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The Infancy and Growth of Judaism on the Web

The Infancy and Growth of Judaism on the Web

YY Kazen at his computer in the office of the Lubavitch Yeshivah
YY Kazen at his computer in the office of the Lubavitch Yeshivah

It all began as a hobby and a mission, with posting Jewish texts and responding to inquiries on bulletin boards—all from a minuscule six by six office. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen, or YY, then took his dream one step further: in the infancy of the world wide web, before Google even registered their domain, he built a "a virtual synagogue" in 1994.

"It began as a hobby and it turned into a full time operation," Kazen told Good Morning America in 1997.

Throughout his persistent pursuit of his activities on the web Kazen was ridiculed as wasting his time. "I asked the Rebbe if it would be worthwhile to look into going on the Internet," Kazen said in 1997. "And the Rebbe said to go ahead with it—absolutely pursue it."

Today, in the Kazen home in Brooklyn, New York, the atmosphere of respect and family love shines through. Old attache cases filled with papers are opened and history revisited. Rochel Kazen, wife of YY, endearingly describes her husband's life's mission. "He used to wake up in middle of the night, speaking about what he aspires to do on the Internet. Many of those ideas are only becoming a reality today."

"I am responding to all of these individuals' questions," Kazen said at the International Conference for Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in 1995. "Now let's take the already printed books and publish them on the Internet."

Jewish Info on the Web

Kazen began the tedious task of scanning books, transforming the digital images to text, proofreading the text and posting on the web. In his own words, it was about "doing so much for other people."

Originally, Kazen was posting some of the texts on bulletin boards on Fidonet. Later, he met up with staff at The Dorsai Embassy, a not-for-profit organization that was assisting other nonprofits establish a presence on the Internet.

Charles Rawls, co-founder of Dorsai and a leading Internet consultant, reminisces: "Someone at the Mizrahi Bank told me one day, 'Charles, you got to meet these people, they are doing great stuff.'"

When Kazen met Rawls, he was told that he would have to attend classes, many classes. Kazen said he was willing to do it. All this while Kazen continued to work at his regular job in the United Lubavitch Yeshivah. Later, he would dedicate his time solely to his new venture—

Learning How to Build an Internet Site

YY Kazen (left) with his son Michoel Kazen work together on (Photo: Andy Levin/24 Hours in Cyberspace)
YY Kazen (left) with his son Michoel Kazen work together on (Photo: Andy Levin/24 Hours in Cyberspace)
"We took our car and schlepped out to Long Island City for classes," Kazen said in 1995. "I said to my wife I am going out for an hour, that hour turned out that we were there until four in the morning."

It was his wife's shared excitement and participation that gave him the ability to continue expanding his dream on the web. In YY's words, "we realized that we got ourselves a gold mine, to being able to give out Judaism in a way that no one is doing in the Jewish world."

The effort was spearheaded by Kazen together with Elie Winsbacher and Dovid Zirkind, all of them working on—in addition to their day jobs and spending time with their families.

Kazen's son Michoel assisted in some of the programming. "My father encouraged my interests in computers to be channeled into assisting spreading Judaism via," he says.

"My son used to watch me sitting at the computer, and he always wanted to know what was going on," Kazen said in 1997. "At about eleven and a half he created a little program just for the sake of it. Basically, he created our homepages."

An Address on the Web

With the assistance of Dorsai they established a presence on the web in 1993. Dubbing it Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace, with the slogan Spreading Judaism at the Speed of Light.

Thus was created the world's first virtual Jewish library, enabling thousands of people to learn about Judaism for the first time.

In February 1994, with the assistance of Dorsai, they purchased the domain name and moved the servers to a small office in Lubavitch World Headquarters.

"The Lubavitch Hassidim," wrote the New York Times in July of 1994, "no strangers to zealously taking their message to Jews in other parts of the world, have also established an electronic outpost on the Internet."

With very little encouragement and little funding, Kazen trekked ahead full force, not allowing anyone to dampen his enthusiasm.

"He was not frustrated with those that did not see the potential of the Internet," says his wife Rochel. "He felt that they would one day come around and realize that what he is doing is important."

When the idea of creating a website came up and Kazen presented the idea to Lubavitch World Headquarters, "one of the Rebbe's secretary's told me," says YY Kazen, "'Yossel, you got a job that your Chabad House will be open 24 hours a day and you cannot have a minyan...'"

Good Morning America dubbed him "the Cyber Rabbi." and said that is, "Easily one of the most popular religious sites today."

A Dream Lives On

Kazen penned a proposal of what he wanted the site to look like: from interactive games to an online school where kids from across the globe could learn together. It was way beyond even the minds of those who then brought Internet to the lay people. "He was a visionary, beyond what I expected," said Rawls, "to be able to look forward in that way."

In today's world it is a given for every organization to have a site, however, in the 90s it was not the norm. In 1995 Kazen pleaded with Chabad Houses and others to build websites to educate Jews about Judaism and to tell them about their Chabad House's activities.

"There's no need for a fancy office," Jeff Zaleski wrote in 1997 in The Soul of Cyberspace, referring to the tiny space that was utilized to maintain's site. "The thousands of people who log on to the Chabad-Lubavitch site each week won't see this room, for Cyberspace conceals as much as it reveals."

At one point, in dire need for funds, Kazen and Winsbacher dipped into their personal savings to purchase computers and servers for the site. "The idea," Kazen told Zaleski, "is that Judaism has to be free."

"His dedication and devotion were enormous," says his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. "He understood the potential of the electronic media, way before we grasped it."

