Kibitzing in New Tongue: by Computer : Valley New Age Synagogue Operates 'Bulletin Board'

Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

By day, Reeve Chudd is a 35-year-old Encino lawyer and accountant. But, late at night, he often turns into a sort of Talmudic scholar eager to discuss some of Judaism's more esoteric aspects.

In an earlier age, finding someone to talk with at that hour might have been a problem. But no more.

When Chudd feels like kibitzing about Judaism, he flips the switch on his personal computer and signs on to a Jewish-oriented computer "bulletin board" system. A few taps on the right keys and Chudd can generally find someone else also sitting at a computer keyboard in his home who is just as eager to communicate electronically.

"I really enjoy the bulletin board system," Chudd said. "I can participate in discussions of extemporaneous philosophical topics even if I'm at home at midnight."

The bulletin board that Chudd taps into is coordinated by Makom Ohr Shalom, a Van Nuys congregation with a heavy New Age emphasis that calls itself "a synagogue for Jewish meditation."

Reaches New Audience

"Quite simply," said Rabbi Theodore Falcon, Makom Ohr Shalom's spiritual leader, "the bulletin board has proved itself to be an effective outreach to another segment of the Jewish community--to a whole other kind of person who wouldn't necessarily come to a Makom Ohr Shalom meditation or go to a more traditional synagogue, but who can still benefit from exposure to a Jewish community.

"It provides a forum for discussions of religion, psychology, politics and more, while also being a wonderful social tool."

The Makom Ohr Shalom BB, as the bulletin board is called, was started last spring with a $2,000 investment. Falcon and Don Goldberg of Tarzana, a 40-year-old writer, computer enthusiast and member of the congregation, created the software program that the bulletin board works with by taking a program originally designed for a singles dating club and modifying it to their needs.

Despite some technical glitches--requests for height and weight, pertinent to a dating service but irrelevant to a Jewish bulletin board, must still be answered by users before they can proceed--the Makom Ohr Shalom BB is a hit.

It is already one of the largest and most sophisticated non-commercial, Jewish-oriented bulletin boards in the nation, according to David Fiedler, a Chicago man who coordinates Kesher-Net, an international network that links individual boards such as Makom Ohr Shalom's with others.

Recent Development

"Jewish BBs are a phenomenon of the last year alone," said Fiedler, a computer buff and acknowledged pioneer in these computerized boards. "My hope is that they will get people involved in remaining Jewish."

To date, about 400 people have joined Makom Ohr Shalom's service and have logged more than 16,000 calls, all of which is coordinated by a computer sitting in a corner of a Tarzana office that Falcon, a psychologist as well as a rabbi, uses for his private counseling practice.

Indicative of the bulletin board's ability to help create a new form of Jewish community is the fact that only about 35 of its regular users are members of Makom Ohr Shalom. The rest are people from around the Los Angeles area and across the nation.

Falcon figures that about two dozen people have started attending Makom Ohr Shalom Sabbath services, which routinely attract more than 300 people the first and third Friday evenings of the month, as a result of their involvement in the bulletin board.

He also said that about 10% of the computer bulletin board users are non-Jews interested in exploring Jewish ideas, or simply looking to socialize.

To avoid abuses of the system, Falcon or Goldberg screen all applicants and insist that participants use their real names and answer a series of questions about themselves, such as their Jewish backgrounds and special interests.

"We're trying to keep out the inane and the vitriolic," Falcon said. "The integrity of the bulletin board is important."

On Jan. 1, Makom Ohr Shalom's bulletin board was tied in with Kesher-Net, which allows local users to plug into the 14 or so other Jewish-oriented BBs around the nation and in Israel for the price of a telephone call to Makom Ohr Shalom's special 818 area code number.

Kesher-Net also allows Makom Ohr Shalom BB users to scan news-wire reports about Jews or Isarel and even read commentaries written in Israel on the portion of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, that is to be reflected on that week in synagogue.

Even without Kesher-Net, the Makom Ohr Shalom BB offers nearly two-dozen so-called "public boards," or categories, from which users may choose.

Electronic Meditation

Besides the "Kibitz Board," which allows people such as Chudd to electronically chat privately and directly with another person, public boards include the "Daily Download," which is a meditative thought for the day, and "Scruples," a takeoff on the board game of the same name where a moral dilemma is posed and BB users are invited to share their thoughts on the issue.

A recent question asked: "You are walking down the street and you encounter A) an old haggard, smelly, filthy bum who begs for some money, B) a nice-looking person about 22, clean and healthy who says that he lost his wallet and would like a few bucks to get the RTD home. Would you give to person A, or person B, neither?"

Then there is "Feelings," a public board into which people are encouraged to write "poems or whatever, anything of a softer nature," said Goldberg, and "Open Jewish Forum," where questions dealing with traditional Jewish issues are answered by Stephen Vale, a Makom Ohr Shalom member and student at the University of Judaism on Mulholland Drive.

Falcon responds to less traditional questions about mysticism and spirituality in "Rabbi's Study," while "New Age Potpourri," as the name says, covers anything that is New Age-related.

There are also public boards for users interested in sharing political satire, recipes or social activities, one just for young people under 17, another for people in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and another for those interested in holistic healing.

Users can leave messages for each other, discuss computer topics or ask legal questions by accessing "Ask a Jewish Lawyer," which features replies by Chudd.

On the lighter side, there is "Borscht Belt," a collection of Jewish jokes, and another public board that allows users to add their own comic twists to traditional Hasidic stories.

For the business-minded, there is "Such a Deal," a sort of electronic swap meet.

The list goes on and continually changes as those subjects that prove to be less popular are replaced by something new, such as "Psychic Dimensions," a new item featuring spiritual readings via computer by Alan Schwartz, whom Falcon called "a Jewish psychic."

The Makom Ohr Shalom bulletin board is available to anyone with a personal computer and a modem, a piece of equipment selling for an average $125 that lets computers talk to each other, using regular telephone lines.

Additional costs to users are the $5-a-month or $50-a-year full-access membership fee (limited access may be obtained free), plus the telephone bills for calling the number that links a personal computer to the system.

That last item can be expensive.

"You could go crazy with this," Falcon said. "It's addictive."

The phone bills are particularly hard on out-of-town callers. Goldberg mentioned a friend in Cincinnati who spent $325 in one month calling Makom Ohr Shalom's BB.

"He was going through some troubles and needed to talk," said Goldberg, who devotes about 25 volunteer hours a week to helping maintain the bulletin board and assisting new users.

But why talk via computer rather than doing it the old-fashioned way--over a regular telephone?

For starters, Falcon and Goldberg agreed, the relative anonymity of the computer allows some people to open up more than they might over the phone.

But there is more, Falcon said.

"This is just so different from a telephone because the communication can be savored in the way that the spoken word that shoots right by you cannot be.

"What this offers is the immediacy of the spoken word plus the visual aspect of the written word."

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