Sefaria Staff Spotlight: Russel Neiss
Russel Neiss joined the Sefaria team in 2015 as a Software Engineer. He has worked as an education technologist for more than 10 years, and has created several critically acclaimed apps including AlephBet App, PocketTorah and Let's Bake Challah. Most recently, he was a Covenant Foundation Fellow at G-dcast where he conceived, coded, and launched a dozen apps and digital experiences. Russel is now responsible for the development of Sefaria’s iOS app, all of the latest improvements to our Source Sheet Builder, and much of the creative thinking that goes into addressing the needs of educators and students when it comes to digital learning.
We asked Russel a few questions to get him talking on everything from ed tech to the advent of electricity.
How did you get into this field?
Russel: Accidentally. I studied religion as an undergraduate and spent my first year after college traveling through the deep south teaching Jewish education. I’ve always had an interest in and an affinity for technology. As a self-identifying member of what you might call the upper end of the millennial generation, tech is something I grew up with. It was never really a conscious decision to infuse technology into my educational work; it was just obvious to me.
Outside of Sefaria, what is the most interesting project you've worked on?
Russel: PocketTorah. PocketTorah is an app that allows you to learn how to chant the weekly Torah portion and Haftarah anywhere, anytime, online or offline, and for free. What was so cool about this project is that we did this back in 2011 before there were many Jewish apps or ed tech initiatives out there at all. In fact, to our knowledge, this was the first open source Jewish ed tech project to come to market, and it became hugely successful, paving the way for similar projects like Sefaria to emerge.
Is working in open source of specific interest to you, or was it just a coincidence that many of the projects you've worked on were open source?
Russel: Oh, it's definitely important to me. My philosophy when it comes to Jewish education is that access to both texts and the tools necessary to parse them are of the utmost importance.
I think this openness is actually deeply ingrained into the Jewish tradition itself. One of my favorite passages of Talmud highlights just this. In Tractate Brachot 27B/28A, there’s a story about a disagreement in pedagogy that occurs between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria. The former took an elitist approach to the Beit Midrash, or house of study, while the latter took a more democratic position and sought to welcome all who wished to come and learn. When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria rose to power, the Talmud states, “That same day, they removed the doorkeeper, and permission was granted to the disciples to enter… That day many forms [stools] had to be added… There was not a Halakah which had been left in a state of uncertainty in the House of Study which was not made clear.”
Rashi comments: What does it mean that there was no question left unanswered? When you increase the number of people learning, you increase insightfulness and pilpul [Talmudic discourse].
The key here is that the precondition to answering every question and increasing engagement, knowledge, wisdom, and culture is OPENNESS. Tractate Yoma 35b relates the famous story where Hillel is refused entrance to the Beit Midrash because he could not afford the entrance fee; can you imagine the Jewish tradition today without Hillel? We can ask the same of ourselves today; who else are we leaving out right now because they don’t have access -- financial, intellectual, physical, or otherwise-- to our core texts and resources.
Where do you see Sefaria in 10 years?
Russel: Sefaria’s most important contribution is infrastructure, so in some sense we’ll want it to be invisible in 10 years. I know that sounds radical, but let me explain. What I mean by that is that the really interesting things begin to happen when technology is no longer visible. Electricity was a huge technological innovation in education in the beginning of the 20th century, and now we take it for granted. It’s invisible; we don’t think about it day to day. I hope the same thing happens for technology and Jewish texts. I want the notion that texts could have ever been inaccessible to be unfathomable to people. It is only then that we will begin to see the really interesting stuff. As far as the Sefaria product goes, 10 years is a long ways off. The first iPad came out only six years ago. It’s hard to even imagine the kinds of devices we’ll be using ten years down the line but, whatever they are, Sefaria intends to be on them.
To hear more from Russel, email him at Russel@sefaria.org or tweet him at @russelneiss.