Two 30-Year-Olds Want To Make The Entire Jewish Canon Available In ‘Interactive’ Form

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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.

Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer. Photo: Michael Datikash

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.

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.

You may not know much about ‘The Guide for the Perplexed,’ but you can get this Wikipedia effect where you can keep going from one page to another, wherever your curiosity takes you,” he added.

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. (read full article in The Jewish Week)
 

Will Sefaria Hurt Jewish Publishing?

 

How Sefaria will affect Judaica publishers, many of whom are increasingly venturing into the digital realm, and to what extent they will cooperate with  its open-source approach, remains to be seen.
Approached by The Jewish Week, the leaders of the Brooklyn-based ArtScroll, one of the largest and most financially successful Jewish publishers in the world, insisted that they welcome Sefaria and do not see it as a threat to their business.
In an e-mail interview, Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, whose company recently began selling a digital version of its Schottenstein Talmud ($699.99 for the complete set) for use on the iPad, said they “welcome every endeavor that will increase Jewish learning and make Jewish classics available to as many people as possible.”
While free digital access “will certainly impact on the sales of reprints of existing public domain books,” they said, “there is always a market for new scholarly editions, and commentaries on existing books.”
Rabbi Barry Schwartz, director of the Jewish Publication Society, told The Jewish Week his nonprofit is “very supportive of organizations like Sefaria and others that want to bring the classic texts of Judaism to the people. That’s been our mission for 125 years.” (read more in The Jewish Week)
 
 

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