The Last Year in Jewish Technology

Once again The Jewish Week asked me to try and summarize the last year in technology from a Jewish angle. This was not an easy task since technology is increasingly so much a part of our lives and it affects all areas of our world including religion. I decided to come up with the ten big Jewish/Technology-related stories. What follows is what I submitted to The Jewish Week:

A few years ago when I was asked to start the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough material to write about. After all, there are a lot of worthwhile news stories about technology and a lot of interesting topics in the Jewish world, but I wasn’t sure there would be enough areas of integration. Boy, was I wrong.

Image Source: RustyBrick

Religion in general and Judaism in particular are very much enmeshed in the field of technology. As our world becomes more dependent on technology, our Jewish lives are adapting as well. Jewish visionaries are at the head of the tech revolution and hi-tech innovation has been a driving force in Israel’s economic growth in the 21st century. The Internet and tech gadgets have revolutionized Jewish learning in ways never imagined before. A set of the Talmud that once occupied an entire shelf now resides on a Smartphone with full search capabilities. The Dead Sea Scrolls were once only available to those able to travel to Jerusalem, but they are now available to the world on the Web. And it is no longer unusual that the homebound are participating in High Holy Day services virtually.

In early January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jewish technology leaders featured prominently. CES is produced by the Consumer Electronics Association led by Gary Shapiro, whose new book Ninja Innovation is sure to become a best seller in the tech world. Through the convention halls of CES were Jewish owners of technology stores and companies, inventors, and industry leaders. Innovators from Israel were seen making deals with investors, a daily minyan was convened, and the Las Vegas Chabad supervised a lunch stand.

In 2012 there were many Jewish-related stories in technology. I put together a list of the top ten stories of the year (in no particular order). To stay informed about the intersection of Jewish life and technology this year, connect with the Jewish Techs blog at http://thejewishweek.com/blogs/jewish-techs.

1. ISRAEL’S GAZA WAR AND SOCIAL MEDIA
For the first time in Israel’s existence the country waged a parallel war on the Internet. During its military situation in Gaza, the IDF focused part of its attention on social networking uploading videos of its operation to YouTube, informing its following on Facebook and posting a barrage of updates to Twitter.

2. SUPER STORM SANDY, SYNAGOGUES AND THE SOCIAL NETWORKS
The East Coast’s found itself challenged by super storm Sandy for several weeks. Synagogues in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut used social media to keep its congregants informed about everything from relief efforts to places to recharge cellphones and alternative locations of Shabbat services. During the week-long power outages, some synagogues had life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs to contend with.

3. AGUNA CASE HITS FACEBOOK
A drawn out, messy divorce case quickly went from a private matter to a world-wide public debate. Aharon Friedman, a staffer for a Michigan congressman, refused to grant his ex-wife Tamar Epstein a Jewish divorce. Online petitions and then a highly trafficked Facebook page put pressure on Friedman, including a call for him to be summarily fired. It was the first time a Jewish domestic dispute had gone to social networking to be resolved.

4. SOCIAL MEDIA’S INFLUENCE DURING THE ELECTION
Jewish Republican voters have been growing their ranks and looking to the Internet to try to convince their Democratic co-religionists. Never before has social media been so influential in a presidential election. Friends were attacking friends on Facebook for their political views. News articles and YouTube videos were posted on each other’s Facebook walls. Back-and-forth tweets were shot around Cyberspace debating whether President Obama or Governor Romney would be the better choice for Israel.

5. APPLE’S QUESTIONABLE JERUSALEM STATUS
The popular computer and phone company found itself being questioned by pro-Israel supporters for neglecting to associate Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on its faulty map application. When Apple released its new operating system, iOS6, it didn’t show Jerusalem as the capital of Israel although every other country on the map had its capital listed.

