With its lengthy roster of rules concerning animal sacrifice and food, Parshat Shemini is not generally considered a crowd pleaser.
But the text from Leviticus is such a favorite among Sarah Zollman’s fifth graders at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, Conn., that one student, upon learning it was to be her bat mitzvah Torah portion “was so excited.”
That excitement is due in large part to the G-dcast version of the parsha, which features the catchy “Kosher Animal Song” composed and performed by Dan Saks’ DeLeon, a Sephardic indie rock band.
“The kids always say, ‘Can we watch it again?’” says Zollman, who has made G-dcast’s animated interpretations of the Bible a regular part of her Parshat Hashavua (weekly Torah portion) class.
Since its launch in 2008, the nonprofit G-dcast — founded by Sarah Lefton, 38 — has assembled an oeuvre of 55 short (three to four minutes) and somewhat playful films spanning the Torah, along with eight holiday videos and three how-to videos produced in partnership with Moishe House, a program for Jewish 20-somethings.
Over the past few years, G-dcast has gained a following and garnered close to 1.5 million hits on YouTube and its own website, publicized primarily through word of mouth and social networking sites. Now, with an updated website, two printed teacher guides (which include discussion topics, quiz questions and suggested activities) and plans to create an online forum for Jewish educators, G-dcast is hoping to bring its work to a wider audience of students and teachers.
G-dcast videos, most narrated and written by a different contributor, appeal to a wide range of ages. While initially envisioned for adults, teens and bar mitzvah-age students, many of the episodes, Lefton says, are appropriate for younger children as well.
[This writer’s 5-year-old and 8-year-old daughters are avid G-dcast viewers.]
G-dcast’s teacher’s guide for the Torah episodes is designed for teachers of students in seventh grade and up, while the holiday teacher’s guide is recommended for teachers of children ages 8 and up.
“When we did the Torah pieces, we were targeting b’nai mitzvah kids, but I kept getting feedback that people were showing these to younger children too,” said Lefton, a South Carolina native who now lives in San Francisco.
A self-described “film fest fanatic,” Lefton began thinking about producing a short Jewish film while she was working in various Jewish nonprofits, after a brief career in corporate marketing.
When a friend told her about her Orthodox great-uncle saving his amputated leg, so that it could be buried with the rest of him when he died, she was fascinated, and embarked on a whirlwind of research about Jewish burial rituals and traditions, and the various texts upon which they are based.
“I kept seeing this as an animated cartoon, almost like a ‘Simpsons’ episode,” she said. After meeting an animator on a JDate-facilitated date, “I was like, this is bashert. We decided we were going to make this film and we went to scratch up funding.”
The date didn’t pan out romantically; Lefton is now married instead to Bill Selig, the voice of the Wicked Son in G-dcast’s Passover episode and a “grumpy village guy” in another segment. The film pitch didn’t pan out either.
“I got the feedback that I shouldn’t make this ‘leg’ film, but should instead do Bible stories,” Lefton said.
Enter Parshat Balak, G-dcast’s pilot.
Funding to animate the whole Torah came next, which “set us on the path of doing the whole Tanach,” Lefton says.
Along the way, G-dcast, aided by the Joshua Venture and various funders, became a small nonprofit, with an annual budget of $245,000 and a staff of four (Lefton is executive director and producer). Now, G-dcast adaptations of the Book of Joshua and Book of Judges are underway, and a G-dcast game is being considered.
Educators are starting to take note.
On some Fridays at the Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, the entire student body watches a G-dcast episode during their schoolwide assembly.
Ana Fuchs, director of Atlanta’s Jewish Kids Group, an after-school informal Jewish educational program, said she is a “huge fan” of G-dcast and uses it often with her students, who are 9 years old and younger.
“If I had older kids, I’d be using it every week,” she said, adding, “What I love about it is it’s something palpable they can take home. They don’t learn every law that was in the Torah portion, but they’re walking away with something about the parsha, whether it’s a midrash or something they can relate to their lives.”
Fuchs also uses G-dcast in her board meetings, letting the episodes serve as a dvar Torah.
“It’s incredibly valuable in it’s wide appeal,” she said, adding that she wishes G-dcast made more than one episode for each Torah portion, however.
“I can use it twice, but not three years in a row” with the same people, she said.
Carmel’s Zollman, who screens the G-dcast episodes on the classroom SmartBoard, said, “When I turn it on and start playing the video, the kids immediately start wanting to pay attention and get involved.”
So popular is G-dcast with her fifth graders that Zollman has them do an end-of-year project in which they make “their own G-dcast.” “They have to figure out what they want to talk about, then summarize, write a skit, and we videotape them acting it out,” she said.
The class videos aren’t animated, but “since they’ve been watching G-dcast throughout the year, they definitely get into it and get excited about acting in their own one.”