Faustine Goldberg-Sigal: How & why was Sefaria born?
Daniel Septimus: Sefaria was founded in 2013 by best-selling author Joshua Foer and former Google product manager Brett Lockspeiser in response to a unique problem and opportunity: the Jewish world was failing to take advantage of major technological developments that could yield unprecedented new opportunities for learning. Two years earlier, Josh had gone online looking for an English Talmud, and Google’s first two results included illegally pirated PDF’s and an anti-semetic website. Josh and Brett – old friends from their days as Bronfman Youth Fellows – set out to develop a product that would lower the barriers for engagement with Jewish texts, create interactive interfaces for novel Jewish conversation and commentary, and provide educators, scholars, and technologists with an open-source database of Torah literature to make new educational applications easier to develop. The center of this project would be a free digital library of Judaism’s great texts in the original language and in translation. Josh and Brett named the project Sefaria, a play on the Hebrew words for book (sefer) and library (sifria).
To learn more about Sefaria’s story, watch this short video from 2017.
FGS: What does it empower its users to do? Who uses it?
DS: Since officially launching in 2013, 4 million people around the world have used Sefaria’s library, with more than 250,000 people using Sefaria each month. Sefaria’s users span the spectrum of the Jewish community and educational ecosystem. Some are lifelong learners while others are finding Jewish texts for the first time thanks to Google search. They are rabbis, scholars, educators, students, lay learners, and the curious public. At last count, nearly half – 39% – of our users were under the age of 34, and 23% identified as educators. We have users from nearly every country in the world across six continents.
Sefaria superpowers Jewish learning. For those new to Jewish texts, Sefaria serves as an accessible entryway into the Jewish library, offering an approachable and intuitive interface for exploration as well as English translations and explanatory tools and resources. For more seasoned learners, having Sefaria’s vast, yeshiva-level library available at the touch of a button allows them to engage in Torah study anytime, anywhere. Sefaria doesn’t just make Torah learning easier; it can make it better. Having these texts in digital form allow for new and exciting modes of study. Our link explorer, for example, makes it possible to visualize connections between texts, bringing to life the concept of an interpretative tradition like never before. Our source sheet builder invites contemporary Jews to not only explore the great Jewish conversations of the past, but to actively contribute to its present. To date, more than 200,000 user-generated source sheets have been created on our site.
To truly understand how Sefaria empowers its users, take a look at a few of the comments users have left usover the years:
I am a working class Jew and a Hebrew teacher. I can’t afford a big library, but I need access to our texts. I use Sefaria all the time to study, debate, and create lesson plans. Thank you! – Marc T.
Sefaria opened a whole world for me. I grew up in Ukraine and never had a Jewish education. For many years, I heard about Talmud, Books of Prophets, Writings but did not know what they were about. Now that they are accessible through Sefaria, the world of wisdom has opened to me. My next goal is to learn Hebrew to read these texts in the original. Thank you Sefaria for what you do. – Gene Burd
Sefaria’s commitment to digital text access for all who seek to take hold of Torah played a pivotal and unparalleled role in my rabbinical school journey. As the first blind woman in the world to become a rabbi, Sefaria’s digital library enabled me to access rabbinic texts with ease for both educational as well as Torah lishma purposes. With much hakarat hatov do I thank Sefaria for the incredible and holy work you are doing.- Rabbi Lauren Tuchman
FGS: What are (some of) the things it change in the teaching/learning relationship?
DS: When I said above that Sefaria superpowers Jewish learning, I meant it for all audiences, students included. Sefaria-based lessons empower students to explore, discover, and create, leveraging their digital fluency to engage with texts in novel ways. It encourages students as early as first grade to claim these texts as their own.
