By the mid-1980s, computers had been introduced to the average home; they had also become a resource for religious groups. Chabad, like many Orthodox communities, had rejected previously televisions and other secular devices (even though they sponsored a telethon). Their purpose was to avoid assimilation within American culture and keep their members close to religious values. At first, the fear of transgression was a major factor in discouraging community members from using the Internet. However, Chabad soon recognized that using the Internet did not require assimilating into American culture. This shifted how orthodox Jewish outreach and services could be provided to the secular community. In 1993, Chabad.org was formed. Because other Jewish groups still feared using modern technology, Chabad was able to gain popularity and develop a presence online before other groups had caught on.
The Internet puts religious resources at a person’s fingertips. These resources create a gateway into the community. It is like picking a portion of religion you want to know or be exposed to on some level. The sites provide a myriad of experiences at no cost. This is appealing for many. A free religious community that teaches through engagement and flexibility is alluring and makes Chabad a cost-free gateway and a welcomed online tool. Entering Chabad.org can be an overwhelming experience. As the largest online Jewish resource for education and information, Chabad.org has developed into what looks like an online library of religious texts. Links guide the browser to information about holidays, candle lighting, and the Torah portion for the week. Jewish scholarly commentaries are lined up on the left side of the computer screen. Images presented with larger bolded tag lines stream in the center of the page while the bottom of the page waits for the curser to scroll down, engaging the visitor in multiple avenues.
The site is visually appealing. The long beards and strange attire of those photographed make the site look “authentically Jewish.” This “aesthetic authenticity” matters because the Chabad movement is based on traditional Judaism. Their purpose is to attract people to their movement and to have the visitor’s religious life flourish. This provides Americans with an “old world” traditional feel. This orthodox visual is important for seekers who want a “true” Jewish experience. By contrast, Conservative Jewish groups mesh with the popular culture in most aspects of secular society. It is not that this level of Judaism cannot offer the same experience, but the visual difference immediately separates the traditional norms from modern society.
The best part of Chabad’s site is that it appeals to all ages. There is a family section, a kid’s page, a place for young adults, and a place for aging seniors. (A typical article, for instance, is called “We’re newlyweds and we’re arguing.”) There are also places for the unaffiliated to seek information, blogs, articles that address the life cycle, current commentary on political issues, and even a magazine. It is clear why this site has more visitors than any other Jewish religious movement online, for it is literally covered in texts and resources.
The experience provides the visitor with choices. Unlike actual synagogues, the website promotes a culture of decision-making. Visitors have the opportunity to start reading something and then drop the article if they lose interest. Many of the articles are engaging. The ideologies and lessons are clear and concise, trying to make the message simplified for its audience. A Hasidic community member might find these articles rudimentary. They cannot fully satisfy a well-educated yeshiva graduate. However, they build a foundation, which is a step towards Chabad’s mission. Every link and article provides some sort of educational component. I find it fascinating that other secular educational systems do not use Chabad’s website as a model for promoting education through modern technology. The articles are not for the knowledgeable, but for those who received a secular education and need Torah and religious law broken down for them. This forum speaks to educated people in an educated way, but still makes the material easy to understand. It appeals to all levels of Jewish education, those who have no understanding to a lifetime’s worth of understanding, making Chabad a Jewish movement for all.
Rachel Schiff, “Jewish Subcultures Online: Outreach, Dating, and Marginalized Communities” (Master’s thesis, California State University, Fullerton, 2016), 22-24.