Mercava. The OS of Jewish education.
By Yehuda Moshe, CEO of Mercava
“It’s impossible, ” he confessed, “they were right, it’s impossible.”
I had hedged all my bets on Ariel Isaacson — the young Johannesburg-born software engineer extraordinaire, who at the age of five, wrote his first computer program, and at nineteen headed the technology investment portfolio at a high-flying private equity firm — and now he’s telling me it’s impossible?!
It was the fall of 2009. We were nine months into building Mercava, the Operating System of Jewish education — a digital platform with interactive sefarim and lessons, infinite layers of textual and visual content, and dozens of learning apps, teaching apps, and publishing and collaboration apps. Similar to how Windows and iOS paved the way for countless breakthrough innovations, so that for anything imaginable ‘There’s an app for that™,’ we were building a platform that would empower organizations and individuals to solve some of the greatest challenges of our generation.
We imagined a world in which Talmidei Chachamim could share chidushei Torah with each other for peer review. Readers would subscribe to their favorite channels to receive on-demand illustrations, notes or translations. Rebbeim and teachers would create state-of-the-art interactive lessons, and instantly share them with hundreds of schools. Parents would receive reports and analytics of their children’s strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis. And never again would our children fail. We were building a suite of tools to assist children to successfully develop their reading, comprehension, and thinking skills, constantly advancing towards mastery in Torah, no matter what learning difficulty label they were slapped with, or how far they outpaced their peers. Our mission was to unlock the beauty and wonders of our Torah for every single person worldwide, and we knew how to do it.
But, even the fundamental idea of interactive pages with complex layouts, like what would be required for Talmud, was considered by the global software community to be an impossibility. “Universities have been trying to do this for over a decade, and you believe your peewee team can do it?”
By ‘peewee team,’ these well-meaning naysayers were referring to Mercava’s three founders — Ariel Isaacson, Aharon Perkel, and myself. Aharon is a software architect par excellence, also South African-born, who had developed and sold an educational platform to the Guardian Media Group, which is still in use today in over 4,000 schools. He also developed secret components for Russia’s Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet. Now, if the Prime Minister of Russia was willing to put his nation’s security in the hands of this young man, could I have been mistaken in doing the same?
We formed a non-profit organization. We made donations. We raised donations. And I sourced the raw texts for hundreds of sefarim — Mikra, Mishna, Talmud, Midrash, Halacha, and every other category of Torah — while Ariel and Aharon set out to transform these texts into beautiful interactive sefarim. We chose the Talmud Bavli as our test case, because its tzurat hadaf, its trademark page layout, would be the hardest to recreate. If we could figure this out, everything else would be a piece of cake.
The traditional approach to doing this would be to raise millions of dollars and hire manual laborers to typeset every single page, line by line, all 5,422 pages. But not only could we not afford that, we didn’t want to afford it — we would develop new technologies that would drop expenses down to a fraction of the cost. Everyone was counting on us to succeed, and this was the foundation stone of everything to come.
So after nine months of anticipation and promises, when Ariel admitted this really was impossible, I was dumbstruck. Now you tell me?! I’ve raised people’s hopes and taken funders’ money! What was I going to say to them now?
It was what Ariel said next that would set the tone of Mercava’s future. With a shade of surprise in his voice, he replied, “Did I say we weren’t going to do it? I just said it’s impossible, but we’ll do it.” And with his trademark cool composure, he hung up a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on his office door, and requested one thing, and one thing only: peace and solitude.
Three days later, the Mercava AI-generated Talmud was born.
We had developed the world’s only Artificial Intelligence capable of automatically generating the original page layout of every single page in Shas.
In parallel, we developed a page layout engine that could display these complex pages, on any device, and at lightning speed. Sefarim looked stunning on an iPad, a laptop, even on a 60-inch screen, and we revelled in our new-found breakthrough.
But we had a problem.
The AI plateaued at 95% accuracy; almost every page had multiple glitches. Machines aren’t perfect. It was time to tap into RI, Real intelligence, but in an innovative way. Ariel went on to develop our first publishing app — a layout editor, one so easy to use, that typesetting on Mercava felt more like a game than work.
We called the app ‘Spaceman’ and kickstarted a global competition to fix the glitches. Young teenagers around the world competed against each other, correcting and perfecting our Talmud’s tzurat hadaf, page after page after page.
One of the players who stood out from the crowd was Nechama, an 11-year old girl from a small town in Israel. Her family’s policy had restricted iPad usage to one hour a day, and as soon as she heard about the competition, she traded in her action-packed Candy Crush hour to join Mercava’s Spaceman project.
Nechama completed all of Masechet Kiddushin, fixing all 162 pages. “Spaceman was more fun than the games I was playing, because I knew I wasn’t wasting my time,” she declares. “This is how my generation is going to learn Torah for the next hundred years.”
