Senior at Touro’s Lander College for Men Wins Powered by Sefaria Contest
Gershon Binder Creates Sefaria Chavrusa, a New Software Program to Increase Accessibility for the Study of Hebrew Texts
Gershon Binder, a senior at Touro’s Lander College for Men, was named grand prize winner in this year’s Powered by Sefaria contest. The contest invites the Jewish developer community to use Sefaria’s free digital dataset of Biblical texts to improve the landscape of online Torah learning. Participants are challenged to combine the latest technology with the digitized and translated ancient texts. Binder, 25, of Kew Gardens Hills, created Sefaria Chavrusa, a bilingual text-to-speech feature for online learning, as his winning entry.
“I wanted to take the Sefaria text and do something creative with it that would provide real value to the community. People like learning with other people, as chavrusas, and I thought—why not create a program to read Hebrew and translate it into English? It’s like learning with a chavrusa and is great for people who use screen readers, are unfamiliar with reading Hebrew or just prefer hearing texts read aloud. As a child of Baal Teshuva parents, who grew up around Kiruv, I know how helpful this can be for beginners,” said Binder.
“There are many times when people find themselves glancing back and forth between their own sefarim, which may have no translations, and Sefaria’s online translation. This text-to-speech feature enables people to look into a sefer and hear the translation at the same time,” continued Binder. “In addition to those just starting to learn Torah, Sefaria Chavrusa can be very helpful to those with dyslexia, reading issues or visual disabilities.”
Binder conducted hours of research in preparation for the contest, and when he investigated options for text-to-speech from Hebrew to English, he realized a standardized solution didn’t currently exist. Combined with the need to customize the pronunciation of words that are read differently than they appear in print, it became clear that a fully customized solution was the way to truly meet the needs of Sefaria users. Using Microsoft’s Azure service, an artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer, in both general text-to-speech and text-to-speech in the complex Hebrew language, he created the text-to-speech feature for Sefaria that offers both English and Hebrew together, or separately, so users can read and translate. Sefaria Chavrusa also enables customized voices with different accents including Chassidish, Litvish, and the currently supported, Israeli.
Binder spent years learning in Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva and came to the Lander College night program three years ago while continuing to learn in Chofetz Chaim by day. While in college, he interned for a cell phone company, SafeTelecom, where he created a customized web application for all sales so company executives could visualize the data and better market their products.
What the future holds for Binder is not entirely clear, but he hopes to “one day, with G-d’s help, use his skills to provide a service for people.” Whether it’s 3-D, graphics or software engineering, he’s excited to be involved in programming, graphic design or a combination of both in ways that positively impact people’s lives.
Binder originally found out about the Sefaria contest through a Lander College slack group for computer science majors. He has tremendous gratitude to his computer science professors at Lander, not just because of the $5,000 prize he won, but because of their constant encouragement and the skills they taught him, noting that they “were constantly supportive and available to help with anything at any time.” He hopes to use the skills that enabled him to develop his prize-winning entry to enter this exciting and ever-changing field.