From the Jim Joseph Foundation

Learning from Grantee-Partners: A Series on Insights from Leaders in the Field

– by Jim Joseph Foundation

November 10th, 2020

As a Foundation that wants to always learn—one of our internal values Hitlamdoot—we need to hear directly from leaders and practitioners in the field. Particularly at this moment, understanding what these individuals are experiencing, thinking, doing, and planning is integral to building our team’s knowledge base about the many subfields that makeup the broader world of Jewish education and engagement. 

In this vein, representatives from different grantee-partners are speaking with the Foundation each month in Learning Sessions. While initially we planned for these sessions to be entirely internal, the insights and perspectives we are hearing from grantee-partners will be interesting and informative for others as well. We continue to approach our work with Kavanah, intention, to always elevate the efforts of others who help us pursue our mission. And we look forward to sharing brief recaps of each Learning Session here.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions.

Learning Session Guest: Daniel Septimus, CEO, Sefaria

Daniel shared the genesis and history of Sefaria, which offers important context when thinking about how ideas come to life:

  • Neither of Sefaria’s founders came from traditional, formal Jewish education backgrounds.
  • They saw a void and a stark limitation to accessing English language Jewish texts online.
  • The most difficult aspect of beginning this type of venture was raising enough funds initially to make it possible. 

Three Pillars

Sefaria has three pillars that define who they are and why they do this work. These pillars strike a balance between a focused approach and an understanding that they don’t always know what they don’t know. Their pillars are:

1. Access

  • Jewish texts are the Jewish people’s collective inheritance and they belong to all of us. Accordingly, all Jewish texts should be as accessible as possible—in translation and available online for free.
  • Sefaria aims to make these texts not just available but accessible—meaning comprehensible and meaningful to those who encounter them. 
  • Sefaria believes it can use technology to help people find things they wouldn’t find on their own.

2. Infrastructure 

  • Sefaria considers this to be its most important pillar; its core value proposition is a free database—a project that if done right only needs to be done once. 
  • They don’t know what kind of devices people will be studying Torah on in 20 years, but they know those devices will be chomping on digital data. 
  • They want technologists in the future to be able to use Sefaria and this is why they hold tight to their Open Source philosophy—where everything on Sefaria is free for use and reuse, forever.

3. Education

  • Sefaria operates on the principle that Sefaria can make Jewish learning not just easier but better
  • Sefaria can power education in nearly any environment—camp; rabbinic; school; home; and elsewhere.

Without Sefaria I would be stuck as I literally cannot afford many sefarim and do not live close to a Beit Midrash I can easily access as a woman. It is brilliant and more translations and more texts are always welcomed by those of us who do not have top notch Hebrew and Aramaic. – Sefaria user

How Sefaria Operates
Sefaria operates like a technology company. They build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), put it out into the world, get feedback on its usefulness, and make changes if it makes sense to advance that product. As Daniel says, “this is a much different way of working than building a five-year plan.”

Daniel also notes that this approach does create challenges with traditional funders and fundraising. “As a general rule, we don’t promise product features. We can’t promise it until we do it.”

New Developments and Challenges Ahead
New features connect texts on Sefaria to diverse sources on a wide array of external Jewish websites, media, and other organizations, broadening the commentary and perspectives with which users can engage. 

As the organization looks ahead, there is an exciting element of the unknown, rich with possibilities. Daniel notes, “For the first time we know we’ll be around in five more years. While opportunities are vast, it’s less obvious what the priorities should be. But that’s fun. At some point, your new directions are more compelling than your original directions. This creates a need to prioritize or to get more resources.”

One thing Sefaria knows for sure is that it will not compromise on its core principle to offer open access. Sefaria’s “brand is rooted in the fact that we are this source of infinite generosity.” With that in mind, Sefaria is thinking about how to translate texts into more languages, how to make Torah written by women more accessible, and how to create opportunities for a deeper experience, like matching people for chevrutah study.