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What’s New In Jewish Education

What’s New In Jewish Education

Columbia Library’s Jewish holdings get Boost ... Bible Raps, G-dcast make Slingshot list … Israeli gov’t doubles Birthright money.

A Dutch scholar, in the United States two months ago, got an unexpected call one day from a staff member of the Columbia University library system. The staffer, Yoram Bitton, had found in the library’s rare-books archives several centuries-old manuscripts in Hebrew and Dutch that would aid the scholar’s research in the history of Jewish printing in Amsterdam.

The Dutch researcher, who came to the Manhattan campus and found the manuscripts useful, was among dozens of scholars — inside and outside the university — who have benefited from a recent grant given to the institution to upgrade the Jewish resources in the university library.

The $4 million endowment from the Norman E. Alexander Foundation, founded by the late businessman-philanthropist who attended the school in the 1930s, established a Library for Jewish Studies that bears his name. The gift includes three new endowments: the university’s first-ever Jewish studies librarian; a General Jewish Studies Collection, part of the Area Studies Collections; and a Special Collection in Judaica.

Alexander was a founder and longtime board member of The Jewish Week.

Part of the grant is also paying Bitton’s salary as a cataloger.

The Jewish collections, which total an estimated 100,000 books on a wide range of Jewish subjects, are not housed in a single location on campus, but are divided among several of the university’s score of libraries.

The endowment will fund the purchasing of more Jewish books than was possible in the past, says Michelle Chesner, the newly hired librarian.

The expansion of the university library’s Jewish holdings will aid students, faculty members and other scholars interested in Jewish topics, says Chesner. She is now responsible for buying new books and data bases and journals, curating a 2012 book exhibit, educating the university community about the Alexander Library, and cataloging the holdings, many of them hardly known outside of small academic circles, into “a virtual collection.”

“If a book is not cataloged,” which today means digitized and made available online, “the book does not exist,” Chesner says, quoting a librarians’ maxim.

A native of Baltimore, she studied Jewish studies and library science at a joint NYU-Long Island University program and worked at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Columbia last May. “I always liked rare books,” she says.

During her time here, Chesner has talked to student groups about changes in the more-accessible Jewish holdings, and has investigated the rare-books collection. She and Bitton, she says, have turned up unknown treasures such as old marriage certificates, a Hebrew translation of “Swiss Family Robinson,” a poetic version of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah guide to Jewish law and a draft of an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.

With her knowledge of the Jewish books available on campus, she has already assisted a scholar’s research on the Hebrew calendar, helped a student’s project on the now-defunct Jewish community of Harlem, and lectured to a Barnard class about the apropos books on Jewish immigration.

Research on books available only at the university libraries is open to outsiders, while other books are available only to people affiliated with the school. “There will be more opportunities for scholarship,” Chesner says.

The Alexander endowments will place the university’s Jewish collections among the leading Jewish libraries in the country, says Chesner, who points out the school owns the second-largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts, some of them a millennia old, in North America, behind only The Jewish Theological Seminary.

“We want people to know that we have it,” Chesner says.

Michael Ryan, director of the university’s rare book and manuscript library, says the Alexander endowments will afford a growing number of scholars “one-stop access” to the library’s “extraordinary resources.”

“With a new Jewish studies librarian, students and faculty will have an invaluable source in the Columbia library system to help them with their research and their scholarship,” Jeremy Dauber, director of the school’s Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies, told the Columbia Spectator.

The Dutch researcher who made an initial foray into the library’s rare manuscripts two months ago is finding the Alexander Library helpful, Chesner says. “He plans to come back.”

Steve Lipman

The website of the Columbia University’s Jewish library holdings is; Michelle Chesner’s blog is available at

Bible Raps, G-dcast Make Slingshot List

Can a rap song about the Talmud great Rabbi Akiva’s journey to scholarly acclaim make a Hebrew school classroom come alive? Can an Internet cartoon spark a discussion about the weekly Torah portion?

Slingshot, a nonprofit that helps philanthropists and foundations identify up-and-coming, innovative Jewish groups to fund, sees these education endeavors as part of the future of Jewish learning.

