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

January 07, 1988|IRA RIFKIN | 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.

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