Got Question? AskMoses!


by Rebecca Rosenthal - ENCINO, CA

May 10, 2006

“Can I have a some water?” With 20,000 water bottles to distribute at the Israel Independence Day Festival in Encino, CA, that had to be one of the easiest questions ever fielded by representatives of AskMoses.com.

Questions about spiritual matters, from featherweight to wrenching, are answered through live chats on the AskMoses site 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. With “millions of chats logged,” according to site Director Rabbi Simcha Backman, AskMoses scores among the most popular Jewish sites. But the site’s team was at the event, attended by an estimated crowd of 45,000. As thirsty Californians slurped at the water bottles, AskMoses described the site’s snappy new interface, leap into automated text messaging, and the allure of asking any Jewish question in a completely anonymous forum.

Encino was the first stop on the “Thirsty for Knowledge” campaign. AskMoses booths will tour Orange County, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Denver and Chicago.

Since its birth in 1998, AskMoses, under the auspices of Chabad of California, has innovated to remain perched on the edge of technological advances. Online, the Moses mascot with a ZZ Top length beard and groovy shades still greets visitors, but the programming skeleton behind him has been cleaned up with AJAX, a web-coding language. “The new facelift makes the website more flexible and easier to navigate,” said Rabbi Backman, also Chabad’s representative in Glendale, CA.

But quick PC access is no longer AskMoses’s only technological aim. “Most global citizens will experience the Internet first and foremost on their mobile handset.” Sun Microsystem CEO Jonathan Schwartz told Newsweek. Aware of the trend, AskMoses has adapted itself the world of the 2-inch handheld screen. Real-time chats with AskMoses scholars via text messaging should be ready to roll within eight months, Rabbi Backman said. Currently, AskMoses users can have Shabbat candle lighting times, daily thoughts, Jewish history blurbs zapped to their cell phone.

Using a phone to text message a question to a web-based scholar instead simply phoning a rabbi seems a bit roundabout, but it’s right for the times, said AskMoses Scholar Supervisor Rabbi Yosef Loschak. “Many questions we’re asked would never be asked face to face,” he said. “They are able to ask us not fearing repercussions or shame.”

Under the blanket of anonymity, one AskMoses questioner felt free to describe her plan to commit suicide. “The reason a person like this comes to us is because they are not capable of bringing the problem out in the open. They have a hard time picking up the phone to talk, let alone walking in for some counseling,” said Rabbi Backman. With the questioner’s consent, the conversation continued offline, in conference with a psychologist. Said Rabbi Backman, “We literally save lives.”

AskMoses chats are not all of the life or death variety. Jews of all levels of affiliation and non-Jews regularly pose protocol and etiquette questions like: “What is an appropriate gift for a bar mitzvah?” or technical inquiries of the “Is it permitted to affix a mezuzah at night?” ilk. Just about the only questions AskMoses will not touch are those that stray into the field of deciding matters of Jewish law.

AskMoses is in the privileged position of knowing what’s troubling Jews around the world. With a finger on the pulse of a nation, the beat can be irregular. This year, the most commonly asked question before Passover, was, according to Rabbi Loschak, “Is vodka kosher for Passover?” (In most cases, no.)

For all who are thirsty for knowledge or for a post-Seder screwdriver there’s AskMoses. “Though it’s closed on Shabbos and Yom Tov,” said Rabbi Loschak, “It’s still the world’s most popular Chabad house.”

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