Two new mobile apps are poised to revolutionize bar/bat mitzvah preparation, and possibly the whole practice of learning to chant Torah.
This week, Rabbi Charlie Schwartz and Russel Neiss - Jewish educators, techies and friends - released PocketTorah, which enables users to read and hear every Torah and Haftarah portion from virtually any Android or Apple device.
In addition to containing the entire Hebrew text (viewed with or without vowels), plus English translation and links to a range of commentaries, the app has "on-demand" audio, with a karaoke-like feature highlighting each word of text as the recorded voice chants it.
PocketTorah comes out a few months after Neiss and Schwartz's PocketTorah Trope, which teaches users how to do traditional cantillation - a skill that can then be applied to chanting all Torah and Haftarah portions.
Both apps are available for free and funded with a $36,750 grant from the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund.
While a range of other software and websites - such as World Ort's Navigating The Bible (which is free) and Davka's Trope Trainer (starting at $129) - enable users to read Torah and even learn to chant it, the new apps are the first mobile ones and the first using a human, rather than a mechanical, voice, Neiss told The Jewish Week.
They are also the first to be fully open-source: anyone who wants is free to use the codes, text and audio to develop other software. "This is free from top to bottom, from all the inputs to all the outputs," Neiss said. "We want to lower the barriers of entry to make it easier for people to take on what's one of the most complicated areas in Jewish tradition and make it a little easier."
While acknowledging that the apps will likely be most popular for bar/bat mitzvah preparation, Neiss said he hopes they will also encourage more adult Jews to learn trope so they can participate more fully in their synagogues.
Before starting the PocketTorah project, Neiss, the academic director of technology and media services at the Upper West Side's Rodeph Sholom School, and Rabbi Schwartz, the director of digital engagement and learning for the Jewish Theological Seminary, teamed up on MediaMidrash, a YouTube-like platform where Jewish educators can share Israeli and Jewish videos and related lesson plans. (Behrman House Publishers purchased it last year, and has incorporated it into its Online Learning Center.)
The two - Neiss, who is 28, refers to himself as the "coding monkey," whereas 30-year-old Rabbi Schwartz is the "project management ninja" - met in 2009, when both were fellows in Jewish social entrepreneurship incubator PresenTense.
What was most challenging about creating the PocketTorah apps?
Finding time to work on the project after a day of working at their full-time jobs, Neiss said.
Also difficult: locating audio and translations in the public domain. The two had to record new audio and use the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, because a more recent translation is under copyright and could not be licensed.
While many apps are free for a limited time only, or contain advertising, the PocketTorah apps have no advertising and are "free from now until the end of time," Neiss promised.
But will they put bar/bat mitzvah tutors out of business?
No, said Neiss. Instead, they will "liberate b'nai mitzvah educators to focus more on the content and meaning," rather than on teaching the more mechanical aspects.
The Jewish Week, Inc., 2012