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When Princess Padmaja Kumari Mewar of Rajasthan, India, wanted to pray for world peace, she uploaded a video of her entreaty to Jerusalem.com.
"I take this opportunity on this Web site to hope and pray for world peace," she said in the 20-second video, which the site then broadcast through speakers overlooking the Old City walls.
Jerusalem.com, which celebrated its official launch on Tuesday afternoon at the David Citadel Hotel, hopes to serve as a one-stop portal for Jerusalem information and interaction, whether users are looking to pray, play, study or live in the capital.
The free "Vocal Prayers" service is just one of many features offered by the Internet site, whose tagline is "Your gateway to the Holy City."
"Jerusalem.com is not just another Web site," said co-founder and CEO Michael Weiss at the launch party. "We are trying to create a bridge between a physical location, Jerusalem, and people on the other side of the planet."
The first step was to find the right domain name. Jerusalem.com was purchased for $750,000 from a man living in California who had not developed the site.
"The cost emphasizes how serious we are," Weiss said.
The Web site is divided into six sections, or "hubs": Tourism, Holy, History, Connect, Real Estate and Shop. Users can access a wealth of information, from hotel and restaurant listings to virtual tours of holy sites.
In addition to pages of frequently updated entertainment guides and real estate information for Jerusalem visitors and residents, the site offers opportunities for people abroad to connect with the Holy Land from afar. For a fee, Jerusalem.com users can plant an olive tree in the city or have a candle lit in their honor at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Users can also register for Jmail, a paid service that allows users to open a Jerusalem.com e-mail account and post messages in forums.
Jerusalem.com originated in April 2008 under the auspices of Start-Up Jerusalem, a nonprofit organization established by Nir Barkat before he became mayor of the city. A year later, the project was converted into a private company owned by Weiss. There is no longer any formal relationship with the mayor, Weiss said.
So far, the feedback has been positive, according to Weiss. In just a few weeks of trial usage, hundreds of users from more than 72 countries have uploaded virtual prayers, and many local establishments have come on board, he said.
"Overall, I'm impressed with both the design and the business plan," said Charlie Kalech, a veteran Web designer and director of Internet consulting firm J'Town Productions.
However, he noted, "I did encounter several small problems, both technical [and] usability problems."
Kalech found a few broken links, several problems with frame technology, and some issues with texts and graphics being cut off when viewed on a Firefox browser.
He also wondered how many of the product listings were based on commercial interests and product placements versus genuine reviews.
"It almost presents itself like an official Jerusalem site, but it's not," he said. "It's clearly a commercial venture. I'm forced to wonder what motivates them to feature something."
Ben Jacobsen, co-director of Jerusalem.com's tourism section, said the listings were inclusive and not based on business deals.
"We don't do advertorials," said Jacobsen. "We do have some enhanced or premium profiles for business partners, and how certain things are promoted is based on deals with advertisers, but we try not to be too opinionated in the blurbs we write in the listings. There are also user-generated reviews."
"We try to keep one ear to the ground," said fellow tourism co-director Harry Rubenstein. "Information and content comes from everywhere."
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