Life & Culture

Look us up on Google — we can help make an observant life easier


If Google’s tax arrangements are any guide, its London offices may be an illusion. So it is hardly surprising that getting to your desired floor can prove tricky. The lifts into the internet giant’s colourful Tottenham Court Road premises are bafflingly complex, controlled from the outside, like a time machine. But once in, there’s no mistaking where you are. Google screens and products are everywhere, from the touch-screen sign-in to an oversized sparkling logo on the wall.

I’m visiting to learn about life as a Jewgler — shorthand for Jewish Google employee — a significant element in its global presence, given the two offices in Israel and the number of Jews working at its Mountain View, California, base.

One of the Israeli offices has a kosher restaurant. In California, a succah is put up every year and a menorah lit at Chanucah. It’s not yet quite the same for Jewglers in London, where operations are split between two offices with a plan to move to a flagship site in Kings Cross. But in line with the company’s aim of making life easier for its employees, at least one British employee enjoys the daily provision of kosher meals.

“I took in a sandwich on my first day,” recalls Stephen Rosenthal, who heads up the UK public affairs team. “They asked why I wasn’t eating their food. The next thing I knew, a Hermolis menu was on my desk.”

Reputedly one of the most creative office spaces in the country, the set-up doesn’t disappoint. “You can never say that something doesn’t exist at Google, because it might,” says Maxine Kohn, described as a “veteran” after seven years with the company.

Facilities include a state-of-the-art gym, massage rooms and a space-agey library with few books but endless cushions. When staff are not working — which, despite all the distracting toys, doesn’t appear to be that often — they can relax on the Green (leisure area), plant herbs in the allotment or chow down for free in the restaurant. And the plush outside space with views over London is an idyllic spot. “I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old and they adore it here — it’s like a fantasy world,” says David Grunwald, whose role is to take Google products into small businesses.

It’s nice work if you can get it and, indeed, the Jewglers seem overjoyed to be there, bandying about buzz-words such as “mission”, “vision” and “ethos”. “It’s the best job in the world,” Ms Kohn enthuses.

Although it might not boast the active Jewish societies of City law and accountancy firms, Google has hosted a number of communal events over the past year or so for Young Jewish Care, World Jewish Relief and the Union of Jewish Students. And as a company with a finger in every possible pie, it naturally believes its tools can make being an active Jew easier.

Which is why it has started speaking Yiddish — well sort of, as its software will translate to or from the language. Aside from this being useful to help Jewgler James Rosenthal understand exactly what his Yiddish-speaking relatives are saying, it’s a way of preserving the language. For modern languages, including Hebrew, you can also now translate a spoken conversation, which helps, for example, when a Tel Aviv tech firm wants to collaborate with British companies.

With one of two Google campuses for young tech start-ups being in Tel Aviv (the other is in east London), it’s certainly useful internally. Stephen Rosenthal (no relation) says that “Tel Aviv and London are two of the most exciting start-up hubs in the world. And Google is acquiring a lot of Israeli companies, like Waze. There are Israelis everywhere in Google.”

Jewglers talk of rabbis conducting shiurim with counterparts in Israel via Google Hangouts, Jewish-themed Google Doodles (including one marking the company’s barmitzvah) and a recipe function that allows users to type in the contents of their fridge to speedily identify a kosher-friendly meal. And will the new “augmented reality” Google glasses aid religious practice such as the laying of tefillin? “I look forward to wedding videos with the Israeli dancing seen from the groom’s perspective,” Grunwald jokes.

James Rosenthal, whose wife is South African, notes that for families separated by continents, the hangout function enables them to spend a virtual Shabbat with relatives abroad — as his kids do. And with 100 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute, Emma Stephany, who works on the site, points out that there is a Jewishly-relevant video for almost every taste. “It can be anything from finding out how to cook the perfect chicken soup, or researching your Jewish wedding band. Both of which I have done.”

Sacha Nehorai — who worked on David Cameron’s election campaign before joining Google as an events producer — highlights the use of Cultural Institute, “a catalogue of all the museums around the world. Auschwitz-Birkenau is on there, so if you’ve not got a chance to go yourself you can go online and read all about it.” Google also digitised the Dead Sea Scrolls. As with Yiddish, it’s seen as a way of preserving heritage.

James Rosenthal says that a vastly improved search facility also aids Jewish research. “My children, who are six and three, often ask when festivals are or when Shabbat comes in, things I don’t have stored in my brain.” And whereas you could always search for, say Rosh Hashanah, and be presented with a series of links, with no accuracy filter, now a box appears with all the details, knowing where in the world you are and the year you are asking about.

Maps are also becoming more personalised and, as Google now owns Zagat, a resource for not just locating kosher restaurants but also finding up-to-date reviews. “Everyone wants to be Giles Coren,” says Stephen Rosenthal. “My wife and I were in Spain and we typed in ‘kosher shop near me’. It showed me how to get there, how long it would be to walk or drive, it showed me a shul. It just made our weekend.”

Google has been under fire of late for not doing enough to block explicit or abusive content. Likewise, critics claim too little action is taken over extremist material, including antisemitic or Holocaust denial websites. “Google is not the internet, we have an index of pages,” Stephen Rosenthal argues. “One of the founders is Sergey Brin, who grew up in a Jewish refusenik family in Russia, so his views on censorship are very strong and it’s part of the ethos of the company that freedom of speech has to be protected. We give the power to every one of our users to flag issues, so if you see content which is antisemitic, you can flag it. It gets assessed by one of our teams, by a human not by a computer, and if it breaches our guidelines it gets taken down. But we don’t clear pages before they go on — it would be impossible. We index a trillion web pages. We need the help of the community.”

The Jewglers acknowledge that the strictly Orthodox do not see Google in a positive light. But Stephen Rosenthal argues: “You set the limits on how you use it. There are so many things about it that bring value, be it doing shiurs online, or that someone who is bed-bound can effectively visit Yad Vashem.”

Looking to the future, they ponder whether Google’s mooted self-driving cars would be Shabbat-friendly. But Stephen Rosenthal maintains that the ultimate gift to Jewish users would be a function whereby the desired answer to a question is typed in and Google finds a rabbi to support it. “We haven’t come up with that one yet,” he grins.

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