The Party’s Over, and On Again, at Celebrations Web Site

By Alana Newhouse

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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Last month, a crash sent waves of dread and sadness throughout the world. It wasn’t the stock market, or the downing of a plane, but it nevertheless prompted a groundswell of communal reaction. On December 29, 2002, the lights at OnlySimchas.com went out.

As it turned out, the darkness was only temporary. Within a week, the owners had reinstated the popular Web site, which allows people to create pages sharing the news and photographs from their most recent simcha, or happy occasion — bar or bat mitzvah, engagement, wedding or circumcision. But the damage had been done: More than 6,000 simcha listings had evaporated thanks to a computer glitch, and the blackout left an enormous number of users — many of whom visit the site once or more daily — confused and dismayed.

“Without onlysimchas.com my workday seems to drag on forever. Please come back soon,” wrote one reader.

“I think you only begin to realize what an addict you are when onlysimchas is down for more than 12 hours,” penned another.

“Kew Gardens Hills has not been the same since the ‘crash,’” wrote one frustrated Queens resident. “You cannot imagine the impact which the blank screen had.”

Actually, one person can imagine: Dov Katz, the site’s creator. Katz and his partners are still flabber- gasted about the whole thing: first, that the super-powered computer running the site crashed; second, that the company in charge of backing up the system nightly turns out not to have backed it up at all.

“You don’t know what the feeling is like to lose four years of work,” said Katz, who said that right before the crash, he clocked 5 million users for December alone — and there were three more days left to the month. “You’re either going to quit or choose to redo everyone’s stuff.” He chose the latter, much to the delight of the site’s global fan base.

The site began in 1999, after Katz and his wife, Shira, both undergraduate students at Columbia University, found themselves at the right place with the right camera. “We had this digital camera and we found ourselves at our third [engagement party] in four days,” recalled Katz, now a technology specialist at a major investment bank in New York. “I thought, why not just throw it up on the Web? Our friends would love it.”

They did, and so did their friends. And their friends’ friends’ friends. By the summer of 2000, the site was getting tens of thousands of hits a month.

Stunned by its natural evolution, Katz and his partners — his brother-in-law Doron Katz, friend Yossi Markovitz and their wives — decided to make the site even more user-friendly. They changed the programming format to enable people to create a registry, post a picture gallery and upload photographs. Users could maintain guest lists, receive “Mazel Tov” e-mails and keep track of who gave them that Lladro sculpture or Waterford pitcher — all at no cost.

Registrants poured in from everywhere — from Brooklyn to Brazil, Jerusalem to Antwerp, Johannesburg to Baltimore, and a sprinkling from some countries in the former Soviet Union.

Though the site seemed geographically diverse, many of the users were from the Modern Orthodox and more right-wing segments of Judaism — a feature that, according to Katz, was unintentional.

“The programming is sectarian agnostic,” he said, adding that he had no intended target audience. “Word spread through the viral marketing of Jewish word-of-mouth. The grapevine is very efficient on the right-wing part of the spectrum.” When asked why he thought the site had become so popular within Orthodox circles, Katz was at a bit of a loss.

“The only thing I can think of is that the people who have heard about it are in some radiating circle that started with me, my wife and our friends,” suggested Katz, who is Modern Orthodox.

Still, Katz acknowledged that his definition of “simcha” may be limiting to some. The “simcha” categories are all rituals that are somehow religious in nature — including weddings and bat mitzvahs, but excluding secular events such as birthdays and anniversaries.

“People could post pictures of half-naked women dancing on a beach and say it’s their birthday party,” Katz commented. “That’s a bit harder to do if it’s your wedding or engagement party or bris.”

Doron Katz, the site’s president and Dov’s brother-in-law, said that while many of the site’s users are Modern Orthodox, “every type of Jew is up there.” “Given what’s going on in the world, people are happy to have a site focused on happiness,” he said.

Indeed, many of the e-mails received after the crash expressed that same conviction.

“In a world where so much bad happens, a world of September 11, a world where terrorist attacks in Israel are too frequent and where there is always illness, I would log on to onlysimchas.com every once in awhile to remind myself of all the joys in the world — the engagements, marriages, births and aliyahs,” wrote one visitor.

Still other viewers visit the site for different kinds of solace. “I check it every afternoon when I come home from work,” wrote one. “Sometimes I know the people and sometimes I like to see the pleasure on their faces, especially the surprise proposals. (It’s my touch of romance for the day).”

As of this month, Jewish romance is back on the Web. Since the crash destroyed all its listings three weeks ago, 999 new listings have been registered on OnlySimchas.com. And Katz is taking the discs to a recovery center to see if they can restore some of that old “simcha” to the site.

In its newest incarnation, Katz said he would like to see a more diverse crowd use the Web site.

“It could be a uniting force among the different elements of Judaism,” Katz said. “I’d love to have that effect on Jews.”






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