6. JEWISH LED GOOGLE AVOIDS CHARGES IT’S A MONOPOLY
Microsoft and a coalition of niche search engines accused Google, founded by Jewish Internet gurus Sergei Brin and Larry Page, of unfair search practices for prominently displaying some results at the top of some inquiries. Google, which began as an Internet search company but has ventured into many other sectors, spent the better part of the year fighting those accusations. The Federal Trade Commission absolved Google of monopoly accusations early in 2013 for prioritizing its own products in search results

7. WAZE APP AND SALE RUMORS
The biggest tech story coming out of Israel this year was about a little GPS app company called Waze. The mobile app, featuring turn-by-turn navigation was developed by the Israeli start-up Waze Mobile and differs from traditional GPS navigation software because its community-driven. The app learns from users’ driving times to provide routing and real-time traffic updates. When Apple’s mapping application had flaws, Apple’s CEO recommended that iPhone users download Waze. After growing to more than 40 million users in 2012 there were rumors that Facebook and then Apple were interested in buying Waze (for some $40 billion), but neither deal panned out.

8. DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND SCHOTTENSTEIN TALMUD GO VIRTUAL
If asked what two collections from the Jewish textual tradition would be most beneficial in a fully searchable, digital format scholars would come to consensus over the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud. The Israel Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, a partnership with Google, launched in 2012 allows users to examine and explore the most ancient manuscripts from Second Temple times at a level of detail never imagined before. Five Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitized so far and they can be searched through queries on Google.com. What had been hidden and lost in a cave for generations are now online for the world to see.

Earlier this year, Artscroll announced the launch of the ArtScroll Digital Library and the first mobile app they will launch will be the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud. The app will offer all of the necessary tools students of the Talmud would want as they study and debate the ancient text. The app was produced by Rusty Brick and features page syncing, place tracking, extra hand, page fusion, hybrid page, floating translation, quick scroll, integrated notes, and page mapping color coding. The Apple version is already available and an Android version is expected to be released this year.

9. RALLY AGAINST INTERNET AT CITI FIELD
In May, more than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a sellout rally in Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. The attendees came to protest the growth of the Internet, which they believe is a moral detriment to their religious way of life. Rabbis spoke to the crowd about the perils of the Internet and cautioned those who are required to use the Internet for their work to use a filter so as to avoid unseemly content.

10. TEXTING HIGH HOLIDAY SERVICES
Rosh Hashanah 2012 marked the first time that several rabbis around the country encouraged their congregants to take out their SmartPhones and use them. In most congregations, participants were reminded to put their tech gadgets away, but in some synagogues like Rabbi Amy Morrison’s Reform temple in Miami Beach she told the worshippers to “Take those phones out.” This innovation was seen as a way to engage the crowd of digitally connected 20- to 30-year-olds. No doubt tweeting and texting during religious services will only become more prevalent in the years to come, right or wrong.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Is Your Donkey Equipped with Wi-Fi?

Back in December 2004, I wrote about my technology experience at the Mamshit Camel Ranch, a Bedouin village in Israel. I explained how funny it was to be at a Bedouin village that appeared to be authentically rustic to the Birthright Israel participants I was chaperoning, but behind-the-scenes the place was equipped with the latest technology.

It was odd to be sitting in a Bedouin tent and checking my email and posting to my blog as camels and donkeys walked around outside. I was reminded of that experience today after I read that Kfar Kedem in Israel will be equipping their donkeys with Wi-Fi.

In an article humorously titled “Internet for those who won’t get off their asses,” The Times of Israel reports that “the northern town of Hoshaya [Israel] is planning on installing WiFi Internet access on the donkeys it uses as part of its Talmudic-era amusement village, Kfar Kedem.” The amusement park, which is sort of like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Greenfield Village outside of Detroit, offers visitors a reenactment of Judean life in the Galilee from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Apparently, Kfar Kedem’s director, Menachem Goldberg, felt it was time to offer wireless Internet access on the donkeys so his visitors could post photos while they’re still riding the donkeys.

I’m not certain if Facebook and Foursquare will be able to identify precisely which donkey one is sitting on with GPS tracking technology, but that capability probably isn’t far behind. At least no tourist to Israel will have trouble checking their email while they’re donkey riding anymore. Maybe it should be advertised as E-Mule Access.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally Against Internet

If Al Gore actually had invented the Internet, as he once claimed, he would be the least popular guy in any ultra-Orthodox neighborhood today. It is clear that the fervently Orthodox Jewish leaders despise the Internet and technology because they’re willing to spend over $1.5 million in a rally against the Internet next month in Queens, New York.

