Delayed by Israel-Hamas war, Sefaria holds sold-out 10th anniversary gala

During the event at the New York Public Library, the organization highlighted its achievements over the past decade and laid out its vision for further growth as it looks to raise $22 million

Torah commentary by women. Artificial intelligence to boost translations of Jewish texts. Kabbalah interwoven with traditional texts. 

These are a few of the ongoing and future-facing initiatives that 400 attendees heard about on Monday night at Sefaria’s sold-out 10th anniversary gala at the New York Public Library, which raised millions of dollars toward the free of charge digital library of Jewish texts’ $44 million fundraising campaign. 

The evening, which was emceed by comedian Alex Edelman, featured several notable Jewish leaders — leading Edelman to compare the event to the White House Hanukkah party. 

Speakers included the group’s CEO, Daniel Septimus, and Gila Sacks, the youngest daughter of the late renowned British chief rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the director of prevention services in the U.K.’s Department for Health and Social Care. 

“Sefaria has built the modern luchot [tablets] — opening up the world of Jewish learning to everyone, helping to make genuinely universal Jewish literacy a true possibility, perhaps for the first time in modern times,” Sacks said. 

Sacks’ speech, which was a testament to her father’s enthusiasm about Sefaria, was particularly moving, Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer of the virtual Jewish library, told eJewishPhilanthropy after the event.

“I remember hearing [Rabbi Sacks] speak,” Wolkenfeld recalled. “He really believed in digital Torah to carry Torah into the 21st century. I was present to hear him speak about that, and so it was very powerful for me to hear Gila speak.”

Attendees included the full range of the Jewish denominational spectrum — from Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Miller to Rabbi David Wolpe, who formerly led Los Angeles’ Conservative Sinai Temple and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, who leads the Reform Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Other notable guests included UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein, Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy and fashion writer Leandra Medine Cohen. 

Reflecting on Sefaria’s first decade, Wolkenfeld said, “Sefaria has become so large that there can be a sense of ‘Aren’t you done? Don’t you have everything already?’ We really don’t, there’s so much to still be added.” 

Sefaria, which is visited by more than 750,000 users each month, doesn’t hold annual gatherings. Its last in-person event was in 2017 to celebrate the William Davidson Talmud. Sam Moed, Sefaria’s board chair, told eJP this made the “energy and excitement [even more] palpable,” noting that the room called for no more than 400 people, which resulted in “a substantial number of people who wanted to be there who we could not accommodate,” he said.

The 10th anniversary was originally planned for the fall, but postponed after Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7. As the Jewish community continues to reel from the attacks, and donors are stretched thin, Moed told eJP that Sefaria’s supporters see giving as an “and” not “or.”

“Thoughtful donors are clearly very focused on what needs to be done in this moment to support all of the acute needs that exist in Israel and will continue to exist for a long time in light of Oct. 7,” he said. “But at the same time, they understand that it needs to be additive to essential sources on meaning for Jewish life, in Israel and around the world. Seeing and hearing the room last night, I am very confident that all kinds of leaders in the Jewish world understand the importance and centrality that Sefaria occupies and will invest further in Sefaria because it’s so important to the future of Jewish learning and identity. It enables the whole ecosystem of learning to continue to build upon and build from, which Sefaria makes available for free.” 

But Sefaria, which was founded by journalist Joshua Foer and former Google product manager Brett Lockspeiser, has a particularly ambitious fundraising goal, having raised $14 million in the past year, with another $22 million needed to meet its goal. 

Moed noted that “funding will support increased acquisition of content, new partnerships, and additional engineering talent for our world class technology team.” 

He continued, “We’re not just looking in the rearview mirror of the last 10 years but also where we are and what’s ahead. Sefaria is evolving from universal availability of texts to deeper accessibility and engagement with the texts — that’s the essence of where Sefaria is going. I’m amazed at who assembles in a room for a Sefaria gala. We really saw the ethos of Sefaria — open Torah to all Jews everywhere.”