which he found rewarding if only because of the one on one connections it allowed him to foster. Email, in turn, led him to the World Wide Web. As a man obsessed with connecting people to knowledge, Kazen was a natural match for the web. It’s no surprise he found it and took to it pretty quickly. What is surprising is just how early he stumbled upon it.

Kazen first learned of the web after visiting the Dorsai Embassy, a non-profit known for helping other organizations learn about the Internet and new technologies, in the early 90’s. They showed him a few of the more interesting Internet technologies of the time, things like FTP and Gopher and the like. And then they showed Kazen the web, and he realized immediately what he had to do. He had to create a website.

An early page on Chabad’s site

But these were early days, and you couldn’t exactly just go online and buy yourself a monthly hosting plan. For months, Kazen and a few of his colleagues attended night classes at the Dorsai embassy, learning about HTML and the HTTP protocols and TCP/IP connections and web servers. Finally, they had learned enough to boot up a website of their own. After getting permission from the Rebbe (his exact words were “go for it,” Kazen recalls), they purchased the domain name chabad.com and got a site up that extended and amplified their movements cause.

All of this at the end of 1993.

At the end of 1993, when there were less than 1,000 websites on the web. Most people were still just tinkering with the technology behind it all. But Kazen figured it out, recognizing that the the web’s machine connections were human connections and about as authentic a source of truth as you were going to get. On the web, Kazen could interact with Jews and non-Jews directly, all the around the world, without any sort of middleman between them. It quite literally tore down walls and linked together likeminded people, spiritually and intellectually. It’s this realization that once led Kazen to remark (somewhat humorously) “is TCP/IP another name for G‑d?.” I think that gets right to the spirit of Kazen’s belief in the web. He saw the kinship it enabled as truly divine.

In his Fidonet days, Kazen received an unusual request. One of the people he was talking to wanted to read the Tanya, a five-volume book at the center of the Chabad movement. The issue was, she was allergic to ink. So Kazen decided the very first thing he would do with his website would be to digitize the Tanya.

He assembled a few of his colleagues, Elie Winsbacher and Dovid Zirkin to help setup the site. He even recruited his 14 year old son, who had learned a few web development tricks alongside his father, to help create the site. Everyone pitched in where they could, and most of them even paid for server and bandwidth costs out of pocket. But all of them deeply believed in the web and what it could do for Chabad and Judiasm.

After digitizing a few sacred texts (but never the Torah itself, Kazen had a rule about that), he began trying out a few other things. It wasn’t long before he got back to his roots. He was drawn to the Internet because it allowed him to share his spiritual experience with others. He wanted to do the same thing on his site. So he started an “Ask a Question” section of the site where anyone could fill in a form with a question about Judaism or the Jewish faith, or anything really, and get back an answer from Rabbi Kazen.

Ask a Rabbi section of the Chabad website
Ask a question, get an answer.

As one of the first religious sites on the web (if not the first), chabad.org managed to gain some traction. It’s bold title, “chabad-lubavitch in cyberspace” brought people in, and it’s various links made people stay. True to his nature, Kazen made the site about spreading knowledge about Judiasm, and not so much about recruiting people to Chabad. He filled it with all sorts of information scattered among colorful icons and navigation. Kazen kept on working on the site until he passed away in 1998. In his final months and stricken with illness, he always kept a computer close, so he could keep on answering the questions from the curious world of the web.

And that’s why, one of the first thousand websites on the World Wide Web was a place where you could ask a Rabbi anything, from anywhere in the world, and get a compassionate and entirely sincere answer.

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