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A Shavuot Message from President Zev Eleff

Shavuot and the Digital Age 

Dear Friends, 

Shavuot centers on Torah learning. After all, the biblical holiday commemorates the Israelites’ reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. To mark the occasion, many of our synagogues hold all-night learning programs and celebrate confirmation for young people who have spent years refining their knowledge of Jewish ideas and practice.  

Learning is also a natural antidote to cure a deep-seated ailment. Few maladies figure so fraught as forgetfulness, at least for the sages of Talmud. The most well-known source is in Pirkei Avot. There (3:8), Rabbi Dostai determined that “anyone who forgets even a single word of Jewish learning, the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited their life.” Elsewhere, Rabbi Eliezer (Yoma 38b) relayed that forgetfulness impacts the well-being of multiple generations. Another tradition (Sanhedrin 26b) cautioned that overanxiousness can lead to forgetfulness, a most grievous condition. 

In the nineteenth century with the advent of cheap paper and stereotype printing, rabbinic writers reconsidered the severity of forgetting. Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin suggested that committing texts to memory was no longer so important, now that books were much more readily available. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi—the founder of Chabad Hasidism—disagreed, arguing that the rabbinic apprehension over forgetfulness was everlasting, and that Torah study ought to be so thorough and committed to memory, even if many more people had access to a Jewish library. Most, however, sided with historical context. Moving forward, students and scholars, armed with easy-to-access books, could focus on generating new, creative ideas.   

The Digital Age has renewed these discussions, and not just for Torah study. At the present moment of machine learning, we can access information far beyond what the human mind can store. Our current challenge is how to access the best information and how to make the most meaning in our lives. 

Dr. Alison Joseph speaks at conference at podium

Gratz has seized a paramount role in this effort. In May, Dr. Alison Joseph, Director of Digital Scholarship, presented at the National Library of Israel’s Fifth International Judaica Curators Conference. In Jerusalem, Dr. Joseph presented on Gratz’s plan for the Grayzel platform. The field leaders in digital Judaica were animated by our plan to curate the breadth of Jewish wisdom pertaining to modern Jewish history and culture. Participants discussed our transformative vision in the subsequent sessions and in informal conversations. 

We believe that Jewish wisdom has a grand capacity to make meaning in our lives. In July, as the media has reported, Gratz will complete its purchase of a new campus in Bala Cynwyd. We are eager to learn how two campuses—our current building on the Mandell Campus and new site on the Main Line—deepen our community’s engagement with Jewish wisdom and learning. Gratz continues to deliver high-level classes for adults (there’s still time to register for summer Jewish studies and Yiddish courses here), and we are eager to augment our offerings. 

Gratz has never forgotten its mission. But Shavuot is a yearly reminder that while we’ve climbed Sinai and accomplished much—there's still more work to be done. 

Wishing you and yours a happy and meaningful Shavuot,  

Zev Eleff's signature