On March 14, the Jim Joseph Foundation praised digital Jewish media projects, including online video producers, news sites and podcasts, in a report titled, “The Future of Jewish Learning Is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education.”
“The findings that emerge … offer compelling evidence that serious Jewish learning indeed happens online,” the report’s opening note states.
Just two weeks later, one of the organizations featured in the study, BimBam, announced it was closing down due to a lack of funding. The Jim Joseph Foundation had awarded BimBam a grant of $100,000 in 2017, according to the foundation’s website.
The educational video producer was roundly praised for its path-breaking work in making creative and educational videos for Jewish web-surfers with minimal Jewish education. In the 11 years since BimBam was founded, it has received 11 million views across 400 videos. But BimBam’s closure underscores the continued challenges of operating a digital organization in the Jewish world.
“I think we were a project before our time,” said Jordan Gill, former executive director of BimBam. “It’s an art form and it’s a vertical [business model] that needs funding and support, so I think when the community is ready to fund it, there is going to be no shortage of people who are there to supply the content.”
For Sarah Lefton, founder and former creative director of BimBam (formerly called G-dcast), securing adequate funding for the project was a constant challenge. She recalls the attitude of funders towards BimBam’s funding model: “We’re going to put in the seed capital and then you’re going to figure out how to monetize,” said Lefton. She soon realized how challenging that would prove to be.
“Media is, I think, a public good, much in the same way the radio waves are. We have to have it, we all are suffused in it all day long, but there isn’t a business model for educational media,” said Lefton, citing PBS as an example. “For any kind of arts and culture or education, it’s very hard to point to a self-sustaining source of revenue.”
Philanthropists’ visions are partly to blame, say observers.
“In the funding world of Jewish education, I do think that people are largely risk averse, that some of the big funders are largely risk-averse, and laying behind that are very traditional notions of what Jewish education is and what it should be,” said Ari Kelman, professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford University and lead author of the Jim Joseph study.
Lefton looks back on the year BimBam was founded, 2008, as a time when the Jewish world was particularly excited about innovation. “There was a cresting wave of Jewish innovation; there was a lot of communal energy being put into how can we reboot the Jewish world and breathe new life particularly into new young adult initiatives,” said Lefton. “I think we’re seeing that wave crash to some extent right now.”
Felicia Herman, executive director of the Natan Fund, which had provided grants to BimBam, viewed the situation more optimistically while praising BimBam’s content. “I don’t think organizations need to live forever,” said Herman. “You need new ideas to infuse the community, but it’s not to say that if it doesn’t live for a hundred years then it’s been a failure.”
Kelman noted that the ways in which Jewish educational models are effective at cultivating strong Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish community are largely unknown, pointing to examples such as Jewish summer camp and Birthright Israel. “We don’t actually know what happens to learners in those contexts and we don’t know what happens to learners when they engage online. Yet people just point to the online stuff and say, well we don’t know what’s happening there,” said Kelman. “We don’t know what’s happening in any of those spaces.”
Aleph Beta, another producer of online Jewish educational videos, adopted a subscription model shortly after it was founded in 2012.
“We tried to see if we could model our nonprofit on a startup as much as possible,” said Immanuel Shalev, executive director of Aleph Beta. “If we could find something that the end user was willing to pay for, then Aleph Beta would be safe and we wouldn’t have to rely heavily on donors.”
While the model has been a success for Aleph Beta — Shalev says that 60 percent of the organization’s budget is supported by subscriptions — it appeals to a more Jewishly engaged audience than BimBam did. While BimBam purposely appealed to the least Jewishly engaged and educated, with videos that explained what one might expect at a shiva, for example, Aleph Beta’s subscribers are more likely to be Modern Orthodox Jews who may already be accustomed to paying for Jewish content.
Though BimBam will no longer be producing new videos, the existing video library will have a new home on the Union for Reform Judaism’s website. Despite its closure, Herman believes BimBam’s legacy will continue to impact the Jewish educational world.
“Just because something’s in existence doesn’t mean that it’s succeeding and just because something closes doesn’t mean it has failed,” said Herman.