HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Open-Source Jewish Learning

by Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer Issue: Bold Ideas

This open-source initiative captures the collaborative power of Wikipedia for the benefit of Jewish education. Sefaria has enormous potential for teachers as a resource for texts and lessons, and for students to contribute to a global project.

Traditionally, homework and classroom assignments have been a kind of dead end: a student completes her work, a teacher grades it, maybe a parent looks it over too. But what if the Torah learning in your day school classroom had a clear, visible, and immediate impact for thousands of other Jews all over the world?

That is the goal of Sefaria (www.sefaria.org), a new digital project that aims to revolutionize how students and scholars read, explore and interact with our core texts online, and on the iPad. We are building a living library of all Jewish texts, fully interconnected, with parallel translations. Sefaria is completely free and open source, with a fun, easy-to-use interface. We call it a “living library” because we imagine it to be perpetually growing, but also because, like an exquisite garden, it requires an active community of caretakers to tend to and look after it.

This is a big vision, but how exactly does a Jewish day school class fit into it?

It turns out that the kinds of work that Sefaria needs to move forward—identifying connections between different texts, inputting traditional commentaries, and making translations—are all very close to what day school students are already doing as they learn. We want to capture the results of that work and share it with the world.

Rabbi Ariel Shalem at Southern California Yeshiva High School took a chance to try an early version of Sefaria in his Tanakh class. The class was learning the 15th chapter of Melachim Bet, and Rabbi Shalem tasked his students to work independently to find the most interesting classical commentaries on this chapter, translate them, and add them to Sefaria. After a few days they had completed a very rich set of commentaries on this chapter, including texts from the Radak and Metzudat David which had never been freely translated on the Internet before. The independent work of each student came together to create a wonderful whole (www.sefaria.org/II_Kings.15).

What’s more, two of the students in the class enjoyed using Sefaria so much that they continued adding and translating texts from their Talmud class, outside of any assignment.

In our estimation, this was a serious accomplishment for Rabbi Shalem’s class. They worked together and released into the world something valuable that did not exist before. Putting their work on Sefaria means that it’s now in a location where future students of Melachim Bet will find it. Of course, this is only one chapter of 930 in the Tanakh—but there also happen to be over 800 Jewish day schools in North America.

It should be noted that all activity on Sefaria, including adding new translations, is tracked, publicly visible, and reviewed by the community at large (unlike Wikipedia, we don’t allow anonymous edits). If a day school student offers a new translation for a text that previously had none, this isn’t necessarily the end of the process, but may function as a first draft for others to improve upon.

Translating medieval commentators requires an advanced class and isn’t suitable for everyone. But we believe that anyone engaging with Jewish learning at any level can have something to offer. Something as mundane as proofreading for typos is valuable work. Imagine a chavruta—one with an iPad running Sefaria, and one with book—carefully reading a text together with an eye for discrepancies. If a problem is found, the student with the iPad can immediately correct it. If not, the two can record that they have reviewed the text without issue. This careful reading is what chavruta learners are already doing, but by capturing a bit of the output, they are now contributing a small piece to something much larger.

As users contribute to Sefaria, they score points that help establish their credibility within the Sefaria community. Thanks to this active tracking, Sefaria can help teachers see and assess what each student is doing. It also makes it possible to “gamify” the learning process and add a helpful competitive spirit. Classes or schools as a whole could set up a challenge for, say, translating a book Mishnah, and watch in real time as their points rack up.

The feature of Sefaria which has been consistently getting the most enthusiastic reaction from Jewish educators has been our source sheet builder (www.sefaria.org/sheets).

Building on top of Sefaria’s open, structured database of Jewish texts, our online source sheet builder allows you to create beautifully formatted, bilingual source sheets without having to go through the trouble of copying and pasting. For classical texts, people simply write the citation (like “Genesis 6:4-8” or “Esther Rabbah 10:4”) to include it in Hebrew and English, then add their own commentary and notes.

These source sheets are easier for teachers to create, but what they really offer students is connectedness: the ability to quickly explore in a deeper way what a teacher has explored only in part. From any selection of text in a source sheet, one can click to open the complete text—thus seeing the context of the quotation, but also opening up a world of additional commentaries and connections. A source sheet becomes a jumping off point for exploring the complete web of Jewish texts.

The process of creating source sheets also plays into the bigger vision of engaging people around the world in contributing to a shared library of Jewish texts. When creating a source sheet, educators are often very willing to create one small translation of this sugya of Talmud or that one Midrash if they can’t find it otherwise. Currently that result is all too often printed out once then lost to a single person’s hard drive. On Sefaria, each piece of work can be immediately shared into a global commons. Source sheets as a whole can also be made public to all Sefaria users (though by default they are private to you and those you share them with), and we’re currently piloting a way for schools to create a special space to store the sheets created within their own community.

The Sefaria Project is just getting started. Though we’ve already built some critical tools and software and begun the arduous process of collecting the Jewish canon in one place, our real challenge is now just beginning. We must rally a critical mass of participants who believe, like we do, that the texts of the Jewish people deserve a new, living, interactive shape and that the foundations of Jewish wisdom should be free and open to all. We have a few small glimpses of how exactly Sefaria will be used in a Jewish day school setting, but we’re certain we have only seen the beginning. To those of you in a position to help us, we have one request: Participate! Try something that fits for your classroom, and please let us know how it turns out.♦

Brett Lockspeiser designs and launches web applications; he began as a product manager at Google and now works independently with startups and nonprofits in San Francisco. Joshua Foer is a science journalist, author of Moonwalking with Einstein and co-founder of Atlas Obscura, the user-generated online guide to the world’s wonders and curiosities, and the Sukkah City design competition. They can be reached at blocks@gmail.com and joshuafoer@yahoo.com.

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Bold Ideas

Dream big! Sample a mix of current programs and blueprints for new initiatives, all dreamed up to be “game-changers” that can reconfigure day school education and possibly exponentially increase the impact of day schools on students and the Jewish community.

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