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Culture

As schools and synagogues go digital, this online Torah source is racking up record numbers

With everyone at home these days, web traffic is spiking and — apparently — online Torah is much in demand.

Many schools have closed their physical campuses and moved classrooms online in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. The effects of these extreme measures has forced educators at Jewish day schools to be nimble — even when it comes to texts and methods of learning that date back thousands of years.

“This is definitely a shift,” said Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer at Sefaria, a non-profit online resource providing Torah, Talmud and contemporary commentary in the original Hebrew and in English translation. “People who never thought they would be learning new technologies are learning new technologies.”

On Wednesday March 17, Sefaria says its traffic reached an all-time high. This past week topped that record with 30 to 35% more activity than on typical day. The trend is strong, primarily in the United States and Israel, but solid numbers have been coming in from Canada and the United Kingdom too.

Wolkenfeld has received a flood of inquiries from educators, rabbis and parents wondering how best to engage their students, their flock and their children when books might not be as easily accessible.

But what are people searching for? Lev Israel, Sefaria’s chief data officer, said the site’s top trending search terms include “coronavirus” and “maggephah,” which means “plague” in Hebrew.

Users have also been looking up Pikuach Nefesh, the principle that preservation of human life supersedes virtually all religious law, as well as “pandemic” and “quarantine” along with the typical, seasonal searches one might expect.

“There’s more people searching for ‘coronavirus’ than anything, but there’s more people searching for ‘Pesach’ than ‘anxiety,’” Israel said.

Wolkenfeld has been receiving questions not only about education but also about coping and stress as well as ritual substitutions for funerals and the recitation of kaddish. She also says that largely secular Jews — mostly families — have been turning to Sefaria.

“I think there’s a sense of ‘wait, maybe there’s a tradition we need to adopt, maybe there’s some text that speaks to our situation. Maybe there’s something we can kind of bring into our lives at this moment,’” Wolkenfeld said.

Meanwhile, since the outbreak, educators have been creating “Sheets” — collections of curated scripture and commentary — on the platform that cover such topics as “How should we behave during a plague?” and “Finding Torah in moments of anxiety.” The Sefaria team has been providing its own primers on illness, isolation, hand washing and a “visual source sheet” on solitude.

Israel said that Sefaria’s mission — to digitize sacred texts as the world becomes less analog — prepared them to serve as a resource in the face of the current crisis.

“Because we were always programming, always planning for maximum ultimate utility and resilience and openness it just positioned us to be uniquely helpful in this moment,” he said.

As to a web-first approach to learning, it was never the goal for Israel or Wolkenfeld, who have “mixed emotions” about tech’s place in education.

“I’m not a technology booster, but I am a constructivist, and do think that we would have a better Jewish educational system if we pushed exploration over the desire for students to follow instructions,” Wolkenfeld said.

“The risks? I don’t know if we know about that so much. Certainly kids are spending more time on screens and maybe that’s problematic, although I think that some of the kids that are doing home schooling are spending more productive time on screens. They would be on screens anyway.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.

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