FATHER OF THE JEWISH INTERNET PASSES AWAY
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak
News Service, December 3, 1998)
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Cyberspace and considered by many the pioneer of Jewish education on the internet, passed away yesterday -- Tuesday, December 2 -- at age 44.
Kazen was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1954 to Rabbi Zalman and Mrs. Shula Kazen, escapees of Stalin's prisons and the Nazi holocaust. The Kazen home was always a center of Jewish activity and Yosef Yitzchak, youngest of seven siblings, grew up helping to resettle Russian immigrants, preparing and delivering meals to the poor, and volunteering for all types of communal activities.
As a young boy Yossi Kazen left home to study in New York, near the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, whom he loved dearly. He was an early volunteer of the now ubiquitous Mitzvah Tanks, the Lubavitch international telephone hook-ups and many other original ideas and programs, and was endeared to many friends.
Even before the web, Kazen was one of Lubavitch's technological innovators, and helped develop the systems whereby the Rebbe's talks were broadcast via telephone to far-flung Lubavitch outposts around the globe.
But there was much better to come.
With the advent of computer communication technology, Kazen immediately recognized its potential for reaching an almost limitless audience, particularly people limited by geographic and other constraints.
In 1988, long before the internet was popularized, Kazen reached out to thousands of people on Fidonet, an online discussion network that was distributed on several thousand nodes around the world. So primitive was the technology that it would sometimes take three days for messages to travel from one part of the world to the next. But Kazen was relentless in his determination.
From early morning to late at night Kazen could be found slaving away -- digitizing and entering thousands of documents into what became the world's first virtual Jewish library, and enabling thousands of people to learn about Judaism for the first time.
As soon as the news spread on the internet yesterday the tributes began pouring in from all around the Jewish world.
A. Engler Anderson, Editor of Shamash--The Jewish Internet Consortium which is based at Boston's Hebrew College, said that Kazen "was a pioneer of the use of the internet for religious study and dissemination of religious materials. The title 'visionary' is definitely applicable to him. He saw it when most others did not."
Anderson further pointed out that Kazen also created the first and largest virtual congregation. "He had people from every part of the world who considered him their rabbi," Anderson said. "He never automated his responses, choosing to meticulously answer tens of thousands of emails directly himself."
The Jewish Theological Seminary's Michael Starr said that Kazen's site became the standard bearer for the Jewish internet world. "[His] site was the one by which all the others were judged."
Kazen's exploits in helping to set up a Passover service on a boat off Antarctica, providing information for a Jewish defense officer in Saudi Arabia, and teaching an Irish minister about Judaism earned him prominent coverage in media outlets like the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, Good Morning America, and many others who were fascinated by this man's vision in helping to educate through the internet.
His outreach is immortalized in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History collections exhibit about the internet. Many books, including the popular The Soul of Cyberspace, feature his ideas on internet education as well.
In mid-1998 Kazen was diagnosed with lymphoma but refused to notify his thousands of internet admirers. In fact, between painful treatments at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center he would dial up and respond to emails on his laptop.
Rabbi Kazen was interred at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, in proximity to the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbes.
He leaves behind his wife, Rochel, and six children ages 5-18, in Brooklyn; his parents, Rabbi Zalman and Rebbetzin Shifra Shula Kazen of Cleveland, Ohio; and six sisters and their families who are representatives of Lubavitch around the world.