Ever since the Web became popular in the mid-1990s, the ultra-Orthodox community has railed against it. Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim consider the Internet as threatening to their strict way of life. They believe it promotes the ills of society and has the force to steer its devout members off the path of strict religious observance.

In the past, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have attempted to issue a complete ban on Internet use for their members. In some cases their rulings were motivated by the easy availability of pornography on the Web. In other cases rabbis have forbidden Internet use because they consider it a secular act with secular content that will contaminate their communities. Most Haredi rabbis don’t consider the educational advantages of the Internet and tell their students that using technology is a bitul z’man — a waste of time that could be used for religious study.

Many Haredi yeshiva leaders have condemned Internet use in sermons and some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods display posters in the streets promoting the Internet ban. Over the years, there have been attempts in the ultra-Orthodox world to create an alternative Internet so that Haredi adherents could use email and use the Web for religious matters like booking a flight to Israel or purchasing a book. Special “kosher” search engines and web portals, like Koogle, have come and gone over the years in efforts to offer safe Web surfing to pious Jews in Haredi communities.

The Jewish Daily News today reported that tens of thousands of participants will take part in a huge rally on May 20 (Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan) “in order to combat the evils of the Internet and damage of advanced devices.” Presumably by “devices” they mean mobile technology like smartphones and tablets. A rally organizer told the Jewish Daily News that the rally will be the largest in the history of Orthodox Jewry in the United States. While it was originally reported that the rally will be held in Shea Stadium, the organizers quickly corrected that as the New York Mets’ former ballpark doesn’t exist anymore. The former site of Shea Stadium is now the parking lot for the new Citi Field.

While there’s just no telling just how many ultra-Orthodox Jews will actually show up at the May 20th rally against the Internet and technology, it is a safe bet that the event won’t be live tweeted or depicted with Instagram photos — at least not by the very people rallying against such technologies. Personally I can’t imagine how the organizers will ever begin to promote an event of this magnitude without the help of Facebook or other social networks… or how those wishing to attend the rally will find it without the help of Mapquest or Google Maps!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Selling Chametz Online

When I posted a link to my recent NY Jewish Week blog post on Twitter with the question “Can One Sell Chametz Online” I received a response from Rabbi Elli Fischer (@adderabbi) which stated, “Obviously, one CAN sell chametz online” with a link to CookiesDirect.net. Okay, he’s got a point there!

Jokes aside, the selling of chametz has been one of the more prevalent ways the Jewish community has used modern technology to perform Jewish ritual (I don’t recommend selling your chametz on eBay). Here’s my blog post:

Can One Sell Chametz Online
Originally Posted on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week)

On the Jewish Techs blog we have looked at the way several Jewish rituals are now performed using the Internet. Not every Jewish ritual can be transferred to the medium of the Internet, but even the question raises some interesting points for discussion. With the latest Web technology, we have seen how Jewish life-cycle events can be more inclusive and we have also looked into the legality of convening a minyan (prayer quorum) over the Internet.

With Passover beginning at the end of this week, let us take a look at the question of mechirat chametz (the sale of leavened products) using the Internet. Since the popularity of email messaging began in earnest about twenty years ago, there have been those who have used email to sell their chametz – a legal fiction by which any leavened products that could not be eaten, donated or thrown away are sold by a Jew to a non-Jew (usually through the agency of a rabbi) for the duration of the Passover holiday and then bought back at the holiday’s conclusion.

Like many Jewish rituals, the sale of chametz requires legal documentation to ensure that the transaction is according to Jewish law and custom. In a community without a rabbi or individuals who are knowledgeable about Jewish law, it is difficult to perform such rituals. The advent of the Internet has rendered the physical distance between Jewish communities nonexistent and allowed Jewish people in remote areas to perform Jewish rituals they were once unable to perform. So let us look at the feasibility of using the Internet to sell one’s chametz.

There are several ways to transact the sale of chametz using the Internet. Some may send a signed form attached to an email to an agent (a rabbi or other figure) and others will simply send text in an email message giving permission for the agent to perform the sale. Websites now exist that allow individuals to sell their chametz through an agent without ever seeing or speaking to the agent performing the sale making the seller further removed from the transaction. Does this satisfy the Jewish legal requirements of a valid chametz transaction?

