Sure, you can find Jerusalem on a map of the world. But can you find Virtual Jerusalem? As of late January of this year, that piece of online real estate is housed in Los Angeles.
The popular English-language Web site, which offers news from Israel along with humor, chat and other services for the North American Jewish community, began having trouble last year when its parent company, Virtual Communities, Inc., ran into financial difficulties and could not pay its bills.
After extended bidding and negotiations for Virtual Jerusalem, which included L.A.-based E-Shop Enterprises and British Web-content firm Totally, Plc., Israel's Bank Hapoalim bought the site and entered a joint venture with E-Shop and Totally. Bank Hapoalim kept 20 percent of Virtual Jerusalem and split the remaining 80 percent equally between E-Shop and Totally. Virtual Jerusalem's hardware has migrated to Southern California, where it's maintained by E-Shop. The editorial staff for the site remains in Israel.
Jess Dolgin, president and CEO of E-Shop Enterprises, was interested in Virtual Jerusalem from the moment he learned it was for sale. His company operates the Jewish e-commerce site JewishStreet.com, a three-dimensional online shopping mall and community center, with stores such as Jewish Craft, Kosher Club and Sinai Software, along with services like a worldwide listing of kosher restaurants. The site also offers a JewishStreet Web browser and will soon debut a filtered Internet service provider.
For Dolgin, managing Virtual Jerusalem with his British and Israeli partners is a natural extension of his business -- and personal -- history. Dolgin is passionate about the potential of the online Jewish community. He'll spend 10 minutes listing the shops and services available on JewishStreet.com and another 10 listing features he has planned, such as chat rooms and instant messaging.
Dolgin moved to Israel in 1970 at age 7. After completing his army service, he took bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science at the University of Florida before returning to Israel for a law degree from Bar Ilan University. After a stint practicing law in Israel, Dolgin moved back to Los Angeles and co-founded E-Shop Enterprises in January 2000 with Avi Bienenfeld and Efi Oren.
The key to the success of E-shop and JewishStreet.com, Dolgin says, has been strategic alliances. Though his company owns some stores on its Web site, most are other companies acting as tenants, paying rent for "buildings" in his Internet shopping center. Joining with Totally, which specializes in media with its Web site TotallyJewish.com and as owner of the London Jewish News, has been a fortuitous combination of content management and commerce.
Both E-Shop and Totally have designs on expanding their reach in the Jewish community; the renewed success of Virtual Jerusalem under their partnership has encouraged the two companies to work together on other projects. As Dolgin's ambitious plans to develop a niche market "Jewish America Online" evolve, he aims to match his e-commerce expertise with content providers like Virtual Jerusalem. With E-Shop's wealth of Jewish commerce, "we provide a solid business model and a good service to the Jewish community," Dolgin says. E-commerce partnering with the popular content of Virtual Jerusalem, he adds, is "pretty much what the Internet is all about."