Jewish Web site sparkles, starves
By Lou Marano
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 6/1/2002 11:09 PM
WASHINGTON, June 1 (UPI) -- Binyamin Jolkovsky is a man with a mission.
For five years the 33-year-old has produced his high-quality conservative Web site, Jewish World Review, from a Brooklyn attic on a wing, a prayer and three or four hours' sleep a night. Will he be able to make it financially viable before his health gives out?
Jolkovsky's wife, a systems analyst in Manhattan, has given him a deadline to pay himself a salary. Maybe some day he can even hire an assistant. Testimonials to Jolkovsky's editorial skills come from far and wide, but fundraising is another matter.
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas called the Web site "one of the most attractive and informative Web pages I've seen. It has perspectives and information available nowhere else, and in an age when we're all drowning in too much information, JWR offers something that is actually worth reading."
"Jolkovsky is a genius," comedian-columnist Jackie Mason told United Press International. "There should be less Jewish lawyers and accountants and more Jolkovskys!"
"Jolkovsky is an amazing guy," said David Perlmutter, associate professor of mass communications at Louisiana State University. "You can send him an e-mail at 3 a.m., and you'll get a one-minute response."
Perlmutter said Jolkovsky has an uncanny knowledge of his readers' interests. "He doesn't just post stuff he agrees with, but stuff that is extremely well-written. It's always a pleasure to go there and see what's new. I just wish he could get more money for it."
Jolkovsky said he "scouted the country," looking on the Internet and other sources for "the best quality there is." He started Jewish World Review in 1997 with Josh Pollack, who "phased himself out" after about a year. Jolkovsky describes Pollack as a liberal. The site was not conservative, "it was Jewish," Jolkovsky said.
"I saw that there were a lot of liberal Jewish publications across the country, but few spoke to traditionalism and people of faith." He discovered that material geared to those readers garnered the most Internet "hits."
Jolkovsky believes it's important to read views opposed to one's own, if for no other reason than to sharpen one's thinking. "But eventually I found that no one read the liberal stuff," he said. "We still have moderates -- Nat Hentoff, Chris Matthews, Mort Zukerman, Mort Kondrake. I wouldn't consider these people conservatives by any stretch."
Civil liberties champion Nat Hentoff called Jolkovsky "one of the last of the lonely pamphleteers. He links me and a lot of other people because, whether he agrees with us or not, he thinks we should be heard." Hentoff said he gets a lot of responses to his column through Jewish World Review.
Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is moderator of the weekly PBS television program "Think Tank." For 20 years, he wrote a syndicated column, which he ended last August. For the last of those years, it ran on Jolkovsky's Web site. "My column was syndicated in about 200 newspapers," Wattenberg told UPI, "and about half the mail I got was generated from Jewish World Review. There's a lot of people reading it. It's a damn good site."
Amatai Etzioni, leader of the communitarian movement and George Washington University sociologist, said Jolkovsky's site is one of the few Web sites that is still serious. "It is well-edited. The text on so many sites reads like first drafts. This one doesn't. I wish we had more like it," Etzioni said.
Pundit Jonathan Rauch's columns appear on the Web site. He described it as "one of the Web's quality sites." It has a definite point of view, Rauch noted, but it also is esoteric and wide-ranging enough to stimulate.
Jolkovsky described how he learned his skills. "My wife and I went to Baltimore, and we had a crash course on how to keep our Web site alive. .... Basically, in one day I learned how to run my own magazine.
"I sleep three to four hours a night," he said, his voice tense. "Needless to say, I'm quite nervous. My goal is just to make sure five years of my life doesn't go down the tube. The reason I do this is because unlike other companies that use other people's money, this is my time, and my effort, and my baby. I want to see this project survive for lots and lots of reasons. My wife does as well, but she is more grounded than I am. She wants to make sure that if I don't start paying myself a salary at some point, probably by the early part of next year, we shut down or find somebody to take it over."
He works through the night, usually until 5 or 6 a.m. "If I'm physically capable, I go outside to pray," he said. "Most of the time, I go to sleep and wake up a couple of hours later." He gets a full night's sleep only on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays.
He is confident that things will fall into place.
"There's no ad revenue coming in, and that's the model we've been using," he said. "We're about to make an emergency appeal, and it depends on how the readers respond."
