Old-school educators go hi-tech to promote Torah accessibility
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Old-school educators go hi-tech to promote Torah accessibility

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's annual Global Day of Jewish Learning on Sunday aims to harness the Internet to amplify the latest in Jewish education efforts

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World editor.

A screenshot from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's 2013 Global Day of Jewish Learning lecture. (courtesy)
A screenshot from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's 2013 Global Day of Jewish Learning lecture. (courtesy)

Trailblazing Jewish thinker Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a pioneer in making Jewish texts accessible to all who wish to learn. The Israel Prize winner, an author of some 60 books on an eclectic array of topics, is most associated with his Hebrew translation and commentary on the Talmud, but he is — above all — an educator.

In an effort to amplify his educational efforts, five years ago Steinsaltz’s Aleph Society instituted a Global Day of Jewish Learning in select Diaspora communities and institutions. Now a slick high-tech endeavor broadcast on Google Hangouts simultaneously everywhere, this year’s Global Day brings dozens of diverse educators onto your laptop for 24 hours of free text-based classes.

Taking place on Sunday, November 16, the theme of the fifth annual Global Day is “Heroes & Villains, Saints & Fools: The People in the Book.” Though most lessons will be in English, speakers residing in seven countries will discuss biblical characters in a choice of five languages with registered participants from some 400 communities in 48 countries around the world.

Most lessons are held in front of a live audience at institutions’ festive Global Day of Jewish Learning events. But the world is their stage as classes are also simultaneously livestreamed via Google Hangouts On Air.

From living rooms or coffee shops, participants across the Diaspora can live chat questions to the teachers or interact with other students via Twitter (@TheGlobalDay) and Facebook. And if a session falls in the wee hours of the night, no worries: the classes will also be available for posterity on YouTube.

For some, harnessing the power of a rapidly changing technology can be a double-edged sword.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the co-founder and executive director of New York's egalitarian Mechon Hadar, also has an online learning initiative called Project Zug, which pairs Israelis and Diaspora Jews for virtual chevruta-style learning. (courtesy)
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the co-founder and executive director of New York’s egalitarian Mechon Hadar, also has an online learning initiative called Project Zug, which pairs Israelis and Diaspora Jews for virtual chevruta-style learning. (courtesy)

“While the Internet has done much to improve our lives, it often facilitates a more atomized, disconnected world. Thankfully, this day of learning offers us the opportunity to leverage the Internet to connect deeply — to Torah and to each other,” says Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who is scheduled to teach during the Global Day.

Kaunfer, the co-founder and executive director of New York’s egalitarian learning program Mechon Hadar, also has an online learning initiative called Project Zug, which pairs Israelis and Diaspora Jews for virtual chevruta-style learning.

Other speakers include a wide variety of rabbis and educators, French Jewish mystic Michael Sebban and musician Alicia Jo Rabins.

A living library of Jewish texts

It is quite probable that most of the Global Day’s presenters will use a new resource called Sefaria to prepare their source materials.

One of the more exciting technological initiatives in the Jewish education world today, Sefaria calls itself “a living library of Jewish texts.” In line with the Steinsaltz accessibility ethos, the project promotes the idea of using free, new technology to make ancient wisdom available to all.

Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld, the director of Education and Community Engagement at Sefaria (courtesy)
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld, the director of Education and Community Engagement at Sefaria (courtesy)

Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld, the director of Education and Community Engagement at Sefaria, is scheduled to speak about Rachel’s voice in the Bible and rabbinic sources for the Global Day. She tells The Times of Israel her lecture was prepared using Sefaria’s trove of texts, all found at the click of a mouse.

While a seasoned educator herself who has taught at top institutions such as Drisha in New York, Wolkenfeld says her work at Sefaria often involves teaching educators about the project.

Although it’s perhaps the ultimate in free text-based education tools around, it is difficult to describe Sefaria. It is simultaneously a repository for sacred texts and their translations, a concordance that effortlessly lists the citations of words or biblical verses throughout all of the Bible and rabbinic literature, a platform upon which to create classroom handouts, and a community.

Like Wikipedia, Sefaria relies on volunteers to pay-it-forward and help load a wealth of texts and translations. And it’s working. Wolkenfeld proudly says the project recently passed the 1,000 mark of individuals who have contributed code or content to the website.

Wolkenfeld explains Sefaria runs “contests” for untranslated texts, with the “prize” being the use of your translation on the website. In this way it has seen the first crowd-sourced translation of the entire Mishnah,

Participation is as easy as making a personal profile and hitting the “help translate” button on the website. Anyone can submit, but there currently isn’t enough manpower to check over the translations. Says Wolkenfeld, “You can see where the translation came from and whether you want to trust or not.”

‘The community translation becomes a playground’

The translators interact by messaging each other through the site to discuss their word choices.

“The community translation becomes a playground,” says Wolkenfeld.  

A very useful playground, however. While working on a personal project, Wolkenfeld said she noticed another woman was also translating the same esoteric text. She messaged her and proposed they team up, which will save them both countless hours

The website is built to support multiple versions of texts and languages. Eventually, however, the team hopes to check and lock its own Sefaria-approved translations. Not, however, with the goal of making money from their reuse elsewhere.

All texts loaded to Sefaria are copyright free and users are encouraged to use them freely. There is no pay wall and the technical support staff will happily send requested snippets of code to one and all. A recent app on iTunes uses Sefaria code, says Wolkenfeld.

“We’re building a digital infrastructure for the future,” says Wolkenfeld. “We want to do things well now so it’s accessible to everybody.”

After centuries of moldy books and dusty manuscripts, Jewish scholars are just being introduced to the idea of “digital humanities.” The team and its cadre of volunteers has only begun to scratch the surface in implementing and leveraging all the opportunities afforded by effortless exploration of the data and texts.

“It really feels like being part of something big,” she says.

A meta-data mapping of connections between the book of Genesis and the Talmud from Jewish education website Sefaria. (screenshot)
A meta-data mapping of connections between the book of Genesis and the Talmud from Jewish education website Sefaria. (screenshot)
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