Each year, Slingshot selects 50 innovations organizations for a guide it publishes for potential funders. Groups that have already been listed can then apply for grants, and up to 10 are awarded a year. Past nominees have including forward-thinking groups such as the Jewish art and ritual group Storahtelling, and grant recipients include the hip JDub Records, which helped launch reggae star Matisyahu’s career.

Among this year’s new arrivals to the guide are two unorthodox teaching programs, Bible Raps and G-dcast.

Bible Raps was founded by Matt Bar, and as the organization’s name implies, he teaches students of all ages about Judaism through rapping, and encourages interaction and exploration of text through modern musical expression. A musician who also worked as a Hebrew school teacher, he would often rap to his students as a reward for good behavior. When he ran out of clean lyrics he would look to the lesson plan. He eventually branched out, found collaborators and began to create lesson plans based on the Torah and Midrash; those plans have now been used by more than 150 educators nationwide.

In “You Know My Name,” students and teachers can rap, “Moses and Aaron, who you think you’re scarin’?/I created the Nile, so it should be apparent/I’m a crocodile, and your god is a sparrow/Thus said Hashem, no thus said Pharaoh.” The song eventually references the Torah, Midrash and even the infamous sign over Auschwitz (“Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work Will Set You Free) to facilitate discussion of Moses’ and Aaron’s call to lead.

“We like to think of ourselves as educators before musicians,” explained Bar. “That’s the service we’re trying to provide; we’re not trying to be the ‘illest’ rappers,” he said, using a hip-hop slang for cool, but “lively and relevant and inspiring. … We’re riding the Midrash train.”

Bar also performs live shows geared towards different age groups, including college students and adults. “There’s some sexy stuff in the Talmud,” Bar said.

Sarah Lefton founded G-dcast after working for several years in advertising and in the Jewish camping world. G-dcast’s guest contributors tell a Bible-related story, which is then animated and posted as a video on the group’s website ( Changing narrators give different videos different tones and offer new insights. There are cartoons for each parsha, as well as ones for the Jewish holidays and the stories of the prophets. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a leading Jewish author and ethicist, describes the story of Korach. Actress Mayim Bialik summarizes Parshat Vayelech. The animations play quirkily off of their words (such as when the ground is a giant mouth swallowing Korach). It was this creativity that caught Slingshot’s attention, according to Lefton.

“A lot of people know about it, which is amazing,” said Lefton about her project’s new entry in Slingshot. “Clearly people are reading it, which is great news.”

While Lefton and Bar would both love Slingshot grants, each already has several new projects under way. Bar is trying to educate more teachers in the ways of Bible Raps so they can include the material in their lesson plans, and he is also working on a new album. Lefton has just concluded the G-dcast holiday series (in time for Tu b’Shvat is the Talmudic story of Honi the Circle Maker), and over the next year the team and collaborators are going to create a series of personal storytelling videos akin to the popular NPR show “This American Life.” She also hopes to promote the website’s new teachers’ guide.

The Slingshot guide said G-dcast is “poised to make a large impact on the Jewish community.” Of Bible Raps, the guide said, “For seed-stage investors, this is a great organization with a very promising future.”

Both Bar and Lefton want the next generation of young Jews to study and understand their culture on a deeper level. “I think that it’s important that people realize that Jewish stories are not necessarily something you learn because you are religious or because you are spiritual or because you are a half-Jew or a whole Jew,” said Lefton. “At the very core of being Jewish is knowing our stories.”

Gabriela Geselowitz

To Ramp Up
Birthright Investment

(JTA) Israel’s government will more than double its investment in the popular Birthright Israel program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the announcement Thursday night before 3,000 program participants in Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“My government will give more than double its investment in Birthright, and over the next few years we will invest more than $100 million in Birthright,” said Netanyahu, according to the Post. “Together with private donations we can increase the number of people to 50,000 a year.”

Considered one of the most successful initiatives in the Jewish world, Birthright Israel provides free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults aged 18-26. Some 30,000 people participate in the program each year; more than a quarter-million have participated since its inception in 2000.