‘You have to be able to click’
There are just two prerequisites to using Sefaria, the free comprehensive digital library of Jewish texts that also provides easy access to connect them to each other: “You have to be able to ‘click’ and you have to be able to read.”
That was the message of Sefaria’s education director, Sara Wolkenfeld, who, via live video from Chicago, instructed about 20 local educators Sunday on how to best use the website in the classroom to enrich Jewish learning and make it accessible to just about everybody.
The training session, held at Rodef Shalom Congregation, was organized by Liron Lipinsky, director of J-JEP, the Joint Jewish Education Program of Beth Shalom Congregation and Rodef Shalom, and Carolyn Gerecht, director of teen engagement and experiences at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Jewish educators from institutions across Pittsburgh were invited to attend the 90-minute session, which exposed them to Sefaria’s possibilities and suggested ways to include Jewish texts in various lesson formats.
Earlier this month, Sefaria — which was founded in 2013 — added the acclaimed Steinsaltz English translation and explanatory notes of the Talmud to its online canon, widely praised as a move to make a seminal work of Jewish learning freely available and user-friendly.
For many educators, Sefaria can increase their confidence in teaching demanding Jewish texts, thus removing a barrier to introducing those texts to students, Lipinsky told the participants of the training session before they opened their laptops, and went to the website.
At the instruction of Wolkenfeld, the teachers began browsing the site, which they found remarkably easy to use.
Once at the home page, a simple click on “Explore the Library” took them to a page offering a host of browsing options, including the Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. Clicking on “Tanakh” made available the whole text of that work, in English, Hebrew or both. Clicking on a particular line led to options of commentary — Rashi, Ramban, etc. — and everything else connected to that passage, which came up on the right.
The pages can be used for research or to show students particular verses, Wolkenfeld said.
Also available on Sefaria are Source Sheets, created by other Sefaria users to preserve relevant lesson plans, activities and divrei Torah.
Wolkenfeld explained how users could create their own Source Sheets, and in just a few minutes, several teachers had done just that.
In just about three years, more than 50,000 Source Sheets already have been created, with about 5,000 of those available for public use, Wolkenfeld said, allowing users to share ideas with each other and keeping the Jewish conversation vital and fresh.
At J-JEP, students have been using the website this year as an entry to studying Torah, said Lipinsky, who is also co-chair of the Pittsburgh Association of Jewish Educators.
“Our kids really took to it,” she said. “They have been working in chavruta,” the traditional method of studying in pairs.
After completing the training, third-grade J-JEP teacher Kathy Lobelsohn said she will “definitely” be using Sefaria in her classroom: “This will give the children another angle on how to think,” she said.
For Marissa Tait, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at J-JEP, Sefaria will be “a game-changer.”
“We are always trying to help the kids make connections with their everyday lives and the Jewish world,” Tait said. “This will help them link everyday things to the prophets we are discussing. I’m really, really excited about this.”
Marilee Glick, the educational director at Temple Sinai, said she sees the potential of Sefaria as being “life-changing” for her students.
“You can see what this will do for teachers,” she said. “It will bring a huge wealth of resources to their fingertips. It will raise their level of information, and therefore it will raise up our children. I see this as changing their lives and improving the quality of what our teachers can give to our children.”
While it is not difficult to get started on Sefaria, its potential can best be utilized by taking the time to experiment with its possibilities, according to Gerecht.
“Like any other pieces of digital technology or new skills, you need to practice with it,” she said.
Sefaria apps for both Android and iOS mobile devices also are available for free download.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.