May 24, 2019

Groundbreaking Jewish Content Site BimBam Shuts Down

In early April, BimBam, the pioneering and award-winning Jewish digital storytelling site best known for its animated videos depicting weekly Torah portions, announced it was shutting down after 11 years. 

BimBam’s content library of over 400 original videos — representing more than 11 million views and 22 million minutes of watch time on YouTube — will remain online at ReformJudaism.org, which is maintained by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). 

BimBam videos emerged from founder Sarah Lefton’s journey to expand her own Jewish literacy, she told the Journal. In 2005, she had an idea for animating the weekly Torah portion, and in 2006 was selected for the ROI Summit (an initiative from the Schusterman Foundation that brings together young Jewish activists, entreprenuers and innovators in their 20s and 30s who enhance Jewish engagement), where she could pitch her innovative Jewish idea to influencers. 

Lefton enlisted her creative collaborators, animator Nick Fox-Gieg and writer Matthue Roth; interviewed her friend Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz about the parsha of Balak, which would be read in synagogue the week of the ROI Summit; and churned out a pilot for what was then called “G-dcast.” At the presentation, Lefton got a standing ovation.

“That lit up the future for me,” Lefton said. “I realized this is a viable thing.” 

Two years later, Lefton put together funding to support a complete year of videos, which launched on Simchat Torah in 2008. Then the team animated wide swaths of the Bible, from Joshua to Esther to Psalms. It created the original cartoon series “Shaboom!” for children ages 4-7 and their parents, teaching Jewish values, including welcoming guests, expressing gratitude and visiting the sick. The team built “Judaism 101” to help young adults connect to Jewish rituals, prayers and texts (43% of BimBam’s viewers are ages 18-34). 

Longtime fans may recall “Leviticus,” a brutal-yet-entertaining “Fruit Ninja”-style slicing game that tested knowledge about ancient Temple sacrifices. There was “Let’s Bake Challah,” an app/game for ages 2-6, and the e-Scapegoat, an online confession tool recalling the ancient custom of priests symbolically transfering the Israelites’ sins to a goat.

“BimBam could have been the Pixar of multimedia Jewish learning.” — Joshua Avedon. 

BimBam convened rabbis and art students to co-create videos on the Talmud, Jewish law and everyday prayer. It worked with more than 5,000 Jewish educators to make its content available to all, at no cost. Lefton is also “insanely proud” of “Studio G-dcast,” which assembled college students to learn Jewish stories and make videos in “a six-day film jam.” 

“I never thought that videos were for educators and kids,” Lefton said. “I always thought it was for people like me — young adults making up for a mediocre Jewish education in the past.” 

Yael Weinstock Mashbaum, a teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy, said BimBam’s videos “provide midrash and interpretation that enhanced [students’] understanding of the chapter and the story.”

She also encouraged her students to analyze which parts of the text BimBam chose to include or omit from the video.

“The videos challenge students to go beyond defining and summarizing content and go deeper,” she said. “It’s a different layer of how to question and think about the text, sparking ideas in both educators and students. It allows for higher-order thinking.” 

Rick Zieff, a Los Angeles-based voice actor who provided a few voices for the “Shaboom!” series, said he was proud of his involvement in the show “because of the messaging and what they’re calling co-viewing, watching with your kid. [The videos] start questions, bring answers and are thought-provoking and funny.”

“Making great content is easy if you have the right people around,” Lefton said, crediting her team, especially video director and producer Jeremy Shuback, as having created “some of the best videos we ever made.” Still, Lefton said that distribution channels make it difficult for small creators to get their work noticed “without celebrities or million-dollar ad campaigns or the right algorithmic magic sprinkled on top.” 

“You can control how many times you post and use SEO (search engine optimization) titles,” outgoing BimBam CEO Jordan Gill told the Journal. “But you can’t control audience behavior.”

In a press release, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs called BimBam’s videos “powerful tools and conversation starters for all audiences including … the Reform movement’s network of educators and youth professionals to share with their students.”  

“BimBam could have been the Pixar of multimedia Jewish learning,” Joshua Avedon, CEO of Jumpstart Labs, a philanthropic research and design lab based in Los Angeles, told the Journal. “If Jewish philanthropy saw BimBam’s individual videos as the value proposition, they missed the point. Sarah Lefton and a gaggle of very talented people built a studio capable of turning authentic Jewish content into beautifully produced, bite-sized animated storytelling. People understand that if you want great theater, you have to keep theaters in business to produce it. The same is true for a Jewish animation studio.”

BimBam spent about a year considering its options before moving forward with URJ. In the press release, Lefton noted, “BimBam has been blessed with extremely generous donors and friends for 11 years but we were unable to sustain our budget at a size that would let us produce high-quality content without compromising our approach.”

BimBam produced all its content for less than $1 million a year, Gill said. 

“I’m surprised that funders who really care about high-quality Jewish education weren’t tripping over each other to bankroll BimBam’s operational costs so the talent could focus on making great videos,” Avedon said. “The URJ is acquiring a terrific library, but the actual value of BimBam was its creative potential to make any kind of Jewish content relevant and captivating.”

“BimBam had a lot more to say and it’s unfortunate the funding wasn’t there to keep going, but we also look at our body of work and consider it a tremendous success,” Gill said. “We feel very proud of this content and are confident that our partners at URJ will continue to steward it and its life will be continued.”