Jewish identity defined — a la Facebook


Ora Weinbach is not satisfied with merely calling herself a Jew. Instead, the recent high school graduate strives to put the za za zoo back into her religious observance by being an “impassioned Jew” — a term she uses to define herself on Facebook.

As opposed to the generic “Jewish — Orthodox” listed under the majority of her friends’ profiles, she has created an entirely new category to express the fervor of her faith.

“Selecting Orthodox Judaism from a dropdown list, after Jehovah’s Witness and Jain, just didn’t seem as ‘ Wear it proud!’ as it should,” Weinbach said.

Facebook has become far more than a social network; it is a virtual social necessity.

Providing a do-it-yourself outlet for people to express their likes, dislikes and even their faith, the interactive platform allows users around the world to join together — whether on the newly available Facebook chat or in myriad groups that cater to almost any interest. The Jewish community, in particular, has created a haven for itself on this booming network, claiming hundreds of groups, applications and pieces of Jewish flair.

Beyond providing aesthetically appealing odds and ends for all its Jewish participants, Facebook — unlike MySpace or Friendster — hands over the reigns to developers by allowing them to create their own add-on applications.

Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, the head of the Chabad house at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the creator of the popular Jewish Dates 2.0, which displays the current Hebrew date and a user’s Hebrew birthday. The application, like JewMeter and Jewish Gifts, is intended as a fun tool to help reinforce Jewish identity.

“I wanted to use every medium to bring Jewish culture closer to their father in Heaven,” Plotkin said.

Putting hundreds of hours into creating various “jewpplications,” developers like Plotkin are ensuring that Facebook is a means of inspiration, rather than just a tool for finding old friends and staying in touch.

Facebook groups can be found for almost any interest, and the selection for Jews extends from the serious, “We Are Still Here (Holocaust Memorial),” to the humorous, “I am a Victim of a Jewish Mother.”

For Zoe Jurkowski, a sophomore at YULA Girls High School and a member of several Jewish Facebook groups, the platform represents more than just sharing pictures and connecting with friends.

“When some show that they are proud of their religion, others are suddenly inspired to embrace it despite some social stigmas that might influence them not to,” she said.

Facebook has also become an asset for community organizers, such as Rabbi Effie Goldberg, the regional director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He uses Facebook as an opportunity to reach out to new members in a comfortable atmosphere where both he and his NCSY-ers can communicate about everything from upcoming events to the underlying goals of his organization.

“I have found through my experience in using Facebook and dealing with teenagers, that teens will go to the nth degree to express their Judaism,” he said. “Whether with a Hebrew letter or the Hebrew date on their page, each profile has a connection to their religious view. Teenagers want to stay together as a strong Jewish network.”

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On Facebook, The Jewish Journal is “pretty Jewish.”

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Junk Mail


There is no Editor of cyberspace, and that’s too bad. The latest e-mail craze to spread like the Melissa virus through the cc: box of various e-mails is the report of a man named Joseph Farah.

Farah is an Arab-American journalist who has cashed in on some Jewish Americans’ willingness to believe exactly what they want to believe. His report, called “Myths of the Middle East” has ricocheted from e-mail to e-mail. It has arrived at our offices dozens of time, usually preceded by the sender’s imploring, “You MUST read this!” or “Bet you don’t have the GUTS to print THIS!”

Farah’s “Myths” passes itself off as a set of “courageously” told “truths,”which, taken together, purport to prove that there is no Palestinian people, no Palestinian claim on land in the Middle East and no Muslim claim on Jerusalem.

Let’s forget for a minute that no serious Israeli leader believes this hooey. Better to look at who Joseph Farah is. He is a writer for a range of garden-variety outlets of the Christian far right. As Gershom Gorenberg reported in The Jerusalem Report (12/12/00), a Columbia Journalism Review piece on Farah documented his past as a former publisher of the ultra-conservative Sacramento Union and founder of the Western Journalism Center, which promoted dark theories on the death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.

