NEW YORK (JTA) — An Israel-based nonprofit boasts staff and board members from brand-name companies like Facebook and Disney. Its splashy fundraising video promises a customizable online platform for Jewish learning with a comprehensive digital library of Judaic texts featuring translations, links to related sources, maps and videos.
But is Mercava the future of Jewish education or mere vaporware, the tech term for overly hyped software that never fully materializes?
Founded with $1.5 million in private donations raised primarily in Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community, Mercava hopes to raise another $1.5 million from North American Jewish foundations and federations. The goal, CEO and co-founder Yehuda Moshe said, is to make Jewish wisdom, culture and values “not just affordable and accessible, but also relevant to modern life and attractive in this media-rich and entertainment-driven age.”
The project remains a work in progress. Until late December, when its 8 1/2-minute fundraising video began circulating online, even American Jewish education leaders at the forefront of technology-based learning were unaware of its existence.
But in recent weeks, Mercava has sparked discussion in some Jewish education forums over whether the project is just a lot of hype, if it has involved enough educators in the planning process and whether it will offer something new and useful. Others have raised concerns about the scarcity of women in the group’s promotional video. All of Mercava’s executives and board members are men, many of them Orthodox and Syrian.
“We can’t waste our resources on partial solutions developed in a vacuum,” Kohelet Foundation President David Magerman wrote on a popular Jewish education listserv. “We need to plan these kinds of projects with broad-based discussion and support, so the product is acceptable and usable by as many as possible.”
Mercava is hardly the first piece of Jewish educational technology, but it may be the most ambitious. A start-up called Sefaria has begun enlisting volunteers to help put the entire Jewish canon online. The publisher Behrman House makes its textbooks available in digital form. And Israel’s Center for Education Technology has helped develop interactive textbooks for use in Jewish day schools.
But none match Mercava in the sheer breadth of features, services, texts and other media it plans to make available in one central hub. The scale of the site’s ambitions is evident in its marketing rhetoric, which touts the project as “the biggest thing to happen to Talmud since Talmud.”
Moshe said Mercava has been in development for nearly five years and that most of the “underlying work” is done. A basic version of its Daf Yomi program providing free access to the Talmud already is available and has been piloted in almost 100 schools, mostly in Australia and England, he says.
Additional products will begin rolling out in July with the release of 1,000 interactive books in Hebrew and English. A lesson builder tool for teachers will be released soon after.
It is not clear whether Mercava will be open source, but Moshe emphasized that most of its contents will be offered for free.
“Think of it like [Apple’s] app store,” Moshe said. “As much as we can, we’ll make available for free. However, other organizations and companies can build their own products on the platform or integrate existing products, and they can choose whether to make the products available for free or to charge for them.”
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, a Judaic studies teacher at a Modern Orthodox high school in New Jersey and the author of the Tech Rav blog, wrote recently that Mercava may have finally figured out how to bring Jewish education into the digital era.
Pittinsky specifically praised its Talmud app for ease of use with students of varying levels and plans for a lesson building tool that allows teachers to create interactive lessons with guided readings, embedded notes and the option to display or hide translations.
“It might just just be the future of Jewish education,” he wrote.
As to the dearth of women in the Mercava promotional video, Shira Epstein, an education professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote on a Jewish educators Facebook page that she was “dismayed.” Moshe said that some of the initial funders of the project were women and that more women will be brought on, including as board members, as the project continues.
Rachel Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation, which has funded numerous Jewish educational technology projects in recent years, said that while her foundation is not investing in Mercava, there’s a need for the kinds of resources and features it is promising.
“They have very big goals,” Abrahams said. “The question is how they get there and will they deliver.”