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Monday, July 31, 2006

GO ASK MOSES

Thanks to AskMoses.Com, the answers to your spiritual questions are just a click away By Judd Handler

If the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon boasted back in the sixties, the website askmoses.com is bigger than, well, Moses.

Created under the auspices of Chabad of California and based in Los Angeles, the website is one of the most visited Jewish-themed online destinations. It is the only Jewish website offering live, one-on-one access to rabbis.

Users may log on anonymously any time except during Shabbat and chat live with a rabbi about anything under the sun, from matzoth to masturbation to mitzvoth.

Some people log on to ask out about certain Jewish customs and laws such as, “Why can’t Jews eat shrimp?”

Other people log on to receive counseling on forbidding issues like spousal abuse and drug addiction.

There are 40 scholars on askmoses, located around the world, from Argentina to Ukraine. The site, which is free of charge, has been live since 1999. Along the way, the rabbis have conducted more than 1 million live chats, answered more than 680,000 emails and written more than 6,000 essays.

Scholars often conduct live chats with five different users simultaneously. The site is easy to use. On the homepage, there are 15 categories of stored information to choose from, including holidays, Torah, philosophy, intimacy and Israel.

If you want to chat with a rabbi, simply click on the “live chat” icon.

One of the creators of askmoses.com is Rabbi Simcha Backman of Chabad of Glendale.

Along with a few other scholars, Backman heeded the advice of the late Lubbavitch Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who directed his sect of Chabadniks to use every means of new technology to introduce the masses to observant and celebratory Judaism.

“I was initially shocked about askmoses’ popularity,” says Backman.

“But the site’s success is not surprising considering we’re the only website doing this. What kind of other Jewish institution has this amount of people from a wide variety of places and cultures and yet has the ability to help that many people?” Backman asks.

Backman says that the site’s appeal is its anonymity.

“People often times aren’t comfortable enough to seek advice from their spiritual leader in person,” says Backman. “This anonymous approach was not available before the Internet was available.”

Considering that several of the scholars have dealt with people contemplating suicide or dealing with an abusive relationship, people skills are critical.

Backman has counseled teens with unwanted pregnancies. One particular 16-year-old girl from Orange County told Backman that she was so grateful for askmoses because she didn’t have the courage to tell her parents about being pregnant.

Backman has even been engaged for months now in a chat with the head of the Ministry of Education of the United Arab Emirates.

“He wants to get a first-hand perspective on Judaism,” says Backman, of the minister. “Needless to say, he was getting a tainted picture most likely filled with propaganda.”

San Diego is home to three askmoses scholars: Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort, of Chabad La Costa, his wife, Nechama Eilfort, and of Chabad Scripps Ranch, Rabbi David Smoller.

Because of the time slot that Smoller is slated—Thursday nights—he gets lots of users from Australia.

“It’s crazy to think that it’s Thursday night in San Diego, and I’m getting questions from Jews in Australia who are preparing for Sabbath, which is only a few hours away in their time zone,” says Smoller.

Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, England and Russia are some of other countries that Smoller chats with.

“I can chat with up to six people at a time, which people don’t realize can be very difficult. A few times, I have given an answer meant for someone else,” admits Smoller with a laugh.




Rabbi Eilfort was “recruited” by Chabad of California to be an online scholar when the site was in its infancy.

“Over the years, I have had the privilege to develop many great online relationships,” says Rabbi Eilfort.

“There was one young woman who was sexually abused by her brother. As a result, she was frightfully insecure and depressed,” says Eilfort. “Over the years, I was able to help her find her intrinsic worth.”

Eilfort reports that today, the woman is “happily married and a Rebbetzin in a growing Jewish community.”

Without the normal inflections of the spoken word, Eilfort says misunderstandings can occur.
Nevertheless, askmoses is a revolutionary concept in enhancing Jewish education and outreach.

“It uses the cutting edge of modern technology to make available the rich beauty of Torah-true Judaism to anyone with a thirst for knowledge and an Internet connection,” says Eilfort.

Eilfort’s wife often filled in for her husband’s online slot. Eventually, she was asked to take a position with her own sign-in and screen name.

“I guess I was getting good ratings,” says Mrs. Eilfort.

Each scholar is rated at the end of each month.

“We receive a report card based on guest ratings on a number of different subjects,” says Mrs. Eilfort, who mentions one of her most memorable live chats.

“The most touching story I ever had was a diabetic amputee in his fifties, who was close to dying. His father had been an American soldier liberating the camps in Germany, where he came across a concentration camp prisoner who was on the verge of dying.

“Say kaddish for me, my name is Avrum,” said the dying man to the soldier during the end of the second world war.

The dying diabetic’s father was not Jewish, and did not know what kaddish was, so he asked the chaplain, who then taught him how to recite it.

“My father from then on recited kaddish daily for this Avrum. And my father passed on the responsibility to me. For the last 60 years, kaddish has been said daily for Avrum, lost in the Holocaust.”

Mrs. Eilfort says that the man, now that he, himself was dying, did not want to pass the burden and great responsibility of saying daily kaddish on to his own son.

“He asked if we could make an arrangement to teach his son how to say kaddish,” says Mrs. Eilfort. “At that exact moment, the minyan was reciting kaddish in shul. I quickly gave him our shul phone number and brought a phone into the shul. He broke into tears as he heard kaddish sung by a minyan.”

Mrs. Eilfort occasionally has also had to deal with “nudnicks who come on to the site just to drive us nuts.”

“Can I do my own circumcision?” is one question on askmoses that Mrs. Eilfort could have done without.



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