While in her 20s, after completing graduate school at NYU and while working on Web 1.0 projects at a Manhattan ad agency, Sarah Lefton felt slightly uncomfortable around friends who were more observant and fluent in Jewish text, ritual, and meaning. “I fell in with some Upper West Side types and I felt like an idiot,” she said. “I started going to Shabbat dinners and didn’t even know what the parsha was. Even though I was well educated, I felt ripped off. What on earth were we doing in religious school all that time?”
Now fast forward to 2016 in San Francisco, where Lefton is tweaking a new media project called Shaboom!, a vibrant and engaging animated series exploring and teaching middot – Jewish values and virtues such as visiting the sick, gratitude, and justice.
The new series – aimed at children under seven years old and their parents – is the latest boom emanating from BimBam (formerly G-dcast), a Jewish-focused creative media factory founded by Lefton ten years ago that propels Jewish education into spheres previously unknown.
Since 2006, BimBam has been redirecting the field with engaging and inviting digital products – video shorts, apps, games, and the like – that are making Jewish education widely accessible and are being embraced by educators, students, and adults across the spectrum of observance, knowledge, and affiliation.
Since those early days in Manhattan, Lefton has morphed from a self-described Jewish neophyte into a creative leader in the field of Jewish education, leveraging her digital background and pushing the community to recognize how 21st century learners consume information.
In 2012, Lefton was one of five young Jewish educators awarded The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for her promise for significant impact and leadership in the field.
The trajectories for Lefton and for tech-enhanced Jewish education have been nearly parallel and intersect in unanticipated ways.
She began doing first-generation Web work at a time when the Jewish communal world was just discovering the potential of the Internet. Her growing impact mirrors the wave of digital advancement seeping into everyday life, her own overwhelming thirst for Jewish knowledge, and a commitment to making Judaism easier for others to access.
“This is an accidental career that just happened and caught fire,” Lefton said. “I can’t believe I get to do this as a job. It’s very me to get obsessed with something and not want to shut up about it – to break it down and explain it to others.
“I don’t talk like a typical Jewish educator and my work is not at all typical either. It is edgier and more relaxed-feeling. This keeps me more authentic to myself and to where I came from, and allows me to create Jewish pieces that resonate with a more secular crowd.”
Lefton’s mark on Jewish education continues to grow and be noticed. BimBam videos have garnered almost 3 million views, and prominent news outlets, such as The New York Times, NPR, and CNN, along with Jewish media, are featuring the nonprofit’s marriage of digital and Jewish literacies.
“Sarah has the unique vision and ability to illuminate the depth, richness, and aliveness of Torah and Jewish traditions, and to package them in a way that is amazingly accessible,” said Lisa Colton, Chief Leaning Officer at See3 Communications and Board member at BimBam. “She is a true pioneer who recognizes how to make an important difference for the community independent of – and also with great respect for – established institutions.”
Lefton is steering BimBam from being just a creator and distributor of educational media to being a traveling laboratory so that day schools, synagogues, and other communal organizations can replicate her approach. This year, BimBam received a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant to train a national cadre of educators and b’nei mitzvah students to use animation as a tool for Jewish text study.
“The best Jewish education happens when we make something, like a film or a song or a sculpture,” she said. “By constructing from text, we learn in a way that we never forget and then we own the knowledge and insights. I want people to make their own Torah the way I did.”
As a member of the second cohort of Pomegranate Prize recipients, Lefton has become a sought-after expert on the place and potential of creative media in Jewish education. She has conferred with and presented to Foundation grantee organizations and others in the field, not only to share knowledge, but also to deepen her own and to inform her own development.
Her Prize-sponsored forays can be stamped as both traditional and free-thinking. While Lefton took public and inspirational speaking seminars at the famed Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in order to enhance her teaching abilities, she also enrolled in a studio art and ceramics class in San Francisco in order to deepen her sense of aesthetics and creative interpretation.
Similarly, while she dives into Jewish text study through The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies to continue her lifelong immersion, Lefton also attended the Kidscreen Summit in Miami, an international conference exploring trends and practices in the children’s entertainment industry.
Even with the Pomegranate Prize in hand, as well as multiple Covenant Foundation grants supporting her work, she still bristles ever so slightly at being called a “Jewish educator.” As Lefton stated, that comes from a still-lingering feeling that she is a learner who is merely translating her own discoveries onto an easy-to-reach platform for others.
“I’ve got a known fear of sounding ignorant,” she said. “Even if I was to go get a Ph.D. or a rabbinical degree, I would still feel as if I didn’t grow up with this and so I’m not as smart as so-and-so.
“But I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the role and I embrace the fact that lifelong learning and immersion is central to the Jewish tradition, as is passing on our acquired wisdom to others. That’s what I am doing and so I increasingly am embracing the educator role.”