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With Holidays Approaching, Rabbi-Programmers Court Jews in Cyberspace

By Sonja Sharp | September 12, 2012 8:10am | Updated on September 13, 2012 1:48pm

CROWN HEIGHTS — They call themselves "Chabad in Cyberspace."

Every year, thousands of people from around the world descend on 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights to celebrate the Jewish New Year at the epicenter of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. But high above the grand synagogue where the faithful will gather this Sunday are the sometimes cramped, always bustling offices of Chabad.org, where elite corps of rabbi-programmers have built the world's largest religious website — only to painstakingly rebuild it from the transistors out.

"It came to a point that we outgrew our space," said Rabbi Meir Simcha Kogan, 35, Chabad.org's managing director.  "We felt with the site we couldn’t do anymore incremental changes."

Thus began an 18-month-long reboot, culminating this fall with the relaunch of Chabad.org. The new site comes online for most visitors just in time for the autumn holidays, when millions of new users stumble upon it searching for everything from festival recipes to religious services.

"It's my personal belief that this is very holy work," said programmer Efi Gotbeter, 31, who was busy perfecting a web-based prayer teaching tool in the weeks leading up to the relaunch. "The Internet is a very good tool."

Like other Chabad emissaries — the kind most New Yorkers encounter on the subway passing out Sabbath candles Friday afternoon or at JFK airport sharing jelly donuts when Hanukkah overlaps Christmas — programmers like Gotbeter have committed their lives to helping Jews the world over perform the same rituals and commandments they themselves take for granted.

But while his spiritual cohort might serve Israeli backpackers kosher kreplach in Kathmandu or teach Torah to ladies who lunch in Teaneck, Gotbeter's work will reach some 1.7 million unique users each month, right in the palm of their hands.

To wit: Google 'when is Rosh Hashanah?' and Chabad.org is the first hit.

"I didn’t plan for this — it was certainly divine providence that led me here," Kogan said. "That’s true for many people in our team — they knew they wanted join the leagues of shluchim [religious emissaries], and they found this was the best way to apply their talents to Jewish education and outreach."

To do it, the site employs some two dozen coders in Brooklyn, and a score more scattered around the world, all of them working in cramped quarters on tight deadlines to make finding the right prayer for a sick friend or the perfect Passover video for a preschooler as intuitive as finding a light bulb at Home Depot.

"I feel that we're really holding a sacred trust for the Jewish people," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, director of Chabad.org."This is not our private website — these are the tools and resources of the Jewish people. We’ve simply been blessed and entrusted to make it the best it can possibly be."

As for the actual light bulbs, the team relies on a handful dedicated donors, including several New York and Florida families, as well as thousands of micro-donors around the world.

"We don’t really have the funding to go through a lot of trial and error," Shmotkin said, "We owe it to our users worldwide and to our donors to really try and hit a home run each time."

To those who might find the idea of rabbi-programmers incongruous — particularly given the Orthodox world's highly-publicized anti-Internet convention at CitiField this spring — the rabbi turns to the Talmud.

"The Rebbe imparted to our generation a very deep sense of responsibility that we are each meant to feel and act upon, toward our fellow Jews and for the world at large. The Rebbe taught that every single thing that was created in this world was created for a Godly purpose. That’s a Talmudic quote, but the Rebbe taught and lived it," Shmotkin said.

"As various technologies came into being during the Rebbe’s lifetime, the Rebbe encouraged people to use them for good."

So too with the new suite of new apps for smartphones and tablets that would have been unimaginable when the site was Rabbi Yosef Kazen began tinkering with its earliest incarnation nearly two decades ago.

"The Torah is really the original hypertext text," Shmotkin said. "Since the advent of the web, we’ve been steadily moving forward toward being able to seamlessly interlink between thousands of texts and tools."