November 19, 1998
Linking Up Our Community
By Joel Kotkin
For much of their history, Jews have been the masters of networking. Even before the destruction of the Second Temple, far-flung Jewish communities, usually through itinerant traders traveling precariously across the Mediterranean and land routes, maintained sophisticated communications networks with each other in a diaspora that extended from Palestine to Spain, in the West, and Persia, in the East.
Today, the handwritten letters have been replaced by telephone lines and high-speed jets, which connect Jewish communities around the world. But entrepreneur Steve Koltai, president of Culver City-based Cyberstudios, sees in the development of the Internet perhaps the most profound opportunity for intercommunication between Jews around the nation, the world and even Los Angeles.
Like the early Jewish merchants, the 46-year-old Koltai is using the network primarily to make money. His brainchild -- a site called BarMitzvah.411 -- provides logistic advice, a gift registry, access to vendors, as well as helpful suggestions to those who are going through the bar or bat mitzvah process. "We are doing something that's useful," the former Warner Bros. executive says. "Planning bar mitzvahs has become a pain in the neck. Everyone's so busy now, and people need help with the logistics."
Making money on the site is not as outrageous as it may seem. The average bar mitzvah, according to Koltai's research, runs about $20,000; the value of gifts is another $20,000. In total, the whole bar and bat mitzvah "industry" makes up a $2.5 billion market segment. Roughly 10 percent of these events take place in the Los Angeles area, a third in New York and another 6 percent in Florida.
The site includes step-by-step instructions for planning the event, as well as suggestions for customizing everything from food to flowers. It includes detailed descriptions of such options as having the event held in Israel and a tzedakah page dedicated to charity giving as an alternative to the traditional gelt. There's even a Jewish Joke Exchange to lighten the often arduous process of planning.
By providing Internet links to a national network that consists of thousands of stores, caterers, flower shops and other vendors, and taking a small cut, BarMitzvah.411 hopes to provide its creators with a healthy profit.
Koltai's earlier Internet site -- Wedding.411 -- has already gained more than 3,000 subscribers, a number that is growing by 30 a day. That site has already rapidly become profitable, which is still a rarity in the Internet commerce sector. Similar sites are being developed for special events such as reunions, anniversaries and Quinceanera, a traditional event for Latinas when they turn 15.
"We are moving to an era where there will be a Web site for each of these major points in life," Koltai says. "I think there is a profit to be made, customizing things, providing information which, perhaps in the past, was passed down by friends and family, but now people need to find elsewhere."
But for Koltai and Cyberstudios editor, Susan Gordon, the BarMitzvah.411 site has a deeper significance. Formerly an editor at such publications as Buzz, California, Seventeen and Glamour, Gordon was bat mitzvahed herself last May. Having been brought up in New Jersey as a highly secularized Reform Jew, she found the experience of preparing for her bat mitzvah a thoroughly uplifting experience, and, now, with her 9-year-old approaching the magical 13-year milestone, she's been thinking about planning another such event.
"I feel like this is very meaningful for me," says Gordon, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "And with my own children getting to that age, I have a reason to develop this kind of material."
Although BarMitzvah.411 is a commercial venture, Koltai has also been proselytizing about the net to his rabbi, John Rosove at Temple Israel in Hollywood. Some might see the Internet as yet another way to break down the traditional ways of contact between congregants. But Rosove disagrees. He sees the net as providing a new tool for promoting communication with his own far-flung, time-pressed congregants.
Just as Jews in the past had to deal with often difficult communication routes, Rosove suggests, today's Jews now function in a world that works against the very essence of community. "The nature of life in a big city is so fragmented that to find a place to make decisions is very difficult. A lot of people don't have time to drive across town," the rabbi says. "The amount of time saved by using e-mail is extraordinary."
Over time, Rosove sees the Internet as becoming one critical element in holding together not only congregations but far-flung Jewish communities as well. Already it has become a vital resource in connecting the often beleaguered Reform and Conservative communities in Israel with their more numerous brethren here in the United States. It has also become a central factor in maintaining links between the various members of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.
"We discuss everything, from how to deal with the Clinton scandals to what to do about seeing-eye dogs in the synagogue when people have allergies," Rosove says. "I see it as a great communication device; it can really facilitate the further development of the community."
Of course, Rosove knows that the Internet cannot become a substitute for the real community. But it can provide a new and important tool in knitting together the all-too-often frayed web of Jewish community life.
These web sites will help you understand and plan a bar and bat mitvah.
Steve Koltai's Culver City-based user-friendly planner
good commercial links and sound advice.
a fast-growing nationwide guide
Terry of Bellevue, Neb. provides an example of the new wave in bar mitzvah celebration-- the online announcement
a fine, thoughtful and less commercial resource for making bar mitzvah meaningful
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Reason Foundation.