The last appeal for funds came a year and a half ago. Much of the money came from Christians, Jolkovsky said. He bases this belief not only on surnames but on the self-identification of contributors.
"Jews, according to lots of studies, give a disproportionate amount of charity dollars," Jolkovsky said, "but people don't view Web sites as charities, despite the fact that we're doing G-d's work and we are impacting people's lives all around the world. I have letters from all over America and all around the world from both Jews and non-Jews saying how we change people's lives.
"People think the Web is hip -- it's for youngsters. I constantly get letters from people in their 70s and 80s who read us every day. ... We have people from the deep South who have written to say that they've never come in contact with G-d-believing Jews, that Alan Dershowitz epitomized Jews and Judaism to them, that they started reading the site because someone recommended it. They're just shocked to find that many of the things that we're promoting -- especially on the religion part -- are in agreement with their own spiritual world view. Because of that, their entire view (of Jews) has changed."
In Dershowitz's book "The Genesis of Justice" (2000), the celebrity Harvard law professor wrote that the Bible instructs us to argue with God, who is a work in progress. "Chutzpah," the title of a book Dershowitz published in 1992, is a Yiddish word meaning unmitigated gall, brazen effrontery, presumption, plus arrogance. Dershowitz maintained that American Jews need more chutzpah.
Jolkovsky is of the school that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. "I honestly believe that individuals are given certain talents, and that they should maximize the talents they have," he said. "And if, G-d forbid, I should have to close this thing down, I'm going to know that I've had an impact on people's lives all around the world."
"There's so much that unites our country, especially people of faith," he said. "It's a shame that the loudest voices are the ones that would break us up into sections." Based on the electronic letters he forwards to his writers, he thinks American conservatives tend to judge people as individuals rather than on race or ethnicity.
"I think it's time for all society to unite under a banner of values," Jolkovsky told UPI. He said Christian clergymen write him saying that they have cited his "Jewish materials" in sermons. "Some people actually e-mail me copies of their sermons!"
Jolkovsky said he gets a lot of letters from religious Catholics who say that if the word "Catholic" were substituted for "Jewish" in his commentaries, they could be printed in any Catholic bulletin in America.
He believes in "the values that made America great." Foremost among them is self-sufficiency. "The Talmud says that one of the highest forms of charity is giving a person a job." Others are a belief in G-d and a code of morality external to the self, as well as freedom of thought and expression.
He said liberal Jewish leaders are "on a path to self-destruction." When asked what he means by this, he discussed the opposition to school vouchers. "Contrary to stereotype, there are a lot of poor Jews -- middle class to poor," he said. "Numerous studies have proven that students in Jewish day schools stay within the fold, while those who have a limited amount of contact don't. Tuition is between $5,000 and $8,000 per kid per year. A guy who has a middle-class job ain't gonna make it. But what do these groups do? They build Holocaust museums! It makes no sense! You have dead Jews under glass, but the live ones leave because they don't know anything about their Judaism. That's just one simple example."
Jewish World Review contributing columnist Julia Gorin, a New York-based journalist and stand-up comic, said the site has a warm, friendly feel. "It's like the difference between a newsstand and a bookstore," she told UPI. "JWR has a cohesiveness to it. So many sites throw information at you, but there's nothing inviting that makes you want to stay or to engage in dialogue with others. Jolkovsky treats everyone like part of his community instead of one-time customers.
"Obviously, we know there's a stereotype of Jews being liberal," Gorin said. "That's fairly accurate. But that's why JWR is so important, because it exposes the fact that there's a slew of conservative Jews out there." Gorin said many conservative Christians who have a love for the Jewish people have been "heartbroken" by politics that have been "almost unilateral."
Gorin called the Web site "a holy intersection where all these frustrated Christians were pleasantly surprised to discover the presence of conservative Jews in America who don't get conservative only when it comes to Israel.
"A lot of sites out there are Jewish-based," Gorin said, "but the only thing approaching conservative politics is with regard to Israel. That's when they turn into these freaking hawks. As for their own country -- America -- it's all the same liberal BS.
