A Face in the Internet Crowd

As soon as incoming freshman Chana Ickowitz received her UC Berkeley e-mail address, she registered on the online directory facebook.com. There, on her personal profile, she described herself as someone with moderate political views who likes sushi, rainy days, Urban Outfitters and “Jane Eyre” … and who is a member of a group called Jew Crew.

Yes, college is about learning. But it is also about establishing new social relationships. And this class of freshmen — the largest ever with almost 2 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education — has been crisscrossing cyberspace for most of their lives, existing as comfortably in the virtual world as in reality. So it’s not surprising that, before even setting foot on campus, they are using facebook.com to make new friends, scrutinize roommates and search for potential romantic interests.

And for many of those freshmen who are Jewish — approximately 90,000 according to Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — they are using the site not only to scope out fellow members of the tribe, but also to announce their own allegiance to Judaism by joining Jewish-related groups. These groups, created by students, exist exclusively on facebook.com and are particular to each campus.

“The first thing I did when I was searching groups was put in ‘Jews’ and there were a lot of them,” explained Ickowitz, 18, a graduate of Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. She joined Hillel’s online group. She also joined Jew Crew, a virtual group whose description reads, “There’s nothing better than Jewish pride! … well, there is, but Jewish pride is really cool! Hooray for Jews!”

Many of these students may never actually step foot into Hillel or other brick-and-mortar Jewish organizations, but they want their profile to show that they are members of such groups as USC’s For the Love of Mensch Club or Jew Crew (unrelated to the UC Berkeley group). It serves as the virtual equivalent of wearing a Star of David.

“I think this is about trying to find people, in this sea of people, that are just like me,” explained Ickowitz, who, growing up in Sherman Oaks and attending Jewish day schools, never had to work at finding Jewish friends.

“It’s what we all do, just as adults moving to a new city will look up synagogues and associations that interest them,” said psychology researcher Elisheva Gross, a doctoral candidate at UCLA. “Imagine moving from a setting where you know [almost] everyone … to a new, utterly unfamiliar, probably much larger and quite possibly daunting setting where you likely know few people.”

Perhaps that’s why facebook.com, launched by three Harvard University sophomores in February 2004, reports 6 million registered members at 2,027 colleges across the country. Additionally, about 15,000 new users are signing up daily, according to facebook.com spokesperson Chris Hughes. (The privately held company also opened a high school network on Sept. 2 that already has more than 500,000 members.) Currently, about 67 percent of Facebook’s members check in daily, while almost 90 percent check in weekly.

With only a school e-mail address and no fees, students can register on facebook.com, creating their own profiles by posting photos and personal information, including relationship status, favorite music and movies and contact information. They can also join online groups, send mail to their friends and post messages on their friends’ “walls,” which serve as a kind of public bulletin board on individual profiles. Anyone in their school community can view their profile, but those on other campuses need to send a request asking permission to become their Facebook “friend,” which the receiver can accept or reject.

For Jewish students, facebook.com is a non-threatening way to identify as Jewish, says Kim Rogoff, assistant director of student affairs at USC Hillel. “All they’re doing is clicking a button and saying, ‘I’m Jewish.'”

USC junior Alexis Kyman, 20, in fact, created Jew Crew a year ago as a way for students to demonstrate their Jewish pride.

“Personally, I started it because I went to a Catholic school in Phoenix, and I’ve gotten more in touch with my Jewish identity,” she said.

But she doesn’t envision Jew Crew, which currently has 445 members, as a way for Jewish students to meet in person.

Instead, those students who want offline Jewish friendships generally show up for Shabbat dinners or other activities sponsored by established organizations such as Hillel or Chabad. But they may also join the organizations’ virtual groups as a way to receive announcements or talk about upcoming events.

Freshman Veronica Renov, 17, a graduate of Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, for example, joined an online group created solely for FreshFest 2005, a Hillel-sponsored overnight orientation for incoming Jewish USC students, which helped her prepare for the trip.

“We posted messages like, where’s everybody from and what are we supposed to bring,” she explained. Of the 59 freshmen who attended FreshFest 2005, 55 had already connected on Facebook, according to Hillel’s Rogoff.

Facebook is also way for college faculty and other organizations to reach out to students who might not otherwise self-identify as Jews. Anyone with an e-mail address ending in “edu” can join Facebook.

For Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC, it’s a way to connect with students who, for whatever reason, might be averse to attending a Chabad event or approaching him directly.

For her part, Rogoff sees the service as something that also works for Hillel: “It’s a nice way — certainly one we don’t exploit — to interact and stay in touch with students on terms they’ve set for themselves.”