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A new staff for Moses

The San Diego Union Tribune

A new staff for Moses
Computer-savvy rabbis spread the Word at AskMoses.com

By Sandi Dolbee

September 23, 2006

From the living room of his Scripps Ranch home, with an iced green tea from Starbucks and an iBook laptop plugged into cyberspace, Rabbi Dovid Smoller is ready for another evening of making like Moses.

For three hours each Thursday evening, Smoller uses the keyboard to lead people out of the wilderness of questions to a Promised Land of answers.

He is one of 40 Jewish scholars from around the world who take turns fielding online chats for AskMoses.com, a Web site sponsored by Chabad of California and named for the prophet who, among other accomplishments, led the Hebrews out of Egypt and delivered the Ten Commandments.

As darkness envelopes the room, Smoller's conversations begin.

Question: “Do we believe in Satan and the Devil?”

Answer: “We believe there is an angel whose job it is to test the Jews but not like the Devil with horns and all that.”

Question: “When you look at the suffering in the world, do you sometimes think that God is not wise?”

Answer: “Not at all. The suffering in the world is not G-d's fault. We all have free choice to do what we want and, unfortunately, some people wrong others.”

“G-d” isn't a typo. In Smoller's branch of Judaism, which is particularly traditional, God's name isn't spelled out as a sign of respect.

AskMoses.com offers chats six days a week, 24 hours a day (the Sabbath and certain holy days excepted). Smoller, who has a weekly 7 to 10 p.m. shift, looks the part of a scholar, with his wispy beard, smallish glasses, skullcap and fringes that hang down from under his shirt to remind him of his faith's 613 commandments. A 43-year-old father of eight, he teaches at Chabad Hebrew Academy of San Diego.

The Web site is like a drive-up window for Judaism. Besides the real-time dialogue, it offers a resource guide on topics ranging from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year that began last night, to more philosophical questions about human sexuality.

When a new person comes into the chat room, Smoller hears the sound of a door creaking open. When the person leaves, he hears a door closing. The sound effects, plus a color-coded list of the chosen chat names in the upper right corner of his screen, help him keep track of the multiple conversations.

Torah to personal
Smoller sees himself as an imparter of information. “Knowledge is not a bad thing,” he smiles. Most of the questions deal with Torah verses, history and observing the holidays.

Sometimes, an inquiry takes on a more personal, even confessional, tone. His goal is to offer compassion, along with a referral. “I think you can help listen to those person's feelings and get them to go to a rabbi in person, which they might not have done otherwise,” he says.

Smoller won't answer questions if he suspects the person at the other end is a student looking for someone to do his or her homework. He sends those people links to articles and nudges them toward finding their own answers.

He's also not keen on theological jousting. “A lot of people like to come in and debate. I don't like doing that,” he offers. “It's hard to debate when you're typing.”

Chabad, an Orthodox movement known for its outreach programs, and the answers on AskMoses.com reflect stricter interpretations of customs and rules.
The site's director says the viewpoints are traditional, historic Judaism. “It's very important that people know what Judaism and the Torah says as far as we are concerned,” explains Rabbi Simcha Backman, a Chabad leader in Glendale. “Nobody's telling you you have to follow it, but it's important to tell you what the Torah says.”

Alan Rusonik, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Education in San Diego, calls the site “very helpful” and suggests that people savvy enough to navigate the Web are savvy enough to understand that opinions expressed on AskMoses.com aren't the only ones. “Judaism does not speak with one voice on a lot of topics – on most topics,” he adds.

Filling a gap
Based on the response to AskMoses.com, it's filling a need.

“We don't really publish exact numbers, but I can tell you we're getting millions of visitors a year,” says Backman. About 10 percent to 15 percent of the traffic goes to the chat sessions. Most – including Jews and non-Jews – use the site for its database of questions and answers.

As with Christian churches on Christmas and Easter, synagogues are likely to be crowded during these High Holy Days for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. But the affiliation rate the rest of the year is another story. In San Diego County, for example, a population study three years ago found that 29 percent of some 46,000 Jewish households actually belonged to a synagogue.

AskMoses.com cites similar statistics, such as 54 percent of American Jewish children are being raised as non-Jews. Chabad leaders hope this Internet effort, launched in 1999, is one way of harnessing the World Wide Web on behalf of spreading the word. “Whatever reason a person doesn't want to be part of a synagogue or doesn't want to be part of a community, we don't judge,” Backman says. “AskMoses.com is here to help.”

Some of the chats on the site are poignant, such as an adult who sought solace from abuse many years ago or a spouse who needed out of an abusive situation right now.

Nechama Eilfort, who has multiple time slots on AskMoses.com with her husband, Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort, leader of Chabad at La Costa, tells of a teenage girl and boy who began chatting with her several months ago. They wanted her advice about having sex. She strongly urged them not to do it, but they ignored her and now the girl is pregnant.

“Maybe that's a disadvantage of being online,” Eilfort says. “If you're not there in person, you can't really impart how serious this is.”

Still, she thinks AskMoses.com “fills an incredible need,” whether it's seeking a straightforward answer or discreet advice.

Back at Smoller's Scripps Ranch home, the evening is wearing on. The children have disappeared into their upstairs rooms. He remains hunkered over his laptop, fielding inquiries about Jewish law and the ill effects of television. One person wants to know if he won the lottery, would he go to Las Vegas. “Well, I wouldn't go to Vegas,” he replies. “Maybe Hawaii.”

Another question: “Does Judaism believe in mental illness?”

His reply: “Yes.”

“I have schizophrenia.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.”

Someone else is in the wilderness, looking for a Moses.

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