Sefaria releases new ‘Democracy’ project

The Mishnah meets the American Revolution?

Sefaria, a non-profit that provides public domain access to Jewish texts and commentary, has developed a prototype of its highly praised model to bring its technology to other bodies of work — starting with the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to providing primary source material, Sefaria, founded in 2013 by Google developer Brett Lockspeiser and author Joshua Foer, maintains a user-friendly interface and software to highlight interlinking references and citations throughout Jewish scripture.

“I think we were really inspired by the shape of Torah itself. The Torah tradition has this texture and shape that the printed ‘Vilna Shas,’ the printed Talmud, really has this visual sense of,” Lockspeiser, who serves as the organization’s chief technology officer, explained to Jewish Insider.

“All along, we’ve had in the back of our heads that the software that we’re building isn’t necessarily specifically about Jewish content,” he continued. “It’s something that applies to any body of text where you have lots of voices kind of in communication and dialogue with one another.”

Sefaria, working with a grant from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation, developed a prototype of its model with texts related to the birth of American democracy. The group chose the United States Constitution as an example, partly for its robust links to other noted texts but also because the Constitution and related texts already existed in the public domain. Lockspeiser emphasized this was only an initial example, mentioning the works of Shakespeare, Greek and Roman literature, medical texts, and texts of other religions as potential future projects.

Just as with its original platform, the goal of Sefaria will remain the same: to promote learning by providing free access to primary and secondary sources. Lockspeiser said he and others on the team have already spoken to experts about the unlimited future potential.

Tamara Mann Tweel, a professor in Columbia University’s American Studies Program, spoke glowingly of Sefaria’s new direction.

“The project will benefit teachers and students across the country by allowing them to access their rich democratic inheritance and converse with the great political and literary minds who have helped build that inheritance,” Tweel told JI. ”Sefaria took the infrastructure built for our Jewish textual tradition and gave it to our democratic one.”

Currently, the prototype website — which also lists works including the Declaration of Independence, Madison’s notes from the Federal Convention, the Magna Carta and important Supreme Court decisions — appears bare-bones, especially in comparison to the complexity of its mother site.

Still, the possibilities for future development are immediately apparent. While Lockspeiser admits there remain “a million steps,” before the site is ready for mass use, the Google alum is enthusiastic about the progress.

“I think we’re being really successful right now at the initial demo moment,” he said. “You look at it and you’re just like, ‘This is interesting. This is cool. There’s something here.’ And that’s the seed of a project being successful.”

Meet the Christian pro-Israel activist who is teaching Jewish communities about racism

As a new employee of the Maccabee Task Force, an organization that fights BDS on college campuses, Marvel Joseph is responsible for connecting with students at historically black colleges and universities. Joseph’s goal, he told Jewish Insider, is “bridging the gap between the black community and Israel.” The recent college graduate is up for the task — he was an outspoken AIPAC activist at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), and a prominent black voice in the college’s pro-Israel scene.

But following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last month, Joseph, the son of Haitian immigrants, has found himself in an unfamiliar role: teaching Jewish communities about racism. He has participated in recent Zoom webinars with different Jewish communities — including an Orthodox synagogue and his alma mater’s Hillel — about the ongoing protests. In recent weeks he has discussed fighting police brutality with rabbis, Jewish nonprofit professionals and other Israel advocates he has gotten to know since he first got involved in the pro-Israel space in 2018. 

“This is the first time that I’ve really been able to say, ‘This is what it’s like being black,’” Joseph explained. “Never before in my entire time as a pro-Israel advocate or pro-Israel leader… have I ever had the opportunity, necessarily, to really stand up and say, ‘This is what my community is going through.’”

Since he attended a 2018 retreat hosted by AIPAC for African-American students, Joseph has placed Israel advocacy at the forefront of his personal and professional endeavors. He has interned at AIPAC, traveled to Israel four times and developed relationships in the Jewish community. Now, for the first time, he is asking the friends he made there to show up for him — and he has found a largely receptive audience. 

“What I’m hoping comes out of all of this, when it’s all said and done, is that in the same way that we have black activists in the pro-Israel movement, I hope we also get strong Jewish activists in the pro-black community and the black lives matter movement,” Joseph said. 

