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."