It was 16-year old Chali from South Africa who swept the competition, scoring 1,522 pages — more than one quarter of Shas, followed by her twin brother, Rafi, who completed 1,018 pages. They had worked as a duo and were awarded as a duo; winning a two-week combo trip to Israel.
Make no mistake, neither Nechama, Chali, Rafi, or any of the other competitors were in this for the prize. They could see where Mercava was headed and wanted to be a part of it.
We were tapping into a phenomenon known as crowdsourcing, a term, coined in 2005, meaning outsourcing to the crowd.
Companies across dozens of industries have achieved wonders through crowdsourcing. Open source software has seen thousands of coders around the world volunteer their time and expertise to create software they don’t own. In 2004, Goldcorp, a Canadian gold-mining company, had more gold than the central banks of 45 countries, because they invited anyone and everyone to help them decide where to drill. TED, the media organization that posts free talks online, has viewers voluntarily translating TED Talk transcripts into dozens of languages. Such is human nature — people want to take part in something bigger than themselves.
In Mercava’s case, the motivation originates from even higher planes. The Torah is our collective heritage, deeply rooted inside every one of us, vechayei olam nota betocheinu. Every individual has a share in Torah that only they can tap into, without which, Am Yisrael will never be able to fully unlock the beauty and wonders of our Torah. Mercava is, by definition, an Am Yisrael project. The crowd was sensing this deep down, realizing that they are already a part of this, that this venture is theirs to make happen, each individual in his or her unique and special way. Hatzaddikim — hen hen haMercava, ve’amech kulam — tzaddikim.
Peel away the wondrous apps, engines and AI, and you will discover the heart and soul of Mercava — a beautiful tapestry of diverse talent, made up of Rabbanim, educators, writers, artists, engineers, curriculum designers, pedagogical experts, yeshiva bochurim and school students. Especially students.
And the more tools we built, the more content users were creating.
Learners were thirsting to add layers of visuals to our sefarim — maps, illustrations, visual dictionaries, and 3D models; so we built an app for that. Resource class teachers asked us to help them improve their talmidim’s kriah skills; so we built an app for that. Teachers asked us to help them impart dikduk skills in a colorful and captivating way; so we built an app for that. Rebbeim desperately needed a way to develop students’ comprehension of shakla vetarya, the dialectic debate of Gemara; we built three apps for that.
Every challenge that we encountered advanced us further. There were yeshivas that were reluctant to use technology in the classroom; so we created a kosher device, allowing access to Mercava, and nothing but Mercava. Students can’t even plug in a thumb drive. Credit goes to Rabbi David Ozeri, shlita, who proposed the idea. Then there were the schools and organizations who declared ‘we can’t use this if the others are using it’ (each organization interestingly justifying their definition of ‘others’); so we created Networks, empowering schools and organizations to manage their own private networks on Mercava.
Now, we’re taking the power of Networks to a higher level by putting them into the hands of successful, large scale organizations. Day school networks, informal education networks, women’s networks, and even an international Daf Yomi network.
One of these partnerships is with Torah Umesorah, who will be administering a teachers’ network of over 20,000 educators across 760 educational institutions. This is a big deal for mechanchim, since they will have access to top-quality content, all with a TU hechsher, ready for instant use in the classroom.
“Time and again I’ve heard Rabbonim, principals, and educators speak excitedly about Mercava,” says Rabbi Zvi Bloom, Torah Umesorah’s Executive Director. “They especially appreciate Mercava’s role as a software development partner for our schools, and it’s long overdue that we have a tech company on this level solely dedicated to the Klal.”
While Mercava is on par with the greatest tech companies in the world, always learning, always innovating, always leading, we are a 501(c)(3) organization laser-focused on Torah education.
How is all this possible? How does Mercava do it? By sheer combination of stellar talent, AI, the crowd, a fantastic board — and birkat tzaddikim.
Over a period of many years I had the zechut to have multiple conversations with Rosh HaYeshivah Hagaon Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l. The very last time the Rosh Yeshivah was a sandak in public was for my youngest son’s bris, five years ago. His last words to me were, “Kol ma shetuchal laasos bishvil chinuch yisroel taaseh vetatzliach — Do everything you can for Jewish education — and you’ll be successful.”
There is no impossible. Do everything you can for Jewish education — and you’ll be successful.
This story originally appeared in the inaugural issue of 2.0 Magazine, page 70, November 22, 2018.
This one in a series of stories and articles on the topic of innovation in education. Follow Yehuda Moshe, CEO of Mercava, as he introduces the players, shares stories from the battlefield, and showcases the latest developments from Mercava and its partners.
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