Joseph, who is Christian, is used to being in Jewish spaces, having grown up and attended school in Boca Raton, Florida. In 2010, when a major earthquake rocked his parents’ native Haiti, many of his Jewish friends joined together to raise relief funds for Haitians. That memory of “Jewish kids helping me” has stayed with Joseph. 

As a child, he identified more with the Haitian community than with the broader African-American community in south Florida. “Growing up from immigrant parents as opposed to growing up from a family of descendants of African-American slaves… there’s a different starting point,” Joseph said. Unlike some of his friends whose families were affected by violent, racially tinged events, his parents started fresh in America in the 1980s. 

Even in the mostly white spaces he was accustomed to, Joseph didn’t think much about racism. “The schools that [my parents] put me in, even though I was the only black person there, I didn’t feel any different than anyone else, because my background, my culture, always revolved around being Haitian, not around being black in America,” Joseph said. 

That changed when he started college. At a fraternity party freshman year with a white friend from home, the friend turned to him, saying, “‘Dude, I’m so glad that you’re not like these other n*****s,’” Joseph recalled. “I was like, ‘What?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re one of the good ones,’” Joseph said. “It didn’t matter anything else that happened years before… to him I was just a good n****r,” Joseph added.

The encounter at the party set him on a quest to “find out what my real identity was,” he said. Joseph began reading black authors like James Baldwin, whose quote “to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” inspired his journey toward better understanding systemic racism in the United States. 

Marvel Joseph leads a Maccabee Task Force trip to Israel for black student leaders in December. (Courtesy)

Still, Joseph’s Haitian background is a key part of his identity, and it’s what inspired his connection to Israel. He has only been to Haiti once, on a three-day visit in 2019, which he described as the most meaningful trip of his life. “It was the first time when I walked into a place I didn’t feel out of place. I got to actually be part of my people,” Joseph explained. “Probably how a lot of Jewish people feel when they get to go to Israel.” That shared feeling of being part of a diaspora, and having a homeland, drew him toward Israel. 

Joseph has built a niche for himself in the pro-Israel world, as a Christian and a Haitian who speaks about his deep connection to the Jewish state. But he told Jewish Insider that he never felt like “the token black person in the pro-Israel movement.” The reason, Joseph said, is that “when you’re tokenized, you say what they tell you to say and not what you believe. Everything I say is stuff that I believe.” 

As he sees it, many Jewish organizations — including some right-leaning ones who might not otherwise host discussions about racism — are reaching out to him now “because they realized that this is someone who stands up for [the Jewish community] in ways that no one prior has.” 

Joseph understands that it’s unusual for a black person who is not Jewish to pursue a career in what is largely a Jewish cause. “We love talking about MLK being the ultimate black Zionist, but MLK had other things that he was worried about,” Joseph said, adding, “I’ve essentially dedicated my first year out of school, at least my first year out of school, to really doing this work.”

So what does Joseph hope to see from his Jewish friends? “My response to people when they say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you during this time,’ is, ‘Well hey, call your congressman, tell them you’re thinking about me and all the black people that have been killed.’” 

AIPAC, which sent a letter to its African-American members six days after Floyd’s death expressing solidarity, received criticism for being slow to issue a public statement in response to the events, but Joseph wasn’t concerned by that. What mattered more was the messages of support he received from friends at AIPAC and in the pro-Israel community, people who asked him how they could support him and the cause. “It’s a bipartisan organization… the fact that people decided that whether this is a partisan issue or not, I support you and your community, not because of everything you’ve done for me but because it’s the right thing to do, to me means more than any statement,” Joseph explained.

He views his position in the Jewish community as a bridge-builder, someone who supports Israel and fights antisemitism but also helps “my friends in the Jewish community understand that there’s a world outside of just the Jewish issues.” He understands that the anti-Israel policies in the official Black Lives Matter platform give some Jews pause. “But the idea of ‘black lives matter’ is black lives matter. There’s other ways to support a community,” Joseph said.

“At the end of this,” Joseph explained, he hopes to see “more education and a more genuine partnership, not an ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine,’ but a ‘please tell me how I can help.’”