"Christians come to JWR and find they have more in common with Jews than they thought -- not just biblical, but also ideological. It does a lot more to bring people together than anything else out there. And I've realized that I have a lot more in common with a lot of Christians than I thought." She estimated that 80 percent of the Web site readers who respond to her columns are not Jewish.
Gorin said that Jolkovsky really needs an investor because he risks ruining his health.
"Even the wealthiest, most prominent Jews are sheep," she said. "They have these pat ideas about what constitutes philanthropy. It's like they need to have some sort of adviser to tell them to pay attention to the site. Because when Binyamin has gone after these money people, they're noncommittal -- it's like they can't think for themselves. Nobody wants to be the first."
Gorin said she is occasionally invited to the galas of major Jewish charities. "There's just all this money and these people with their royal salaries and their royal vacations and 60 percent overhead for that organization. It just breaks my heart to think of this little 'Chassid in the attic' who can use the money and does a hell of a lot more good for Jews in terms of how we look to the world." (Gorin understands that Jolkovsky, while Orthodox, is not Chassidic.)
Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, told UPI that Jolkovsky has done a remarkable job with Jewish World Review.
"It's a very popular site that he's been able to organize with very limited resources and has drawn a remarkable array of contributors to it -- columnists and others who have given their support. It's very useful," Hoenlein said.
Jewish World Review contributing columnist Dennis Prager hosts a national daily radio show based in Los Angeles.
"It's so sad. It's absolutely a shame," Prager said. "Jolkovsky is an unsung hero. No, wait -- he's an unfinanced hero. That's worse than unsung. I have told him that he should ask people for $2 a month, and he'll be flying high. It is not a good thing that people are used to getting everything on the Internet for free. Push is going to come to shove at some point, and if somebody doesn't think it's worth $2 to get all of that stuff, then there's something wrong with their value system. ... You don't need a lot to continue. He's only asking for a pittance. His wife, understandably, wants him to make a living."
Prager believes the Web site is widely read.
"My own article was cited by the Wall Street Journal coming from Jewish World Review. Everybody reads it. I love the fact that there's a religious component. And I'm sure that the majority of its biggest supporters are not Jewish."
Although many strong pro-Israel articles appear on Jewish World Review, Jolkovsky said he is "not one of those falafel-eating Zionists. ... My belief in Israel is because it's the Holy Land, and Jews there are in danger of their lives being snuffed out."
In his original mission statement, Jolkovsky criticized the two "obsessions" of American Jews -- the Holocaust and Israel. But with the current intifada, or uprising, and suicide bombings, he has reconsidered the latter position.
"Unfortunately, times have changed, and I may have been naive," he said. "Folks really have to do something" as far as Israel is concerned. "I still think the Holocaust museum culture is a disgrace," he added. "For the past 20 or 30 years, there has been an unhealthy obsession with negativity in the Jewish community. ... at the expense of young Jews learning about the warmth and spirituality of their religion."
Yossi Klein Halevy, Israel correspondent for the New Republic, said Jolkovsky has "really given his life" to the Web magazine. "I like him a lot," Halevy said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. "Our religious observances aren't the same. He tends toward the Chassidic, and I tend toward the liberal. But I have an enormous amount of respect both for his integrity and his persistence. He's managed to hang on long enough to reach the point where he really became relevant. By that I mean that the Jewish world has basically caught up with his politics, and certainly with his hard line on Israel.
"We're now in the post-Oslo era of disillusionment, where a lot of us have seen our hopes and illusions shattered. And there are all kinds of alliances emerging in the Jewish world that really weren't possible in the 90s because of the deep schisms that existed. In the early period of Oslo, I was among the optimists."
Klein said that, in principle, he still supports the kinds of far-reaching territorial concessions inherent in the 1993 Oslo accords. "But in practice, I think it would be suicidal for Israel to make those concessions to (Yasser) Arafat."
"The whole Jewish mainstream has shifted to the right, against our will. We did not want to be where we are now," Halevy said. "That's been forced on us by two years of terrorism and rejectionism. People like Binyamin deserve credit for seeing through the illusion when many of us were still clinging to it.
"He's providing a window into parts of the Jewish community that are not known outside of Jewish circles, but beyond that he's also providing a window into a very large part of the Jewish community -- the Orthodox and the right-of-center -- that tends to get under-reported."
Copyright © 2002 United Press International