Back in the days, the old ones will tell you, it was hard being a Jew. In fact, they will tell you that in order for them to be active members of Jewish communities they had to hide from authorities and be creative to spread the word.
Specially in Russia where persecution ended in death, torture or incarceration. The old ones will tell that thanks to many brave men the Jewish religion is still alive and it is practiced by many in the open and with no restrictions whatsoever.
However, there was a man that after all the persecution and all those years of censorship was vital to the Jewish world by spreading the message via internet. His name is Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen or also known as “YY”. Let’s take a look at his story and why he decided to set up the first Jewish website.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen´s family arrived to New York from Russia in 1953 with 6 daughters by their side, running away from the persecution. The rabbi´s mother was very impressed by seeing that Judaism was practiced in the open and that there were so many Jews in one place. The authorities then told the Rabbi´s family that there was not enough space for such a big family so they had to go to Cleveland, Ohio which was not a very popular place at the moment in the United States, especially for the Jewish community.
Here is where Yosef Yitzchak Kazen comes to make part of the family. He was born in 1954 and he was the first and only son of the seven children the couple had. The parents gave him this name in honor of the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.
Rabbi Zalman, who is Yosef father, was then appointed to the position of rabbi of Congregation Tzemach Tzedek. Up until today, their house in Cleveland is a where people go to learn about the Torah and Rabbi Zalman who is 90, and Rebbetzen Shula who is now 86 still have many fingers in many pies in this congregation and community.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen had two passions: everything that had to do with technology and technology gadgets and spreading Judaism. He found out that these two passions were very similar and could go hand in hand when he saw that the internet gave people the opportunity to spread ideas in a very easy way.
Kazen decided to continue with his family´s job of spreading Judaism in the Soviet Union. Since they also had to find very innovative ways to teach and spread the Judaism word and keep it alive even though they were being persecuted and squashed by the regime and they even opened underground Torah schools in the middle of harsh contradiction, Yosef felt he had to do the same for his community and for his religion.
The technology part came when he was studying in the Central Lubavitch Yeshivah where he was involved in the aspects of the live international telephone hook-ups that were going to show the Rebbe’s public talks. Yosef was also involved in recording the Rebbe’s talks.
Combined with his passion for gadgets, because in his wife´s words, he always had the latest gadget and gave the latest gadgets to his children they had a computer where Yosef uploaded the entire administrative operation where he worked in the United Lubavitch Yeshivah.
Yosef saw the potential of the internet when he saw the online bulletin boards on Fidonet and he immediately knew what his calling was. He always wanted to be a Shliach, a Chabad-Luabvitch emissary and this was his way to fulfil his wish and his true calling.
His first idea was to establish a connection with the Jewish community so he began posting Jewish texts and responding to inquiries on bulletin boards. He then collected so much information that he built a virtual synagogue in the year 1994. From a hobby, it became a full-time job and from answering questions and issues he went to upload entire printed books and publish them on the Internet.
The dream became bigger and he met with Charles Rawls a leading Internet consultant that gave him the right direction. After studying and working at the same time Yosef realized he was sitting on a gold mine (in his own words) because he had found the ability to spread Judaism in a way that no one had done before.
In 1993, he first opened a web page called Chabad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace. With this, they opened the first virtual Jewish library that gave millions of people access to learn about Judaism. After that, in 1994 and with the help of Dorsai, they purchased the Chabad.org domain and since then Yosef was dedicated to Chabad.org until he passed away in 1998.
Be sure to also read this post about perpetual joy.
* Featured Image courtesy of Chabad Lubavitch (Bentzi Sasson / Chabad.org) at Flickr.com