On Farah’s WorldNetDaily, you can read his similarly insightful pieces on how President Bill Clinton ran an international crime syndicate from the White House, why guns reduce crime, and the evil of Steven Spielberg, whom Farah calls “a capitalist pig.” Cc that.

You can also peruse his article, “Jerusalem: The Burdensome Stone,” in which Farah cites chapter 14 of Zechariah “in the standard fashion of Christian fundamentalists who see Israel as a sign that the End is near,” writes Gorenberg. WorldNetDaily is full of links to works that envision a Middle East in which Israel rebuilds the Temple and Jews convert in vast numbers to born-again Christianity on the eve of the Second Coming.

It is sad and true that the same people who would slam the door on Farah if he came peddling his wares in person eagerly forward his Internet “scholarship.” The Palestinian problem is real, and Joseph Farah’s mythologies can only make it worse.

‘That ’70s Show’ Star Enters Cyberspace


On Fox’s breakout comedy, “That ’70s Show,” Mila Kunis plays spoiled and sassy Jackie Burkhardt. But, in real life, she’s very much a child of the ’90s, down to her fascination with the Internet.

“I’m on AOL and Netscape every day,” the 15-year-old sitcom star told Up Front. “I’m addicted.”

Kunis recently participated in an online public-service campaign called “Turn On Your Light,” sponsored by Sparksmag.com, an electronic magazine for Jewish adolescents between the ages of 9 and 13. In the PSA, Kunis describes how human kindness can brighten up even the darkest moments: “Sometimes we benefit from the light of kindness, and sometimes we’re asked to shine it,” she tells her fans from cyberspace.

“I just I thought it would be fun to do,” said Kunis. “I thought that kids could relate to it.”

Sparksmag.com is the brainchild of Rabbi Mark H. Levine, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife and three children, ages 8, 11 and 15. Levine launched the http://www.sparksmag.com Web site address in late 1997 after he realized that newsstand magazines in the secular world were better executed than what was coming out of the Jewish sector. To save costs, Levine sought an online outlet for his cyber paper, itself an offshoot of Sparks Family of Media, Levine’s nonprofit organization dedicated to melding Jewish education with the entertainment world.

Says the 46-year-old Reconstructionist rabbi of his pet project: “It’s nondenominational. It tries to teach Jewish values. It is not a religious site per se…. For many kids…if you come on strong with the religious element, that’s really going to turn them off.”

Updated monthly, Sparksmag.com, according to Levine, helps children “see elements of the world around them through Jewish eyes.” It also appeals to the fact that, as Americans, “we live in two civilizations, not just the Jewish world.” In hitting up Sparksmag.com, Levine promises, Jewish kids will glean factoids related to their heritage and history.

Levine is now in the early stages of developing a radio show. He also hopes to enlist the talents of Marla Sokoloff (“The Practice”) to join Kunis on the “Turn On Your Life” spots.

As for Kunis, the sitcom star thinks that, as a young Jewish actress, it’s important to set a good example for her fans and Hollywood peers. Aside from more episodes of “That ’70s Show,” Kunis will grace the cover of YM magazine in September and, as her schedule permits, continue to participate in causes when and where she can.

“The more I could do to help people, the better,” said Kunis. “Every little thing counts.” — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

City of URLs


Unless you know where to look, the World
Wide Web can sometimes feel more like a black
hole than cyberspace. The following are some of
the best websites Jewish L.A. has to offer. This
is a highly subjective decision, but I’ve used a
few criteria, namely, how does the page look, is
it easy to use, and has it been updated recently?
So, during the Jewish Web/Net Week (Feb. 22-27,
it will be raining anyhow, so why not spend some
time at the computer), visit The Jewish Journal’s
web page ( http://www.lafn.org/jjla
) — where you’ll find this article complete with
active links.

To find these web pages, I enlisted the help
of “At L.A.”, (http://www.at-la.com)
a site with a vast set of directories to almost
everything online in L.A. Looking under Religion:
Judaism, I went to http://www.at-la.com/@la-god/jewish.htm,
where I found a diverse and nearly comprehensive
list of Jewish sites. Another very helpful site
in this search was http://www1.jewishgen.org/jgsla/shuls.htm,
which is a listing of synagogues from the Jewish
Genealogical Society of Los Angeles.

