Igniting Sparks of Meaning with AI-Driven Technology

I was a student in a Jewish day school when the internet first entered homes and schools. With copies of encyclopedias Britannica and Judaica lining the shelves behind us, the school librarian introduced us to the World Wide Web on one computer in the library. Those were the days of askjeeves.com and Netscape Navigator. In a matter of years, there were computers in every classroom and a class period dedicated to learning how to use them.

By the time I was a teacher myself, most classrooms had 1:1 devices. We had reached the Google age, and web browser capabilities were lightyears past Netscape Navigator. Wikipedia, a resource many educators were concerned with when it first came out, became a tool I taught students to use with discernment, but with frequency. More recently, students began turning to Siri and now ChatGPT for queries, rather than searching keywords. 

New technology certainly raises questions, but it also has the ability to open doors to information never accessible before. When books started to become household items some 500 years ago, the influx of information raised controversy; looking back, it is clear how important the printing press has been to the progress of civilization.


AI is driving a similar paradigm shift. AI certainly raises challenges in the classroom, but educators have a lot to look forward to in the coming years thanks to this fast-evolving technology. With more information digitized and easily searchable, teachers can more readily find the materials they need to inspire students and students are empowered to directly access materials relevant to their interests.


What is available to teachers and students that was not before?

Thanks to digitization, more primary source material and historic treasures are available to incorporate into our teaching. As Shuvi Hoffman, the National Library of Israel’s (NLI) global Jewish education manager, states, “Primary sources bring the past to life. They expose learners to the personal stories behind grand historic events and give an authentic glimpse into moments from the past. Once a source comes to life, it creates a spark of connection for our students.”

Take, for example, Naomi Shemer’s address book where she scribbled the last verse to “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” at the end of the Six Day War while on her way to perform for Israeli troops, or the hospital stationary where Naftali Imber scribbled the words to “Hatikvah” from his hospital bed in New York. Recent advances in digitization have made treasures like these more accessible. A librarian can certainly pull these up from the NLI’s online catalog. But for users like teachers and students, these materials not only appear online, but thanks to AI, they will be easily searchable. Using AI technology, the NLI is making materials like these easier to find and thereby putting the personal notes of history directly into the hands of our students.


AI is making these artifacts more searchable through visual recognition, geographic recognition and connections with other platforms like Wikipedia.

The National Library of Israel, an institution that opened in 1892 as a budding Jewish national library even before the State of Israel was formed, has become a depository of millions of books, periodicals, archives, photographs, personal diaries, music files and so much more. Thanks to digitization, the NLI has 200,000 books, nearly 10,000 manuscripts, 250 years’ worth of Jewish periodicals and millions of photographs viewable online—a growing segment of its total collection. But with so many artifacts online, how can teachers and students access and sift through these resources? Yaron Deutscher, head of the NLI’s digital department, described three ways the NLI is using AI to increase searchability of the Library’s collection: visual recognition, geographic recognition and connecting to outside platforms like Wikipedia.


Visual Recognition

According to Deutscher, “Visual recognition technology [much like Google Lens] is something that can scan the NLI’s entire photo collection (2.5 million photographs) and use image recognition to identify not just specific people or places, but everything in the image.” How an archivist labeled a photograph or document, often with well-known names of people, places or key dates, will no longer limit search results. 

Perhaps a student wants to research ice cream in Israel. Ice cream in the background of a photograph would not necessarily come up with a keyword search. However, with image recognition the ice cream will be identified, regardless of whether an archivist thought it was important to flag. The NLI’s digital team expects this advancement to be integrated within a year. This will open up materials for students in new ways and make otherwise inaccessible materials more reachable.


Geographic Recognition

Another technology the NLI is working to integrate is geographic recognition. This will allow teachers and students to search a geographic location, regardless of the names or keywords assigned to it, and get much more comprehensive search results. With political borders and location names changing throughout history, it can be hard to search primary sources and periodicals from a specific location. 

Geographic recognition technology resolves the current challenge of researching a place that has switched borders over time. Take, for example, a location that could be searched using a Russian, Polish or Yiddish name: It is easy to miss relevant materials that are cataloged or tagged differently. Yet when you search geographically, you get everything associated with that location. This opens up tremendous opportunities in the classroom when studying topics like immigration or family history. It also reveals the implications of changing borders as it relates to the history of an individual or community.


Wikipedia and Google Arts and Culture

The NLI is also working with AI technology to make its resources more easily searchable by partnering with platforms like Wikipedia and Google Arts and Culture, ultimately connecting the networks of data from which AI machines draw their information. Imagine a student researching Hannah Szenes. There is so much information available with a simple Google search, but how does a teacher convey to students her genuine character? How does a teacher help students find the information that will draw them in and spark personal connections to this historic figure?


Hannah Szenes' diary pages 54-55
Hannah Szenes' diary pages 54-55, Palestine, November 1942-February 1943, The National Library of Israel. Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama.


Among Szenes’ personal belongings housed at the NLI is her original, handwritten poem “Halichah L’Caesaria,” colloquially known as “Eli, Eli.” This is a poem whose words are easily searchable online, but it is not the same as reading them out of her own notebook and seeing them in her own handwriting. With the opportunity to view the original copy of this poem, students can easily identify a spelling mistake common among emerging Hebrew students: Szenes spells “olam” with an aleph rather than an ayin. 

Without this personal artifact, Szenes is a name among many other historic figures students encounter; someone who lived before their time, and even before their parents’ time, who was from a foreign country and spoke a foreign language. She was someone whose identity does not automatically resonate with American students. However, when given access to her personal items—her handwriting, report cards, her spelling mistakes—Szenes comes alive as a person who wrote this poem at an age not much older than our high school seniors. She becomes someone relatable and is brought to life as a young person who was learning Hebrew just like they are. With partnerships like those the NLI is working on with Wikipedia, Szenes’s personal archive will not only be accessible through the NLI’s online catalog as it is now, but it also will pop up within her Wikipedia page—often the top result in a student’s Google search.

Now consider a historic figure who is not associated with Jewish history: Sir Isaac Newton. Perhaps a STEM teacher is looking to integrate Jewish content into the math and science curriculum. Where would this teacher look for resources? A Google search of “Newton and Jewish” won’t bring you directly to the NLI’s catalog, but it will pull up a Google Arts and Culture exhibit featuring Newton’s theological papers—among them, a manuscript with Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L'Olam Va’ed, written in Newton’s own hand in Hebrew characters. With this image, a teacher can illustrate that this historic figure, best known for his mathematical principles, not only read and wrote in Hebrew, but scribed the same words our students are taught to recite each day. 

NLI’s partnership with Google Arts and Culture already has made this resource readily accessible, a resource that not only expands students’ understanding of Isaac Newton, but also invites them to draw unique points of connection between calculus and tefillah. As AI technology continues to evolve, these points of connection will only become more frequent. Looking ahead, I anticipate that AI technology will “read” a handwritten manuscript like Newton’s theological papers, identify its liturgical references and suggest it as a resource for a student researching the Shema.


A World of Possibility

While AI raises challenges, and schools do need to think intentionally about how to approach them, AI is opening windows into the past and ultimately enabling the sparks of meaning and connections that teachers work so hard to foster in the classroom. With modern technology, the NLI is able to give access to so many treasures that 20 years ago were only accessible to a very small, scholarly group of learners within the confines of the library building. When considering AI technology, we must remember that “our job is not to compete with it, it is to complete it,” as the NLI’s head of the digital department reminded me. As educators, our job is not to work against AI, it is to work with it, helping our students use it responsibly and taking advantage of the world of possibility it presents.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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