Two 30-year-olds want to make the entire Jewish canon available in ‘interactive’ form. Can they pull it off?
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Imagine being able to access every major Judaic text, in the original and in English translation, free of charge and from one website.
Whenever you come across a reference to a related book or text within the canon, a click of the mouse (or a touch of the screen) immediately transports you there. You can view just the Hebrew or Aramaic, or just the English, with commentaries or without. Everything is downloadable, printable, and available to be incorporated into any app, game or other software you might develop. Keyword searches span not just one book or source, but the entire Judaic canon.
This is the vision of Sefaria, an ambitious new project seeking to make all of Judaism’s sacred texts accessible and open-source.
Spearheaded by 30-year-olds Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer, Sefaria (the name is a play on the Hebrew word for library) is an idea that could, observers say, revolutionize and democratize Jewish learning, make possible an outpouring of new Jewish educational software and transform the Judaica publishing industry (see box).
Given the enormous volume of Jewish sacred texts — Lockspeiser and Foer have identified about 1,000 texts as “core” — and the fact that many translations are protected by copyright, it’s also a massive undertaking.
But the friends, who met on the Bronfman Youth Fellows program, are not daunted. Instead, they see Sefaria as a project that is long overdue.
“We came to this process out of deep frustration that it hasn’t happened yet,” said Foer, a best-selling author/journalist and one of the masterminds behind Sukkah City, the 2010 Union Square installation of cutting-edge sukkahs. “This should have happened 10 years ago.”
Lockspeiser, whose professional background includes two years as a product manager at Google and experience with various tech startups, emphasizes that Sefaria differs from other digital Jewish texts currently available in that it will be “interactive” and “dynamic.”
While Sefaria would not allow users to alter the content of Judaic texts, “We want you to feel like you can see it all, be on top of it, navigate it, get more insight, think for yourself a little bit,” Lockspeiser said in an exclusive interview, together with Foer, at The Jewish Week office.
Initially modeled on Wikipedia, in which volunteer contributors edit and correct the work of others, the plan now is to set up a vetting process in which scholars can ensure the accuracy and integrity of the contributed texts and their translations.
Over the past year, Foer and Lockspeiser have quietly unveiled a beta version of the site, inviting volunteers to contribute material. They also developed an app enabling users to create and share interactive and visually attractive source sheets from any texts currently in the Sefaria database, obviating the need for photocopying or wrestling with combining texts from incompatible programs.
While Sefaria currently houses a small fraction of the world’s Judaica, Lockspeiser and Foer are looking to take the project to the next level, enlisting the battalions of volunteers, recruiting an advisory board of scholars and raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to bring all the content online and manage it.
So far they have raised over $100,000 and hired Daniel Septimus, CEO of MyJewishLearning, to be Sefaria’s executive director.
“At its core, Sefaria is about making Torah accessible to anyone and everyone,” the newly hired Septimus explained in an e-mail. “That’s what makes it historically significant, and that’s what excites me about it. Torah does not belong to a select group of scholars. It belongs to all of us.”
A major backer is Mo Koyfman, a general partner at Spark Capital, a venture capital firm investing in tech startups. Koyfman has donated his own money, is helping with fundraising and will serve on the board once it is formally established.
“When I saw Sefaria it immediately struck me that this is probably the most important thing we can do for the Jewish people in our generation,” he said, adding that it “combines my background in learning with my interest in technology.”
A Jewish day school grad (New Jersey’s Moriah and Frisch, both Modern Orthodox, plus a post-high school year at an Israeli yeshiva), Koyfman, who is 35, noted that Sefaria not only will make Jewish learning accessible to a wider population, but it also will be relatively inexpensive to operate.
Estimating that, once all the texts are added, its annual operating budget should never exceed $1.5 million, Koyfman said, “The bang for your buck is you can touch every single Jew on the planet without any more than you’re spending just to run the platform. That’s incredibly important and a big thing.”
Of course putting texts online doesn’t mean most Jews will read them. But Sefaria aims to lower many of the barriers.
“Right now it takes a lot of training to even know which books to look in to find stuff,” said Lockspeiser, who grew up attending public schools but studied full time at an Israeli yeshiva on two several-month-long stints. “We don’t want to dispel the need for training, but we want to open this up. We want more people to be able to get in.”
Russel Neiss, whose work includes co-creating PocketTorah, a free app for learning Torah and Haftarah trope, and overseeing educational technology for G-dcast, which creates animated videos and games based on Jewish texts, called Sefaria “a fabulous and important project.”
G-dcast recently announced it will use the Sefaria API [application programming interface] “to augment the source sheets that we already provide, allowing users instant access to Hebrew text and translations to supplement all of the videos on our website,” Neiss said.
By making texts freely available in usable, digital format, Sefaria will enable “a tremendous amount of innovation from software engineers, developers and educators,” he added, noting that it would have made apps like PocketTorah far easier to launch.
He also praised Sefaria for being “beautiful and intuitive,” something that “you don’t need to be a techie” to use.
Sefaria’s biggest challenge, Neiss said, is its scope.
“One daf [page] a day of Talmud takes seven and a half years,” to read, he explained, adding that “without requisite funding and support, this is not going to go anywhere.”
While Sefaria is currently relying on volunteers to add material, Neiss said it is hard to get large numbers of people to do this “unless you incentivize.”
But Rabbi Ariel Shalem, of Southern California Yeshiva High School, a Modern Orthodox boys’ school in San Diego, thinks Sefaria just needs to “go viral” and reach out to students like his.
Rabbi Shalem, a Torah studies teacher, recently assigned his 10th graders to translate commentaries from The Book of Kings II together and then post their work on Sefaria.
“It really worked well,” he said, adding that the students not only learned a great deal from the process, but also were “excited to know that everything they’re working on is online now for everyone to see.
“I said, ‘Imagine one day this could be as big for the Jewish world as Wikipedia, and you guys can say you were among the first contributors.”
Rabbi Shalem, who learned about Sefaria from the head of the Israeli yeshiva where he and Lockspeiser both studied, continued, “If every Jewish school in America would do one chapter, you could have the entire Bible with commentaries and translations online in one year.”
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