As a Jewish educator and technologist, Russel M. Neiss is always dreaming up ways to “democratize” Jewish texts and knowledge, using his considerable coding skills to reach Jews of all ages and backgrounds. As senior product engineer at Sefaria, he has helped develop a groundbreaking living library of Jewish texts, as well as Sefaria’s popular Source Sheet Builder tool and its first mobile app. Among Neiss’s earlier creations: the PocketTorah app, which helps users learn to chant the weekly Torah portion and Haftarah from anywhere, and BimBam’s (formerly G-dcast) “Let’s Bake Challah” app, which brings 3-5-year-olds through the process of preparing, baking, and eating a virtual challah.
How did your first job out of college influence the trajectory of your career?
I spent that year as a traveling educator for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. What I saw down South inspired me to no end. I may have had more book knowledge about Judaism, but the people I met had more knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a Jew in America than I’ll ever have. I helped them fulfill their desires for Jewish learning and their thirst for knowledge; within a short time, I was hooked. Since then, my mission has been to ensure that every Jew has the resources available to make Judaism meaningful in their own lives, so they can transform Judaism and the world around them.
“My mission has been to ensure that every Jew has the resources available to make Judaism meaningful in their own lives, so they can transform Judaism and the world around them.”
What projects are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
At Sefaria, our work has been focused on being a library, a place for people to consume information. But now we’re revamping our editor [tool] to allow folks to write their own Torah. We’re asking, “What’s the richness we can add to the tradition?” We also just launched a prototype called Daf Roulette, where you get matched up with another person to learn that day’s Daf Yomi [Talmud “page of the day”] over real-time video. In my own time, I always have dozens and dozens of projects going, in various states. I have too many ideas and not enough time to put them all into practice.
Is there a piece of text that guides you?
There’s a text in the Gemara (Berakhot 28a) that talks about how Rabban Gamliel kept a doorkeeper at the beit midrash [house of study]. When Rabban Gamliel is deposed, his successor does away with the doorkeeper; that day, the Gemara tells us, there wasn’t a single question that went unanswered. Rashi suggests this is because when you increase the number of students, you increase insightfulness and pilpul, or Talmudic discourse. As someone who is deeply committed to making sure Judaism remains relevant, I believe we need to open our doors to those from different backgrounds, different ideologies, and different levels of learning.
“I believe we need to open our doors to those from different backgrounds, different ideologies, and different levels of learning.”
Even as your career as a software engineer has taken off, you’ve made a point to carve out time for in-person teaching—most recently teaching a daily class to fifth graders at your own children’s day school. Why?
If I were an artist or musician and I brought that passion into the classroom, no one would bat an eyelash. But because technology is mysterious and magical for many people, they’re often surprised to hear that I continue to teach. For me, it would feel insufficient to just do the “technology thing” or just teach. I know that one makes me better at the other.
What is the Jewish world missing when it comes to technology?
We have a shininess syndrome. We tend to get caught up in the latest, greatest piece of technology, but we don’t actually think about how that technology fulfills our goals, our aims, and our values. What are the values we want to perpetuate and model? Ultimately, technology is just a tool.