The Shabbat.com website, which is billed as the world’s largest social network for Jews, along with a group called the Mensch Network, is on a mission to find the “Mensch of the Year” and pay that individual $1,000.
The winning candidate is one who “exhibits integrity, and respect and tolerance for the ‘other.’”
As its name indicates, Shabbat.com was designed to help Jews find people with whom to eat their Sabbath meals on Friday night or Saturday afternoon in their area, a mission that is still among its priorities.
The site has members in the US, Israel, Canada, Europe, Russia, and elsewhere.
“We spent about a million dollars setting up our Shabbat.com site, and we have managed to turn it into the world’s largest social network for Jews,” said Shabbat.com director Rabbi Benzion Klatzko. “It’s really the Jewish alternative to Facebook.”
Since Shabbat.com was started in 2010, new features have been added that make it Facebook-esque. “We have status updates, photos, and the newsfeed that Facebook users are used to, but obviously we strive to be more than just updates,” Klatzko added.
There are many similarities between Facebook and Shabbat.com, including messages, activity wall, profile, and a friend list. But it also has several additional features designed to turn the site into a “helping” community, said Klatzko. “For example, if you know of a job for an accountant, you can use the ‘occupation’ button to search for all the accountants in the network and send them a message.”
Although a mass-messaging feature like that could be used for spamming, Shabbat.com administrators keep an eye out for irrelevant messages – and a message about an available job is certain to be welcome, he added.
The raison d’etre of Shabbat.com is hosting/guesting for Shabbat meals, said Klatzko.
“When someone is signed up as a host, they can go to the search bar at the top of the page and find guests in any city, state, and country. From that search bar, they can also find guests based on proximity, occupation, and organization. Guests can find hosts in the same way.”
“Many people use the site when they are traveling abroad, seeking a meal for Shabbat, and we have become the go-to site for many people looking for a Jewish connection in far-flung places,” said Klatzko.
But for many users, it’s the site’s dating profile that is the biggest attraction.
“Joining Shabbat.com is free, and we don’t charge anything for any of the services – and among those services is a completely free online singles network, similar to the ones offered by other sites that charge membership fees.”
Upon joining, users are asked to fill in a dating profile, which includes their religious affiliation (Orthodox, Conservadox, unaffiliated, etc.), whether they keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, speak other languages, etc. Users can then search for singles like themselves by age, location, affiliation, occupation, and other criteria. Once they find a likely prospect, they can send their dating profile directly to that person.
“The whole site has been a tremendous success,” said Klatzko. “Since our launch we’ve set people up with over 500,000 Shabbat meals in 113 countries, and have been responsible for hundreds of matches.”
Despite the openness, the site is well protected, said Klatzko; the site vets new users, and promotes users who upload photos, references, institutional affiliations, and personal descriptions.
While he is Orthodox, Klatzko does not bar any Jews from Shabbat.com. “During the last high holiday period, for example, we had Reform and Reconstructionist groups using the site to organize their services in some areas, seeking residents in their cities to join them. Everyone is welcome to promote their projects here.”
That said, Klatzko added, there is some censorship, and the site will take down inappropriate material that “doesn’t belong on a site that seeks to promote Jewish values.”
Among the projects Shabbat.com works with is the Mensch Network’s International Mensch competition. Shabbat.com users are invited to submit stories about Sabbath hosts or guests who acted as “mensches” by going out of their way to help out, being responsible for acts of kindness large or small, etc. Two winners – a host and a guest – will receive a $1,000 prize.
The Mensch Foundation, which aims to promote better social behavior among Israelis, was established in 2011 by Moshe Kaplan. Its advisory board includes three Nobel prizewinners — Professor Dan Shechtman, Professor Aaron Ciechanover and Professor Robert Aumann — as well as former US senator Joe Lieberman, Tova Ben Dov, acting president of World WIZO, former basketball player Tal Brody, and others.
Offering free access to Shabbat.com means money is a perennial problem for Shabbat.com.
“It costs about $16,000 a month to keep the site going,” said Klatzko. “We have a few donors, but I have been funding a lot of the activities out of my own pocket.”
Meanwhile, he says, “I keep getting requests to expand – to set up sites in other languages, like Spanish and Russian, to expand the networks to encompass Jews around the world. If we had more money we could do a lot more for Jewish unity. This is the first site that Haredi rabbis, like Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman and Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, have ever endorsed. They were amazed by what we have done, and we intend to do a lot more.”