Rabbi Gil Student takes up the question on his Hirhurim Torah Musings blog. He writes:

Technically, one may appoint an agent merely by stating that you are appointing him (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 182:1). However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mekhirah 5:12-13) records a custom to solidify an appointment of an agent by making a kinyan sudar, performing a symbolic act of acquisition which demonstrates the transfer of authority. In this way, the Rambam says, you make clear that you truly want to appoint this agent to act on your behalf.

The custom in most places is to make a kinyan from some of these things or the similar and we say he made a kinyan from this person and appointed him an agent… This kinyan that is the custom does not affect anything except making known that he is not saying it as a joke but made a firm decision and afterward said [that he appoints someone as an agent]. Therefore, if he says “I wholeheartedly said and decided this” he does not need anything else.

We normally follow this custom only when appointing a rabbi as an agent to sell chametz, not when otherwise appointing an agent. When the seller signs a document appointing an agent, some consider this kinyan unnecessary (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 114:8 kuntres acharon), others a stringency (She’eilas Shlomo 4:111), but others — most notably R. Soloveitchik — consider it an established custom (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 179; see Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhos Pesach, vol. 1 38:1). Presumably, this custom arose because of the danger inherent in the distance of the seller from the actual sale. When it comes to chametz, even if only rabbinically forbidden, we try to strengthen the agency and minimize the risk of the sale becoming a mere ritual.

Since there is no absolute requirement that the appointing of an agent be done through a physical act of kinyan or in the presence of witnesses (private verbal instruction suffices in this case), it is acceptable to perform the sale of chametz through the medium of the Internet. Even a website in which the seller appoints an agent without his knowledge is sufficient. So signing an agreement via the Internet, which is becoming standard practice in many Jewish communities around the world is considered equal to a traditional contract with a signature and is sufficient in the sale of chametz for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Children and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous

Versions of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Savvy Auntie website

As our society becomes even more dependent on technology, we will have to continue adapting to the technology innovations that continue to amaze us. The constant advances in everything from mobile gadgets to our household appliances will force us to change the way we currently do everyday tasks. If you need help figuring out how to use any of the new technology, just ask your kids.

Joking aside, children adapt quickest to new technology because they don’t really have to adapt much. Swiping on an iPad screen, controlling the Xbox 360 Kinect videogame console through virtual reality, or starting the family’s washing machine from a mobile app seem to come naturally for children. In the same way that parents joked in the 1980s that they needed their children to program the VCR, today’s parents marvel at how comfortable their children are with new technology.

Children as young as four years old are using the Internet, mobile devices, and gaming consoles. In some cases this is a good thing, but there are certain risk factors that parents should be aware of. While technology can be used for positive educational purposes, there are also serious physical and psychological concerns.

A recent Nielson study finds that in households owning a tablet computer and with children under 12, 70% of children use the tablet. 77% of these children are playing games, while 57% use the tablet for educational purposes. The rest of the most common responses include 55% of these children using the tablet for entertainment purposes; 43% to watch television and/or movies; and 41% to keep the child occupied while at a restaurant or event.

Many parents report that letting their children use tablet computers like the iPad can be very helpful when waiting at the doctor’s office, on long car rides, and before the meal arrives at restaurants. There are also advantages to having children do their homework on the iPad. Julie Feldman of Farmington Hills, Michigan explains that her daughter Emily (a 4th grader at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit) is excited to come home and finish her advanced math homework on the iPad using the application Wowzers. Feldman, a registered dietician, also sees advantages in technology for children concerned about their nutrition. “My young clients are able to track their daily food intake with an app making it much easier to monitor what they eat.”

There are, however, concerns that some children are spending too much time in front of a digital screen. When children spend too many hours watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web, and using a tablet, they are likely not getting enough exercise or face-to-face social interaction. Dr. Daniel Klein, a children’s psychologist in Metro Detroit, says he sees many young patients who are spending too much time using technology by themselves and not enough time playing outside and interacting with their peers. He works with parents and provides guidance to help monitor their children’s computer and gaming activities. There are also fears that children will see things in video games or online that will have negative effects on their behavior and can lead to anxiety disorders, violent behavior, or hyperactivity.

