by Daniel Bloom
As a Jewish innovation enthusiast, and as a software engineer, it was with great excitement and surprise that I learned of the Jim Joseph Foundation awarding a $250,000 grant in support of the Sefaria project. Sefaria describes itself as “a living library of Jewish Texts and their interconnections, in Hebrew and in translation.” It offers a beautiful interface to open source Jewish texts, accompanied by parallel crowdsourced translations, and includes some works translated into English for the very first time. True, there are other repositories for Jewish texts on the web, but here’s why this grant in support of Sefaria is such a big deal:
1. While Sefaria can be used as an excellent standalone application, it has additional potential when viewed as an infrastructure that others can build upon. Investment in infrastructure is unglamorous but important. Just as investment in better roads and bridges helps all businesses operate more efficiently, this investment in the infrastructure of Jewish life will benefit the entire community as the individuals, organizations and community focused businesses that engage with Jewish texts begin to utilize this resource to make Jewish heritage more accessible for all. We don’t yet know what great apps or products will use Sefaria, and that exciting unknown should be a source of encouragement not discomfort.
2 Sefaria is open source. It means that both the content, and the platform that handles that content, can be used by anyone. No need to ask for permission, pay fees or write follow-up reports. Anyone is free to download the entire codebase. Why does this matter?
Firstly, it’s a fantastic paradigm for the Jewish community to support. Consider that there are over 7000 Jewish nonprofit organizations in the US, and each has made its own investments in technology, ranging from a hosted blog for $5/month to systems that cost in the seven figures. Now I would imagine that a system that costs over $1 million to develop (there are several with this unbelievable price tag in our community system), is probably something that might help many of the other 7000 organizations engage their supporters, raise funding and further their mission. Alas, we know that there is no chance that these systems that cost millions of donor dollars will ever leave the silo of their host organizations. Sefaria, in contrast, belongs to the entire community. Nobody ever has to build it from scratch in a duplicative and inefficient manner. Rather, everyone can continue building from where the last person left off.
Secondly, the open source nature of the project provides greater opportunity for rapid iteration and innovation. For example, consider that in 2004 when Internet Explorer, developed by multibillion-dollar corporation Microsoft, was the dominant internet browser in the world, Mozilla released the version 1.0 of Firefox. Mozilla was at the time a tiny nonprofit organization, but the open source nature of Firefox meant that Mozilla was not building alone, it was leveraging the global community of hackers and programmers who were constantly making addons and improvements to the product. Since 2004 Microsoft has released only five new versions of Internet Explorer, many of which actually slowed internet development worldwide by failing to adopt modern standards. In contrast, Firefox has advanced to version 28 and has long surpassed IE as a faster, safer and more full featured browser. It’s a model we should aspire to emulate in the Jewish community, and Sefaria is a great step forward.
3. The size of the grant. It would be easy for a funder to dismiss Sefaria as too niche, given that the number of direct users may be a small specialized subset of the community. Furthermore, the benefits of investment in Sefaria may only become evident months or years later, when developers build products utilizing the platform. In the past we might have seen a funder contribute twenty or thirty thousand to a startup like Sefaria. An amount that would provide enough support to keep the ball in play, but not enough to develop the venture to a scale where it would be truly valuable to the community, thus entrenching the Sefaria team in a perpetual state of fundraising. The generous grant by the Jim Joseph Foundation provides Sefaria the opportunity, at least for the immediate future, of focusing solely on their product and their users, not on their donors. That is a rare and enviable position for any communal venture to experience.
I don’t want to overshadow the fact that Sefaria is already a great resource in and of itself, and requires no technical expertise to use. We must, however, also appreciate the meta aspects this bold investment in an open and collaborative Jewish communal infrastructure.
Daniel Bloom is the founder of 501Seek.com, a ‘Yelp for Non-Profit tech’ where Non-Profit’s utilize the wisdom and buying power of the crowd to find the right technology at the best price.