While the Hasidic branch of Judaism is rooted in the mysticism of 18th century Eastern Europe, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has stood out in the Hasidic world for embracing modern technology. Chabad.org, the flagship website of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement and the first Ask the Rabbi site, was first launched in 1994 by Rabbi Yosef Kazen as a site called “Chabad Lubavitch in Cyberspace.” In the late 80s, before the World Wide Web even existed, Rabbi Kazen was an avid user of Jewish bulletin board systems as a way to disseminate and receive Jewish learning. Kazen and his colleague had the idea of developing an electronic Chabad house—an electronic Jewish center—in order to expand the movement’s world wide network of outreach and study centers. The website sparked the creation of a virtual Jewish library and sought to create an online congregation, in addition to sending weekly emails to subscribers and providing answers to questions over email.
One of the earliest web archives I could find of the site is from December 10, 1997, at the height of Web 1.0, the era of text and image based sites. The catchphrase, “Spreading Judaism at the Speed of Light” is displayed at the top of the web page. According to the site, the main goal of Chabad is to focus on “observing for one’s self and transmitting to others the beauty, depth, awareness and joy inherent in the Torah-true way of life.” Apart from having free digital weekly Torah readings available for download, the website provided a curated list of books to be purchased on Amazon.com, back when Amazon was solely a bookseller.
In an interview in 1997, Rabbi Kazen explained in detail who he thought would be the main consumers of his website:
“Our setup was never for our own group. On the contrary, this was set up strictly to deal with the outside world. I don’t know if your average Chabad person is going to want his kid running around on the Net. It’s like putting him in the middle of a newspaper store with all the magazines there. So we’ve never come out within the community to try and push it. My perspective here is of getting out to the world. Getting a message of Judaism to the Jew who doesn’t know much, to the Gentile who is interested in finding out what Judaism has to offer.”Interview of Rabbi Yosef Kazen by Jeff Zaleski in 1997
From the beginning, the website was extremely successful in reaching those who are not your “average Chabad person,” since it averaged “twenty to thirty five thousand hits a week” in 1997. A web page receives a hit each time anyone downloads any file—text, visual, or audio. The “About Page” of the 1997 site states that subscribers of the weekly mailings via email range from “a young man in Alaska whose only Jewish contact is through us, to a former Protestant Minister living in Ireland who lives in a village of 100 and is thrilled to have this ‘living encyclopedia’ available to him and his family.” In the “Ask the Rabbi” feature, Rabbi Kazen developed automated responses to the most frequently asked questions and responded personally to some messages. He sought to break down barriers that alienated Hasidic Judaism from mainstream society through the means of the internet, and in 1994 he told the New York Times, ”When you go to the Internet and you read about Judaism, you go straight to the intellect and the stereotypes fall away.” In addition to creating a platform for people to connect to Judaism who had limited access to congregations through online learning, Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace also provided people connections to physical congregations through a digital directory of Chabad institutions around the world.
By the mid 2000s, Internet 2.0 was in full swing and Chabad.org looked quite different. In the age of interactive content, social media, and video, Chabad.org no longer had the word “cyberspace” in its title and now sported links to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter on its home page. The website still offered free subscription services, “Ask the Rabbi,” and a Chabad-Lubavitch worldwide directory (now including campus locations which did not exist previously). A web archive of the site on November 6, 2010 shows that the calendar system had become much more robust. While the 1997 site led users to a list of dates for the holidays when clicking on “Festivals,” those dates were not updated regularly. In the 2010 site, the top of the web page lists the current date of both the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. There was also a new feature that allowed users to type in their zip code, which then generated what time they should light the candles for the sabbath based on their location (it is commanded to light the candles before the start of the sabbath, generally 18 to 20 minutes before sunset).
Though there is not much information on the demographics of users in 2010s, I predict the consumers of the website expanded with the changes in its web capabilities, deviating from Rabbi Kazen’s original vision to only target those outside the religious sect. Those who knew little about Judaism could use the site for a multitude of educational purposes, while those who were more observant could also use the site to keep tabs on learning opportunities such as classes and to keep track of halachic laws such as dates and times for fasting or lighting the candles. With the introduction of Web 2.0, Chabad was able to widen its website audience and grow the movement.