Feldman believes that parents should determine what technology they allow their children to use based on the child’s maturity level. She gave her daughter a cell phone when she was 8-years-old, but understands that this might be too young for other children. “It’s very dependent on the child,” she says. “My daughter spends many hours at dance classes and needs to be able to communicate with us. Having a cell phone and being able to text us is anxiety reducing for her.” She also has become more cautious about her 3 ½-year-old son’s video gaming activity as she has noticed that he is acting out violent scenes and shooting with pretend guns after playing some realistic video games.

All parents should be aware of their children’s activity online and put monitoring software in place to ensure safe experiences. If a child is using a computer, parents should ensure that adult content does not come up in search results. Google and other popular search engines on the Web have SafeSearch features to filter adult content from search results. Violent scenes can also be avoided with such applications as NetNanny, which provides Internet controls.

In addition to psychological and emotional concerns, there are also physical dangers when children use technology. Dr. Daniel Rontal, an ENT at the Rontal-Akervall Clinic, notes that with the increased popularity of portable music devices among children comes an increased health risk to children’s ears. “Some children don’t realize that something is broken on their ear buds and they scratch their inner ears,” he cautions. “There is also the danger of noise induced hearing loss and that is something that isn’t even realized until years later. It won’t show up for 15-20 years, but we’re seeing more people with early hearing loss in their mid 30’s because of listening to music which is generally being played louder than it was in the 80s and 90s.”

“Kids in general feel that they’re bullet proof,” Rontal adds. “The white iPod ear buds just sit in the ear and those are okay, but the ones that go into the ear canal, called sound isolating headphones, can definitely cause infection and scratch the ear.”

Kidz Gear offers wired headphones for children designed specifically for the Apple iPod, iPhone and iPad. The Kidz Gear headphones feature unique KidzControl Volume Limiting Technology that provides a safe listening experience while helping to protect children’s hearing. This technology delivers a safe volume limited listening experience for children that is always on and limits the volume levels to 80dB and 90dB.

New technology helps us be more productive and improves our lives, but we have to learn to use it safely and in healthy ways. So too, as adults, we must be responsible and monitor the way our children utilize technology. In some cases, technology seems to be make things worse. For example, overuse of computers and mobile devices can curtail important interpersonal communication and can hinder children from developing the skills necessary to deal with others in real life.

There are real benefits to children using technology as well. Reports abound that demonstrate how technology is bolstering children’s learning experiences and complementing the education they receive in school. Some technology is even making it easier for children with developmental disabilities. The bottom line is that, like anything, there are positive and negative implications to the latest, greatest technology innovations. There are risks to children using technology without the proper supervision and moderation. The best thing that parents can do is become well trained in the technology their children are using so that they can monitor it best. That will ensure a positive, safe, and healthy technology experience for children.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Making Shivah Easier Using Technology

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

When Sharon Rosen’s mother passed away in July 2009 she had the same eye-opening realization that many survivors do during the week of shivah: The death of a loved one can be a stressful, anxiety-ridden time. Overwhelmed with sadness and the reality of her loss, Rosen experienced planning a funeral and coordination of shivah in her home for the first time.

During the shivah period, Rosen felt like she took on the job of logistics director and wasn’t able to be fully in the moment to reflect on her loss. She was frustrated with all of the planning taking place for the shivah at her home. Even though friends were taking care of many things, it was still a hectic, difficult time for her.

Friends sent food for the mourners gathered at Rosen’s home, but despite their best intentions, some of the platters were delivered when there was already ample food and no room to refrigerate the remaining food overnight. Questions and concerns about food created unnecessary additional anxiety. Rosen felt like she had lost control as friends gathered in her home for a week, cleaning, setting out food and rearranging furniture.

Rosen used this stressful experience to create an innovative new website so others mourning the death of a loved one could find shivah to be an easier ritual. Realizing that increasing numbers of people rely on the Internet for information and as a convenient way to communicate, Rosen created a comprehensive website that organizes every aspect of the shivah experience. She dedicated the new endeavor to her mother’s memory and, after a year of research, design and building, she launched ShivaConnect.com.

“I thought of other registry technologies like a wedding registry or baby registry where information is posted, and I worked with my programmer to develop a shivah registry,” Rosen said.

