Moriah Levin isn’t a historian, but from the way she talks, you wouldn’t know it.
The Philadelphia resident can list all sorts of trivia about the synagogues of Center City, like why Society Hill Synagogue doesn’t face toward Jerusalem or why Congregation Mikveh Israel has so few windows in its sanctuary. These fun facts are a side effect of Levin’s hobby: editing Wikipedia. And in this endeavor she isn’t alone.
Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia where all information within is user contributed. Since 2001, more than five million articles in English have been created on topics relating to science, history, art and everything in between. In September 2018, American web traffic analysis company Alexa Internet named Wikipedia the world’s fifth-most popular website in terms of overall visitor traffic, with millions visiting the site each month. Levin said it’s the usability of the platform that makes it so popular.
“I love that it’s user driven. It means somebody like me, in no way a professional historian or writer, but I have something to contribute. I have this little set of knowledge of Center City synagogues, and I can put it up there,” Levin said. “Absent somebody writing a proper history, Wikipedia is fantastic in the fact that we’re all on Google, we’re all on our phones, it’s completely accessible.”
When it comes to the Philadelphia Jewish community, there are many articles on notable people, synagogues and congregations. A conglomeration of all these articles can be found on a page titled “History of the Jews in Philadelphia.”
Milo Grika, a technical writer in Minnesota, created the page in August 2005 using information from The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. The text is public domain and contains more than 15,000 articles on the history, culture and state of Judaism from the early days into the early-20th century. Grika said he was drawn to Wikipedia as he thought it was a good resource and wanted to help it expand. So he started contributing to articles on biology, linguistics and Jewish culture.
“I thought it was awesome. It was a chance for anyone to utilize the information that they thought was interesting or important or critical and get it out there for everyone to see,” Grika said. “At the time, Wikipedia was still growing. And that’s when I got pulled in, and I found a voice. I was writing articles, some of them were of my own interest, some of them pulling it in from the Jewish Encyclopedia.”
Grika is half Ashkenazi Jewish on his father’s side. Although he considers himself an atheist, he said this connection to Jewish culture is what prompted him to create pages on the subject matter. With a few tweaks, some formatting and linking to other preexisting pages, he was able to copy and paste the Jewish Encyclopedia section on Philly Jews and publish an article on the site. He estimates it took only a few hours to complete.
“It was the patriotic Jew wanting to get that information out there,” Grika said. “I was raised atheist, [but] at that time that I wrote [those Jewish-related articles], I was probably feeling a little bit more Jewish than I had previous and that I do now, but that has since waned.”
Ever since its creation, other Wikipedia users have made their mark on the page, such as Eugene Desyatnik.
He helped expand the information on several local synagogues, such as B’nai Abraham Chabad, of which he is a member. Working as a data architect, he first came across Wikipedia in 2008. Desyatnik said he soon noticed several articles covering software programs he was familiar with were either missing bits of information or were out of date. So he got to work and started making edits.
“Normally, I’d let it go, but if you see something that is significantly dated or omitted, I feel a responsibility to at least try to start the process of correcting it,” Desyatnik said. “It is a collaborative platform. So as I start expanding upon it with a new paragraph, other people will improve upon it, which is kind of the goal.”
Levin came across the site in a similar way to Desyatnik. While working as the chief financial officer of a real estate company, she first encountered Wikipedia in 2007. Ever since, she’s added information to pages on several Philadelphia shuls, including Congregation Mikveh Israel, B’nai Abraham Chabad, Congregation Kesher Israel and Society Hill Synagogue and has created pages for YPC Shari-Eli, B’nai Reuben Anshe Sfard and Adath Shalom Synagogue.
Grika said it’s the drive to create things that brings so many like Levin, Desyatnik and himself to contribute to Wikipedia.
“It felt as though I was creating information for ages to come, that sort of thing. There is that piece to wanting to have my word on a page that somebody else is reading,” Grika said. “It’s something about that idea of contributing in a meaningful way was very enticing, and must be for many people.”
When it comes to the platform, Mary Mark Ockerbloom is an expert. She is the Wikipedian in Residence at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia and helps to run the monthly WikiSalon. The community event brings people together to edit Wikipedia pages, usually based around a theme. An example: Back in February 2018, a WikiSalon was held at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.
Ockerbloom said she is motivated by a desire to make the history of marginalized groups, in particular women, more visible. She explained there is a desire among groups that have dealt with prejudice and stereotyping to become presented in a more positive way. However, doing so for these people on Wikipedia can be a bit of a challenge at times.
“To the extent that Wikipedia reflects broader culture, it is affected by the shortcomings of that culture. In the case of women artists and scientists, for example, the historical lack of recognition of the contributions of women reinforces those biases on Wikipedia, because it can be difficult to find sources that meet Wikipedia’s standards for establishing ‘notability’ and being included in the encyclopedia. Similar issues apply to recognition of minorities, people of color, Jewish people and LGBTQ people and institutions,” Ockerbloom wrote in an email.
“Each time representation of members of a group is improved, we are contributing to the description of a richer, more exciting history of the world that better approximates Wikipedia’s goal of describing ‘all human knowledge.’ We are also making visible those who have been invisible or misrepresented, and that makes it easier for other members of that group to see themselves in that history.”
So far, Grika has created 107 Wikipedia pages, of which about a dozen were based off the Jewish Encyclopedia. Today, his attention has turned away to other digital platforms like Quora, so he only occasionally edits to fix any typo he comes across.
Levin, however, is still working on her goal of expanding and creating articles on all historic synagogues in Center City.
As for Desyatnik, he plans on continuing to edit Wikipedia where he can and encourages others to do the same.
“There’s more work to be done. That’s part of both the responsibility and the inspiration behind editing articles. You feel a need to basically plug a hole in the information, but also to inspire others to continue making edits that improve upon the quality,” Desyatnik said. “I’m not a historian, I’m not an architect and I’m not a lifelong Philadelphian. But Wikipedia is not meant to be a place where you provide original research. If you can reference information, if you can cite your sources, anybody can be a contributor.”
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