A recent example: An eighth grade class in Chicago used Sefaria last year to complete an in-depth study of the Book of Deuteronomy. As students studied the laws and ethics enumerated in Deuteronomy, they used the “Add Connections” feature on Sefaria to link passages to other texts in the library that shared legal or ethical themes. Instead of merely responding to the usual teacher-prompted questions, the students created their own materials: sometimes classical explanatory source sheets, other times interactive worksheets. It wasn’t just their homework that changed, however, class time was more generative and interactive as well. Students manipulated texts, divided up pesukim (verses), color coded, bolded, highlighted, created explanatory keys, and added comments. In so doing, these students joined the ranks of innumerable Jews throughout history who acted not as passive consumers of our canonical texts but as interpreters and commentators, active shapers of the tradition.
Teaching with Sefaria, then, is about empowering students to own their textual heritage and to feel comfortable both navigating through its past and contributing to its future.
FGS: Can it work in educational settings beyond the classroom?
DS: Absolutely. Access to a free, intuitive, and multi-lingual site affords today’s learners and educators of all backgrounds and ages an unprecedented opportunity to engage with this tradition independently and on their own terms. When employed thoughtfully, the non-linear expansiveness of Sefaria’s library sparks the learner’s curiosity and empowers even those with minimal textual exposure to find works that speak to them and to explore Jewish texts in a choose-your-own-adventure style. The result is that all individuals can become active contributors to the great ongoing Torah conversation.
Indeed, educators in every type of educational setting use Sefaria with their communities to deepen Jewish learning and to invite their participants to join in this rich and storied practice of grappling with Jewish thoughts, texts, and questions.
FGS: What are some specific goals and challenges of bringing it to France?
DS: We have two primary goals with regards to bringing Sefaria to France. To truly make Sefaria accessible to a French audience, we need to design an interface for navigating Sefaria in French. This means translating our homepage, all informational links, guides, table of contents, and explanatory information so that one can navigate Sefaria in French as seamlessly as one could in English. We will also have to set up a new URL and redirect French internet traffic to this mirror site (like we do for sefaria.org.il — our Hebrew site). Though exciting, this work will only be worthwhile if we had enough texts in French translation to warrant it.
That brings us to our second goal: acquiring the rights to texts in French translation. To maximize access to these texts and produce a library that can be used and re-used by all Jews forever, Sefaria releases all of its texts with open licenses. This is Sefaria’s greatest value add to the Jewish community, but it is also our greatest challenge. This will be true in France as well. The vast majority of the texts available in French translation will be under copyright and will require negotiations with publishers and authors if Sefaria is to release them to the public. There will also be the challenge of raising the requisite funds for all of this. All of that said, early conversations with publishers in France have been very positive.
FGS: What has been the response from French audiences so far?
DS: The Jewish community in France is our largest non-English speaking audience after Israel, and fifth largest audience globally behind the US, Israel, the UK, and Canada. Sefaria was used over 70,000 times in 2019 by more than 26,000 users in France. That’s almost 6% of French Jewry using Sefaria even though the site has not been optimized for French speakers and no formal efforts have been made by our team to market Sefaria to French audiences.
Speaking from experience, I travelled to France in November where I attended a conference and met with many stakeholders in the French Jewish community. I was blown away witnessing the incredible enthusiasm and real passion for Sefaria that I encountered.
FGS: What is your favorite text on the website? And what is your favorite functionality?
DS: Well, one of our recent additions — Torah Tracker — answers both questions! Torah Tracker is available on your account page if you’re logged in to Sefaria, and it will tell you what your favorites are and how those compare to the rest of the Sefaria community. This is information is not public, but here’s a screenshot of how my favorite texts compare to other users. As you can see, I spend more time with Talmud than the average Sefaria user, but significantly less with Tanakh. It’s tools like this – data driven and personalized for each individual user – that make the possibilities of having Torah in a digital form so exciting.
Daniel Septimus lives in New York City. He is Sefaria’s CEO.
Faustine Goldberg-Sigal lives in Paris. She is Moishe House’s International Director of Jewish Education.