What Rosen created was a quick and convenient way to connect with people online. Recognizing that mourners have several matters to take care of immediately following a death, the site allows for the quick entry of information and creates a link to the registry that is sent to the creator of the registry entry and is additionally emailed, texted or tweeted to relatives and friends. There is also a “Search for a Registry” option on the site, but the registries are not visible to search engines and a lock-down privacy option is possible.

Visitors can express their condolences and learn about the Jewish mourning rituals from educational articles. A yahrzeit reminder feature will email annual notices like many funeral home websites. A zip code search is built in to locate food options to send to the shivah home. Additionally, a link to ShivaConnect’s donation section is provided, where visitors find direct links to charity website donation portals.

Rosen has extended an invitation to hospices, funeral homes, synagogues and Jewish organizations to be listed as “Helpful Resources,” with links to facilitate charitable donations. Many synagogues are using the site to enhance the support they already provide to their members to inform of deaths.

In the past year, ShivaConnect boasted more than 75,000 page views with about 20,000 unique visitors. Rosen is looking to social media to help publicize the site. As the site has grown, she frequently posts updates about ShivaConnect on her personal and public Facebook pages, and on LinkedIn, Yahoo Groups and Twitter.

Rosen has become something of an expert on shivah observance. She recently spoke at the National Institute for Jewish Hospice’s annual conference hosted by its president Rabbi Dr. Maurice Lamm.

How has ShivaConnect.com begun to make shivah observance more manageable and less stressful?

“Nothing can ease the pain of loss, but the convenience and accessibility of the Internet to learn about sitting shivah can be tremendously helpful,” Rosen explained. “ShivaConnect also is serving as an outreach tool, providing information to non-practicing and unaffiliated Jews who want to honor a Jewish relative and want to learn more.”

In Rosen’s home state of Florida, 30 funeral homes are participating in ShivaConnect. There is no charge to funeral homes to be listed and no charge to synagogues to use the service, but Rosen allows some food establishments and florists to advertise on the site for a fee.

What began with an anxiety-ridden experience has turned into a meaningful way to honor her beloved mother’s life and make grieving a little easier for others. While observing shivah will never be totally stress-free, Rosen’s ShivaConnect has utilized the technology of the Web to provide the right resources to simplify the process.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

No Dog Got Stoned in Jerusalem

There are certain things that we all read on the Web that we find unbelievable. Not “unbelievable” as in “amazing,” but events that simply cannot be believed. Some of these crazy things have actually occurred as reported, but many are simply hoaxes. Thank God for websites like Snopes.com to debunk these myths.

Last week, my hoax detector was going off at full speed when I read on Yahoo! News that a stray dog was condemned to death, or stoned, by a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. The report in Yahoo! News was reprinted from the Israeli newspaper Maariv which reported that a stray dog wandered into a Beit Din (religious court) in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and refused to be moved. A judge on the Beit Din determined the dog was a reincarnation of a secular lawyer who died 20 years ago. The article claimed that the judges on the Beit Din then “decreed” that local children stone the dog to death. Once the story hit Yahoo! News it got picked up by the BBC where it was the most read story of the day.

Of course none of this actually happened. It was a joke. That’s right, a joke. However, with news items traveling the globe at lightning speed thanks to the Internet, this story was everywhere within an hour. The damage was done even though Maariv issued a correction and apology on its website, JTA released an article explaining that there was no stoning of a dog, and Yahoo! News took the story down. It was already re-posted on hundreds of websites around the world.

The religious court issued the following statement:

There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham… The female dog found a seat in the corner of the court. And the children were delighted by it; there were hundreds outside the court. They are used to seeing stray cats but most have never seen a dog before. The only action we took was to dial the number of the Jerusalem Municipality to get the people in charge to take it away.

There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer has never been mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning. Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah.

The story, when circulated on Yahoo! News, attracted more than 1,800 comments, most expressing violent anger. Just another example of people believing the truly unbelievable on the Web. Maybe it’s time for the large news agencies to actually fact check before publishing on the Web.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Chabad’s Social Media Success

Here’s my latest post on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week):

Chabad Lubavitch has always been out in front when it comes to using the Internet for publicity. Back in the 90’s, Chabad took full advantage of the virtual communities on America Online (AOL) and then launched some of the most impressive websites once everyone migrated to the Web. For years, Chabad has been a strong force in Cyberspace with “Ask the Rabbi” websites, online distance learning, and viral videos.