My Top Picks

http://www.vbs.org/
Valley Beth Shalom
All around great site, great organization, looks
great, sounds great, links for both congregants
and visitors — you can hear the rabbis talk,
find out what’s going on and which services are
offered. It proves that a synagogue doesn’t have
to hire a professional designer or spend a ton of
money to make a bang-up site, this one is
volunteer run.

http://www.tbsoc.com/
Temple Beth Sholom of Orange County in Tustin.
On the other hand, this is what a synagogue site
can look like when someone hires a high-end
designer. It is beautiful, with fancy graphics,
and some real content. Like “Grandma Zelda’s
Kitchen” — a recipe exchange bulletin
board. It also has a place for congregants to
post messages to each other. A terrific site.

http://www.anshe.org/

Anshe Emes Synagogue
From the
looks of it, the webmaster of this site is very, very enthusiastic. The site is
innovative, with a bulletin board, video of lectures and, above all, a sense of
humor! There is a link to a detailed Parshat HaShavuah page, with the suggestion
that it be printed and used as a discussion guide for the Shabbat
table.

Honorable Mention

http://www.ohrhatorah.org/
Ohr HaTorah
Ohr HaTorah’s site is well organized, updated
frequently, useful for both members and
non-members, and not too vast, containing just
the right amount of information for a quick
visit.

http://amishalom.org/
Temple Ami Shalom in West Covina
Useful and well-organized, the page contains the
temple bulletin online and is updated often.
Overall, a good, manageable page clearly done by
a dedicated individual.

Two JCCs, Long Beach and West Valley, have web
pages that are worth a visit:
http://www.jcclb.org/
Long Beach JCC
A dynamic page, with current information,
creative presentation and
some levity.
http://www.wvjcc.markv.com/
West Valley JCC
a well-organized, informative,
in-out-nobody-gets-hurt page.

http://www.primenet.com/~jkaye/sholem.html
Sholem Community
For secular Jews, the Sholom Community’s web page
is just as impressive as most synagogue pages. It
is well maintained with up-to-date information.

http://www.wiesenthal.com/
The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance
Admittedly a very attractive site, with
information on the museum and the programs of the
center but not terribly interactive. It is a
major resource on “Swiss banks which failed
to return monies and material possesions to
Holocaust victims and their heirs.”

Also of Interest

http://shamash.org/kosher/krestquery.html
Kosher Restaurant Guide
Hosted on Shamash, that venerable workhorse of a
Jewish website, this bulletin board is for
listing and locating kosher restaurants. Search
by city, type in Los Angeles and you’ll find 34
entries. A great service.

http://www.jewishla.org
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
With Super Sunday coming, take a look at the
Jewish Federation’s site, a starting point for
learning about this vast and essential
organization.

http://www.aliyah.org/ Israel Aliyah Center, Los Angeles
Thinking about making aliyah to Israel? This
well-designed site is a resource for those
interested in moving to Israel from L.A.

http://shamash.org/reform/uahc/congs/ca/ca018/
Temple Beth
Ami in Santa Clarita
Yes, there are Jews there. This gets my vote for
the most haimish site. Turn down your speaker
volume before you get there, though. Homespun,
but welcoming!

http://www.nris.com/sts/
Congregation Shomrei Torah in West Hills
A somewhat utilitarian site, but it has the
standout feature of links to congregants pages —
a great idea!

http://www.templeetzchaim.com/ Temple Etz
Chaim in Thousand Oaks
Check out the youth department page, with a fun
interactive picture, which would appeal to kids
(well, I liked it).

http://www.jdcc.org/novdec97/novtoc.htm
For one of the coolest Jewish images I have ever
seen, look at the Jewish Deaf Community Center’s
Dec. 1997 newsletter on line, then find someone
who knows sign language to help read it.

These are just a few of the hundreds of sites
put up by Jewish organizations in Los Angeles. Do
your own search, and find your own way through
Jewish cyberspace.