Back in January of 2020, the new cycle of Daf Yomi—the daily study program of the entire Talmud—began. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, including Lior Ben-David and Elan Roth, two 18-year-olds who graduated from The Leffell School in Westchester County this past year, joined their classmates and Jews across the world in the new cycle of studying the Talmud.
In March, by the end of Brachot—the first tractate of the Talmud—most students had dropped out. But Ben-David and Roth stayed with it.
Studying even a page of Talmud in a day can be demanding, and the language, structure, and content can be extremely challenging.
“We realized Daf Yomi wasn’t a great system for most people who are just trying to engage with Judaism on a daily basis,” Ben-David said. On their 12th-grade Israel trip, the two teens started talking about Daf Yomi and why most of their friends had dropped out of the daily learning program. That discussion turned into a conversation about the accessibility of daily Jewish learning, what platforms exist, and how they can continue learning as they both transition to college.
“We realized that there didn’t exist this engaging platform for people to do daily Jewish conceptual learning. We [told] ourselves: just because it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist,” Roth said.
So they created a learning platform themselves. Lishmah, which translates to “for its own sake,” is a free mobile application featuring short daily lessons, meant to be accessible to any Jew. After months of development — during which Ben-David started college at the University of Virginia and Roth began the Shalom Hartman Gap Year Program — the app officially launched on Sept. 21.
The process of building the app was, in a way, aided by the pandemic. Their Israel trip ended early due to Covid-19, and they found themselves with the free time to pursue a more accessible daily learning experience. While in quarantine, the two made a focus group of fellow students, and began reaching out to Jewish educators to brainstorm their idea.
One of the first they spoke with was Rabbi Harry Pell, the associate head of school at The Leffell School, their alma mater
Pell had many conversations with Ben-David and Roth about a possible Jewish learning platform. He was able to send out their idea to Greater New York-metro area rabbis and a database of hundreds of educators. “When your students, or soon-to-be alumni, have a great idea, it makes you proud. So, why not reach out to anybody and everybody that you can reach, and encourage them to sign on as teachers?” Pell said.
Support and Pushback
Lishmah features daily lessons from Jewish educators relating to the Torah Portion, Jewish practices, concepts, and more. Each week has a theme, and educators create 5-10 minute daily lessons (excluding Shabbat) relating to that theme.
When users open the app, they are greeted with the day’s assigned lesson, which is made up of a short article and a mini-podcast that users can learn from on the go. If users don’t understand a term in the lesson, they can often click the word and see a short explanation of the given term.
As of September, over 14 weeks of lessons have been planned and assigned to different Jewish educators from camps, day schools, and synagogues. Weekly themes include timely topics such as Rosh Hashanah, The Ten Commandments, and Chanukah, as well as more general ideas such as messianism and moral dilemmas.
The absolute willingness of educators to help is not a thing you can find anywhere else.
Over 70 educators that the teens reached out to committed to preparing lessons for their app for free. Ben-David shared that one of the most rewarding parts of creating the app was the willingness of Jewish professionals to help out. “[We] hear all the time how powerful the Jewish community is, but the absolute willingness for [the educators] to help is not a thing you can find anywhere else,” Ben-David said.
The two teens — who both come from Conservative Jewish upbringings— reached out to educators across the religious spectrum, but were told that they would receive pushback from more traditionally observant Jews. Regardless, the teens remain hopeful that the platform can bridge divides between denominations. “I really believe that this is a platform that can break [barriers],” Roth said.
This is the second mobile app that Ben-David and Roth have developed together. The first was a free basketball analytics application for coaches. Ben-David has found some similarities in the development of the two very different apps.
“Using technology, you’re able to make things — whether it’s Jewish learning or basketball statistics — a lot more accessible and give more people the opportunity to engage with whatever they’re trying to engage with,” Ben-David said.
Solomon Fox is a freshman in the joint JTS/Columbia University program studying psychology and modern Jewish studies.
Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at email@example.com.