Today a team of more than eighty staffs, the largest Jewish information site on the Internet.

"It is a dream Rabbi Kazen had," said Rawls. "It lives on, it is the single largest tribute that you can pay to the man—that his dream lives on."

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Matti Junes Rovaniemi, Finland November 24, 2013

I have been only one year with these pages Living here in Lappland, Northern Finland I am thankful and very happy about these informative pages that are also very well edited and done. I do really appreciate that you have gotten the very best writers with doing this all. Thank you for your self-sacrificing work for educating and leading people into the deep richness of Jewish culture. Reply

Anonymous November 12, 2013

The visionary
At last I know about the true visionary, Rabbi Kazen. has helped me and many others ,who may have no access to authentic Judaism otherwise. I look after a disabled family member and would not have been able to travel to gain all of the learning that I have. If it was not for I would not have the spiritual growth and strength that I have now.
Thank you Chabad , and my prayers are with the Rebbetzin and the Kazen family. Reply

Jason Goldstein manchester, nh December 8, 2011

A One of the unsung heros of the Jewish world...You will be missed but perhaps YY had completed his mission!

My thoughts & prayers are with the Rebbetzin & the Kazen Family. Reply

Anonymous Chicago, Illinois December 8, 2011

The Infancy and Growth of Judaism on the Web This article really motivates me to want to pay tribute to Rabbi Kazen.

We really need true leaders and visionaries like Rabbi Kazen.

Many years ago when I lived in Israel for a certain period of time, a friend of mine suggested that I talk to Rabbi Kazen about a certain idea I had. So thank G-d, I had the great merit to be able to talk to Rabbi Kazen long distance on the telephone about the internet.

May G-d grant us that Rabbi Kazen up in heaven will be a good advocate before Him so that HaShem (G-d) will take away from us
all of our hardships and give us the Moshiach now! Reply

Schneur December 8, 2011

Aliyas Haneshama With help from the Rebbe there is nothing that can stand in the way of a Chosid.

May Rabbi YY Kazen's soul have an aliya. Reply

Bais Rivkah Student Brooklyn, NY December 8, 2011

Bais Rivkah Student I remember our computer teacher taking us for a visit to Rabbi Kazen's office as far back as 1995. I was amazed when he told us that a woman from another country, far from any Jewish community had contacted him for information about Judaism, through "Chabad of Cyberspace" as it was called then. Rabbi Kazen was my first experience in hearing about the internet, and the amazing power it has for good. May his wonderful, pioneering work bring blessing to his family. Reply

R Goldman Johannesburg, South Africa December 8, 2011

thanks to yy I remember when he was telling everyone to go online and they were saying, we are too busy with life, and do not know what you are talking about.

Around 1,000 emails came to him after he passed away, from many of the people he was in touch with. It was fascinating to read how they were learning. All said they were so grateful to get answers immediately. We only got them because his son, Michoel, knew how to access everything. He is truly brilliant.

One needed a lot of money to constantly upgrade and he used whatever he had to keep upgrading.

May all those benefitting continue to help his beautiful family who are an inspiration to all,

Thanks to today, we are able to taste Moshiach's times where knowledge will be the pursuit instead of material gains.

Please G-d we will be reunited soon with Moshiach Now! Reply

wanderer Tbilisi, Georgia November 9, 2011

Rabbi Kazen I am here, where I am, because of you being there with what you did. One would know that there were men and women of great selfless passionate work that made this all possible. Reply

Anonymous PL September 12, 2010

Amazing! WOW! This is so amazing. If you know computers, you can realize how absolutely amazing this is. Rabbi Kazen had the idea of a Chabad online school (which is today, by the way, a reality) when the web was basically only words without pictures! G-d helps those who do His work! Reply

Anonymous December 12, 2008

What would the world be without his great vision to create this site, and I know all good ideas start with financial sacrifies (this is because G-d wants us to find our inner source.
If once found, it will never end. And it is like in a casino you can gamble on a machine or on the table - important is your work for everyday use as well the visit in a Synagoge
I wish your family a bright Chanuka Reply

Isaac M. Jaroslawicz Miami, FL December 11, 2008

Rabbi YY Kazen Is it 10 years already???
Can't be!

It seems like only last month, visiting YY in NY, sitting in his cramped office with wires hanging around everywhere, talking about what he was trying to accomplish and what needed to be done. I also remember paying for something (A computer? A modem? A scanner?) that his son, Michoel, needed to get some cyber-project done while i was at the Aleph Institute.

Y'know, maybe it IS 10 years already! My memory is failing . . . . .

YY Kazen was an inspiration to many . . . and a true visionary.
He was taken from us far too early.
His soul is undoubtedly elevated through every click someone makes on
What a legacy! Reply

Marc Ramsden Toronto, Canada December 10, 2008

Chabad Online I first started learning Torah here and from Rabbi Marozov;s TorahFax the internet and YY's efforts to reach all Jews via its power is a remarkable feat and I thank and remember him for it. Reply

Henya Laine Brooklyn, NY December 10, 2008

Rabbi YY Kazen My brother was a visionary. He worked against all odds. He felt the internet was the greatest shlichus possible. He reached and touched millions of people by pressing one button ("Send"). YY connected people from various places with Shluchim. He was the best "shadchan" (matchmaker).

May his memory be a blessing for everyone who uses May he pray for his extraordinary wife and beautiful children.

I hope everyone who benefits from this site remembers his FINANCIAL SACRIFICE and donates to his beloved family. Reply

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