Today, Chabad utilizes social networking to not only broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, use Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in contests for mega grants by such corporations as Chase Community Giving and Target Stores. In last month’s Kohl’s Cares contest, twelve Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with eleven of those schools being Chabad-affiliated according to the Lubavitch.com website (Each of the finalists received a $500,000 prize).

Last January, Chabad’s Michigan-based Friendship Circle, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote. And this past summer, 17 Chabad programs across the United States each received $20,000 in the second running of the Chase challenge.

Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad.org and its social media guru explained Chabad’s secret in these online contests in a JWeekly article.

While scores of Chabad organizations may have started out as entrants in the Chase or Kohl’s challenges, the network as a whole figured out pretty quickly which ones had a serious chance of winning and then placed its chips on the potential winners. The method has proven to be especially valuable in the Kohl’s challenge, Seligson said. Each voter can vote a total of 20 times, and only five times for one school. Hypothetically that means if supporters of one school cast votes for the school five times, they each have 15 votes left. Those voters may then cast five votes each for three other Chabad schools. During the Chase challenge, it became clear that the Chabad-affiliated Friendship Circle of Michigan had a shot at winning a prize, so the other 100 Friendship Circle outposts throughout the United States rallied behind their Michigan counterpart. It’s not cheating or skirting the rules, Seligson said, it’s just actualizing a social network effectively.

Fellow Detroiter Ronelle Grier recently wrote an article on Chabad’s social networking prowess for Chabad.org. In one section of her article she writes that two Chabad leaders, the Friendship Circle’s Bassie Shemtov and “The Recovery Rabbi” Yisrael Pinson (#recoveryrabbi) were speakers at the recent #140conf in Detroit. I also attended the conference, presented by Jeff Pulver, and heard several comments from participants about how Chabad’s exploitation of social media is so impressive and a model for other organizations. Grier writes,

Rabbi Zvi Drizin, who considers social networking essential to promoting the activities of InTown Chabad, his Dallas-based organization geared toward young adults who have finished college, but are not yet married. He makes extensive use of Facebook to announce events, share interesting links and idea, and post photos taken at recent programs.

“When you decide to go to any party, the first thing you ask is who’s going to be there,” he says. “People have always moved with their friends. If you have a good network, it expands your appeal.”

At a recent Shabbat dinner, Drizin planned for 80 people. After he posted details of the event on Facebook, 150 people showed up at his door.

While Rabbi Yisrael Pinson lives and works in my community, it is really through Twitter that we’ve gotten to know each other. He’s been successful in his addiction recovery work because of his social media connections. In Grier’s article, Pinson said that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson would likely have approved of the use of such tools in the advancement of Judaism. “The Rebbe was a champion of using new tools for the promotion of Jewish values and spirituality. His talks were broadcast over the radio when that was the revolutionary medium. So too, it’s fitting for us to be at the forefront of this revolution. Social networking’s value lies in its ability to connect seemingly discordant strands of humanity. The person you meet may not be the one who can help you, but he may know the person who will end up helping you.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hebrew University’s Sarcasm Detector One of Year’s Best Inventions (Time Magazine)

Here is my most recent post on the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

Jews aren’t sarcastic at all!

Okay, that was me being sarcastic, but the problem with the Jewish tradition of sarcasm is that it doesn’t translate well in Cyberspace where tone of speech doesn’t come through in text. That’s why it makes sense that the ability for computers to detect sarcastic speech has been developed in the Jewish homeland.

Time Magazine‘s recent issue devoted to technology ranked the year’s best fifty inventions and included an application developed at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

The sarcasm detection algorithm, developed by researches at the Israeli university, was heralded by the magazine for its accuracy.

Time’s Steven James Snyder wrote, “This is the most important software ever invented. Of course, if a computer using the Semi-Supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification read that last sentence, it would immediately detect the sarcasm. Developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the tool is designed to spot sarcastic sentences in product reviews. The algorithm has been fairly accurate even in its earliest stages: in a trial involving 66,000 Amazon reviews, it was right 77% of the time, pointing to a future in which computers won’t just store your words, they’ll interpret your intent.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller