The internet is a wonderful source of information. With a few clicks, you can find a good restaurant, a medical diagnosis, Letterman's Top Ten list from last night, or an essay on the history of Purim. But the internet is also full of dangers for the unwary; not just from the sexual or emotional predators we hear about, but from spiritual
predators as well.
Do a search on the Web for information about any Jewish holiday. Some of the helpful-looking links you will find will be from mainstream Jewish sites: jewishvirtualibrary, the Orthodox Union, Chabad, or the Union for Reform Judaism. But some links will take you to sites that look Jewish- using Jewish symbols, Jewish-sounding texts, even Hebrew- but which teach a Christological version of the holiday's history or practices. You could get all the way to the bottom of a page about lighting Shabbat candles, before realizing that the blessing being taught ends, "b'shem HaMashiach, Ha-Ohr Ha-Olam" ("in the name of the Messiah, the Light of the World").
New web media is also being used by web evangelists and other spiritual predators. Relationship-building media such as chat rooms have long been fertile ground for them. Now instant messaging and user forums give non-Jews using the title of "rabbi" the opportunity to advise and teach Jewish seekers a Christian understanding of Judaism's basic concepts, such as Israel, messiah, prayer, and redemption.
Blogs are similarly useful in presenting non-Jewish concepts in an environment that has been dressed up to look Jewish. And the latest trends in internet communication, podcasts and videos, are already heavily exploited by missionary groups. Search for "Jewish podcasts" or put "Jews" into a Youtube search and many of the results will be from Hebrew Christian sources such as Jews for Jesus.
In addition, the social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, which are so popular with teens and college students, are another pitfall. Missionary groups have pages on these sites, adorned with Israeli flags and "Am Yisrael Chai." These sites are where searching Jewish youth will meet others who claim to be Jewish, but who are using the networking power of the internet to proselytize. We teach our children to be careful on the web, where people are very often not who they say they are. We need to remind them that not only the name, age, and gender of the people they meet online could easily be deceptive cover for predatory intentions, but even the religion of the friends they make online can be a ruse.
We know that our constituencies are using the web for many purposes, including the educational assignments we give them. But many have an uncritical acceptance of the information that they find. We need to equip them with the tools to critically evaluate both the sources and the individuals or organizations behind the sites they encounter.
Searching for G-d on the web is like going to the shopping mall and the credo for the seeker must always be: "caveat emptor" [buyer beware].
Scott Hillman is a former Executive Director of Jews for Judaism.
Originally published in: RAVSAK-The Jewish Community Day School Network's Pesach issue of "HaYidion".