Episode 43: Hanukkah in America - Dianne Ashton

Dianne Ashton, Profession of Religion Studies at Rowan University and author of the book Hanukkah in America: A History, [1] joins Dan and Lex to describe the evolution of Hanukkah over the course of American history. The conversation ranges from the Maccabees to gift giving to the "December Dilemma." [2]

Image Credit: NYU Press

Image Credit: NYU Press

(0:01 - 14:44): To begin the episode, Prof. Ashton discusses what led her to write the book Hanukkah in America: A History. She then gives us a window into the 19th century, a crucial period in the evolution of American observances of Hanukkah, [3]  emphasizing, In particular, how various Jewish groups (with vastly different ideologies) all latched onto the narrative of the Maccabees that plays a key role in the story of Hanukkah.

(14:45 - 29:20): Ashton hones in on key elements of Hanukkah that continue to play an important role today. First, she describes and explains the increasing focus on children at Hanukkah over the 19th and 20th centuries. Next, she discusses the "December Dilemma" (the complex feelings that Jews have experienced due to Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas on the calendar). [4] Ashton then proposes a few explanations as to why Hanukkah has proven so flexible over time, both in terms of its meaning and the customs that characterize its observance.

(29:21 - 43:42): To close the episode, the conversation pivots to looking at Hanukkah observances today, along with possibilities for the future. In particular, Ashton discusses the different manifestations of Hanukkah that can occur in the home and in broader forms of Jewish community, along with ways in which digital observances of Hanukkah may continue to affect the manifestations of Hanukkah that develop in the decades to come.

[1] You can purchase Hanukkah in America on Amazon by visiting this link.

[2] For a full-length article about Ashton's book, read this 2013 article in The Forward, entitled "How Hanukkah Entered American Mainstream."

[3] For an expansive look into American Jewish history in a more general sense, listen to our Judaism Unbound podcast episode featuring historian Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis University.

[4] MyJewishLearning has an entire section of their website that features articles related to "The December Dilemma." Access them by scrolling down the page at this link.

Episode 42: Aphrodite and the Rabbis - Burton Visotzky

Burton Visotzky, the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, joins Dan and Lex to discuss the topic of his recent book, Aphrodite and the Rabbis. He speaks about the surprising degree to which Greco-Roman ideas shaped Rabbinic Judaism, [1] so much so that, Visotzky argues, that Judaism should be understood as a Roman religion. With Hanukkah coming up, they discuss how this understanding of Judaism squares with the Maccabees well-known anti-Hellenist agenda.

Image Credit: BurtonVisotzky.com

Image Credit: BurtonVisotzky.com

(0:01 - 15:11): Visotzky begins with the personal story that eventually inspired him to write Aphrodite and the Rabbis. [2] He also introduces his primary thesis -- that rabbinic Judaism was not, as some think, especially resistant to Greco-Roman culture, but rather was deeply influenced and shaped by it in fundamental ways.

(15:12 - 30:30): Visotzky talks about how the ideological basis of the Talmud is largely based on forms of Stoic philosophy that characterized Greco-Roman life. [3] Perhaps most surprisingly, he reports, Greco-Roman synagogues have been discovered that appear to give Greek gods central roles in their artwork. [4] We discuss and debate the ways in which ancient forms of syncretism may or may not parallel contemporary forms, especially those that relate to how modern American Jews have thought about and might think about engaging with Christmas. Visotzky goes on to consider the place of Hanukkah as it relates to the topics explored in Aphrodite and the Rabbis[5]

(30:31 - 46:04): The conversation turns towards contemporary observances of Hanukkah. The episode closes with a broadening of the conversation to explore the directions of American Judaism today, including some healthy disagreement about what those directions are and should be.

[1] If you would like to purchase Aphrodite and the Rabbis on Amazon, you can do so at this link. To learn more about Burton Visotzky and his work, visit www.BurtonVisotzky.com.

[2] For more background on the Jewish catacombs of Rome, check out this article from the Jerusalem Post

Beth Alpha Zodiac - Image Credit: NASA

Beth Alpha Zodiac - Image Credit: NASA

[3] Philo of Alexandria was not mentioned directly in this episode, but he also played an important role blending stoicism and Judaism in the Greco-Roman era. To learn more about his writings and philosophy, click here.

[4] Two noteworthy archaeological finds that feature Greek gods in Jewish settings are Hamat Tiberias and Beth Alpha. Learn more about them on their respective wikipedia pages:     Hamat Tiberias     Beth Alpha

[5] This episode is the second in our six-episode series on Hanukkah that began last week with guest Yehuda Kurtzer. We also are excited to be bringing you Hanukkah Unbound, which will offer a wide variety of ways to engage the holiday in the digital world and with your friends and family. Stay tuned for the official launch in the coming weeks!

Episode 41: History and Memory - Yehuda Kurtzer

How should the Jewish present and future relate to the Jewish past? Yehuda Kurtzer, President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America [1] and author of the book Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, [2] joins Dan and Lex for an exploration of the significance of history and memory in contemporary Judaism. 

Image Credit: SiouxCityJournal.com

Image Credit: SiouxCityJournal.com

(0:01 - 14:19): Kurtzer tells the story of how he came to write his book Shuva: The Future of The Jewish Past. He introduces the distinction he draws between "history" and "memory," applying this distinction to Judaism by comparing and contrasting modern "memory holidays" (including Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel's Memorial Day) with more ancient "memory holidays" like Passover.

(14:20 - 29:21): Kurtzer critiques the idea of "Jewish continuity," explaining why he sees the concept as problematic and inauthentic. [3] He also makes a distinction between "Genesis Jews" (those relating to Judaism primarily through the lens of family and peoplehood) and "Exodus Jews" (those relating to Judaism primarily through beliefs, behaviors, and practices), a classification initially introduced by Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. [4] Kurtzer also explains why he sees immense value in creating platforms for people to experiment with new Jewish innovations, even if those innovations veer in many different, or even opposing, directions.

(29:22 - 46:54): Through a metaphor of "marbles on a frictionless surface," Kurtzer examines the idea of Jewish peoplehood. He also gives his take on the question of "Why be Jewish?" As a closing thought, Kurtzer looks at the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim as they relate to the twin ideas of history and memory. [5]

[1] Learn more about Kurtzer's work with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America by visiting its website. You can also see Kurtzer's JDOV Talk by visiting this link.

[2] Order a copy of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past by visiting this link.

[3] To hear more of Kurtzer's ideas relating to the idea of Jewish continuity, read his 2014 piece in The Forward, entitled "Abraham's Lesson: Quality over Quantity in Push for Jewish Continuity." 

[4] Learn more about the framework of Genesis and Exodus Jews by listening to this lecture by Donniel Hartman.

[5] In his closing remarks, Kurtzer mentions the book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Click here to purchase the book in audio form or here to order a hard copy.

Episode 40: What Should Stay and What Should Go?

Wrapping up our discussion of Jewish and "extra-Jewish" sensibilities, [1] Dan and Lex begin an examination of which concrete elements of present-day Judaism will likely be retained in the next Jewish future, and which elements may end up "on the cutting room floor." 

Dan Libenson (left), President of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and Lex Rofes (right), Strategic Initiatives Coordinator of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, co-hosts of the Judaism Unbound podcast

Dan Libenson (left), President of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and Lex Rofes (right), Strategic Initiatives Coordinator of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, co-hosts of the Judaism Unbound podcast

(0:01 - 27:07): We begin with a shorter "pre-episode" discussing the recent presidential election and its immediate aftermath. Jews overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, suggesting that the sensibility of loving the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt, and its modern expression that looks more to Jewish responsibility for others after the Holocaust, is widely held by Jews. How will the Jews who were outraged by Donald Trump's statements and by his associates, whom he has appointed to high office, deal with the seemingly business-as-usual congratulations offered to Trump by many larger Jewish communal organizations? [2] In exploring this question, Dan and Lex examine whether the gap between "regular Jews" and these organizations in this particular situation illustrates broader, systemic issues that make it difficult for today's centralized Jewish institutions to meet the contemporary needs of American Jews. [3]

(27:08 - 42:09): We continue with the "regularly scheduled" episode, reflecting on the idea of Jewish sensibilities and providing an overview of what they are and what they are not. [4] Dan and Lex introduce this episode's framing question -- what are the key elements of Judaism that will likely be retained in future versions of Judaism, and what are the elements that could be discarded?

(42:10 - 57:54): Dan and Lex explore whether expressing "Jewish sensibilities" is relevant only when talking about what Jews do, or whether Jewish sensibilities can be expressed by non-Jews. In other words, need Jewish sensibilities be uniquely Jewish? They also consider elements of Judaism that could continue to hold a central place in Judaism moving forward, such as the rhythm of the calendar year and tikkun olam (repairing the world). [5]

Will synagogue worship as we know it continue into the future of Judaism? Image Credit: www.BethOrBethTorah.org

Will synagogue worship as we know it continue into the future of Judaism? Image Credit: www.BethOrBethTorah.org

(57:55 - 1:15:42): Dan re-introduces a metaphor of Judaism as a language and expresses his belief that the idea of commandedness (human beings making Jewish commitments because God commands them to) will not maintain its central place in future versions of Judaism. He and Lex explore the question of whether that means contemporary paradigms of prayer will need to change or disappear. In closing, they look at whether Jewish learning or study might grow more important if commandedness becomes less central.

Image Credit: BendTheArc.us

Image Credit: BendTheArc.us

[1] The three previous episodes in this series can be accessed by clicking the following links: Episode 37: Jewish Sensibilities, Episode 38: Judaism and Evolving Dharma, and Episode 39: The Pico Union Project.

Image Credit: IfNotNow

Image Credit: IfNotNow

[2] The following Jewish organizations are among those that have issued public responses of congratulations to Donald Trump in the aftermath of his victory (read their statements by clicking the corresponding hyperlinks): Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish OrganizationsJewish Council for Public Affairs, Republican Jewish Coalition, American Jewish Committee. These statements, especially that of JFNA, have generated strong negative responses from the grassroots. A petition on change.org calling on JFNA to "oppose publicly the presence of Stephen K. Bannon in the Trump administration" currently has about 2,000 signatures. The relatively new IfNotNow, whose members tend to be younger Jews and whose primary mission is to end American Jewish support for Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, has gone even further, organizing a protest that entered the General Services Administration building lobby (where Trump's transition team was meeting). IfNotNow issued a statement that included the following "What does it mean that the JFNA sends a congratulatory letter to Trump calling for unity when Muslims, women, immigrants, and people of color are being harassed on the streets and targeted with graffiti? What does it signal to the broader community when the JFNA offers to assist with the Trump Administration’s transition while Trump supporters are spraying swastikas on storefronts on the anniversary of Kristallnacht?" In contrast to the organizations that congratulated Donald Trump, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a group that campaigned against him, has issued an open letter, signed by over 40,000 people, expressing solidarity with immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and others, that can be accessed here. Also, the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism has issued a statement criticizing the appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor, stating the following: "[B]oth in his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House." American Jewish World Service has issued a statement denouncing Bannon's appointment and demanding that it be withdrawn, citing Jewish sensibilities as grounds for its position: "We are deeply concerned that appointing a person who has either ridiculed or demonized women, LGBT people, Muslims, Jews and others is an affront to the values we most cherish, and which we believe serve as the foundation of just societies and a diverse world community" Other recent calls to remove Bannon include those from the following Jewish organizations: The Anti-Defamation LeagueT'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

[3] In this discussion, Dan and Lex invoke the book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert Hirschman. The book was a key component of Judaism Unbound's 4th episode, and it can be purchased at this link.

Image Credit: ReligiousStudies.Virginia.Edu

Image Credit: ReligiousStudies.Virginia.Edu

[4] Vanessa Ochs's piece introducing the paradigm of Jewish sensibilities can be accessed here

[5] In discussing the term tikkun olam, we analyze the evolution of its meaning over time. Rabbi Jill Jacobs provides an extensive look at the history of the term in this 2007 piece, featured in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

Episode 39: The Pico Union Project - Craig Taubman, Zach Lasker, Jason Chu

Craig Taubman, acclaimed Jewish musician and founder of Pico Union Project [1] in Los Angeles, Zach Lasker, the organization's new Executive Director, and Jason Chu, its Chief Storytelling Officer, bring their insights to Judaism Unbound for a timely discussion of art, "soul," loving our neighbors, and knowing our neighbors. [2]

Image Credit: Pico Union Project

Image Credit: Pico Union Project

(0:01 - 13:04): Taubman begins the episode by giving a brief overview of the history of the Pico Union Project. He also explains that the organization's core is the mission of "love your neighbor as yourself," which requires both knowing your neighbor and knowing yourself. Chu then discusses why he finds his work at Pico Union Project meaningful, highlighting its emphasis on the arts along with its focus on being both ecumenical and inter-generational.

(13:05 - 28:13): The conversation turns to the role of art and artists in both ancient and contemporary Judaism. [3] Taubman looks back on the historically central role of art in Judaism that eventually lost out to what he terms "knowledge and intellectualism." Chu introduces a distinction between the persistence of our existing religious institutions and the persistence of religion more generally. Through the story of Bezalel and Oholiav (the two men who, according to the Bible, led the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness), the conversation then turns to the question of leadership and "first followers." [4]

Image Credit: Inheritance Magazine

Image Credit: Inheritance Magazine

Image Credit: NewPoseForPractice.com

Image Credit: NewPoseForPractice.com

(28:14 - 47:52): In this latter portion of the episode, Lasker [5] describes his own journey into yoga and meditation, and how principles from those disciplines can be incorporated into Jewish practice. [6]

[1] Visit the Pico Union Project website by clicking here.

[2] Check out Taubman's music at www.CraigNCo.com and Chu's at JasonChuMusic.com

[3] Listen to Dan and Lex think expansively about the role of art and artists in Judaism by listening to Episode 32: The Art of Judaism.

[4] To read the original Biblical story of Bezalel and Oholiav, see Exodus, chapter 31, along with Exodus, chapters 35-39

[5] To learn more from Lasker about "embodied Judaism," read his June 2016 piece in eJewish Philanthropy.

[6] You can find more resources related to the growing world of Jewish yoga by visiting JewishYogaNetwork.org.


Episode 38: Judaism and Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson, legal affairs columnist for The Daily Beast, contributing editor to The Forward, and teacher of Buddhist and Jewish meditation, joins Dan and Lex for a wide-ranging discussion on contemporary American Judaism. [1] Building on last week's conversation on "Jewish sensibilities," we look at which "extra-Jewish" sensibilities might become part of the Judaism of the future, and then we go on to explore a variety of contemporary Jewish issues.

Image Credit: Beacon Press

Image Credit: Beacon Press

(0:01 - 12:47): The episode begins with the framework of "Jewish sensibilities" introduced in our previous episode's conversation with leaders of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Jay Michaelson suggests that sensibilities we think of as Jewish and sensibilities we think of as non-Jewish (Buddhist sensibilities, for example) actually overlap in many ways. He considers the concept of syncretism -- the sharing of rituals between and among religious or cultural traditions -- and offers a (fairly minimalistic) definition of what Judaism is, avoiding the idea that Judaism possesses a particular essence, the absence of which would make it no longer Jewish.

12:48 - 25:16): Michaelson explores Jewish nationalism and group identity using the lens of augmented reality, which is quickly emerging as an important new technology, exemplified by the recently-released game Pokemon Go. [2] He goes on to examine the question of "why be Jewish," outlining an analogy to a sandbox in which Judaism can help create better and better "pails and shovels" (tools/utilities) to apply to our daily lives. Michaelson also opens a window into the world of "BuJews" [3] -- individuals who identify as both Buddhist and Jewish, many of whom serve in leadership roles in one or both communities. [4]

(25:17 - 36:43): The conversation turns to discussion of other elements of Michaelson's identity -- Jewish journalism and life as an gay Jew. He distinguishes Jewish journalism in Israel from Jewish journalism in the United States, considering the particular challenges faced by the American Jewish press today. Michaelson also gives his views on the state of Jewish life for LGBTQ Jews in the United States today. [5] Michaelson also gives his take on the issue of intermarriage in the American-Jewish world.

(36:44 - 47:02): We consider the importance of demographic shifts in the American-Jewish community as they relate to the growth of the Ultra-Orthodox community. [6] Michaelson closes on an optimistic note, talking about how people in institutions across the Jewish world, including mainstream synagogues, are looking to think outside-the-box and create enriching forms of Jewish life. [7]


[1] Experience more of Michaelson's commentary on American Judaism by reading some of his columns in The Forward, all of which are accessible at this link. To hear from him on questions related to American Buddhism, check out this episode of the "Buddhist Geeks" podcast featuring him as a guest.

[2] To read the article Michaelson wrote on Pokemon Go and its relationship to religion, click here.

[3] Purchase Evolving Dharma, authored by Michaelson and released in 2013, at this link.

[4] In discussing BuJews, Michaelson refers to Rodger Kamenetz's landmark book The Jew in the Lotus. You can purchase it here.

Credit: Footsteps

Credit: Footsteps

[5] Michaelson refers to Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta in discussing the experience of American LGBTQ Jews. Bet Haverim's rabbi, Joshua Lesser, was a recent guest on Judaism Unbound. Listen to his episode, entitled "Twice Blessed," by clicking here.

[6] Learn more about Footsteps, an organization helping formerly Ultra-Orthodox Jews transition to lives outside the Ultra-Orthodox world, by viewing their website.

[7] In discussing the growth of meaningful new forms of American Judaism, Michaelson mentions "Let My People Sing," an event devoted to joyous Jewish singing that was held recently at the Isabella Freedman Center. Learn more about "Let My People Sing" (and, if you wish, register for next year's event) by clicking here.

Episode 37: Jewish Sensibilities - Jonathan Woocher and Lee Moore

Jonathan Woocher and Lee Moore of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah join Dan and Lex to kick off a series of episodes beginning to discuss the content of the Judaism of the future by introducing the idea of "Jewish sensibilities," [1] exploring why and how such a framework might resonate with contemporary American Jews and their communities.

(0:01 - 15:35): Lee Moore explains the framework of "Jewish sensibilities" as a way of thinking about what kinds of Jewish content will be most resonant in the Jewish future. [2] She illustrates the idea using one of the ten sensibilities that the foundation focuses on ("We were strangers in Egypt") as an example. Jonathan Woocher expands on the framework by discussing how, eventually, these Jewish sensibilities can become part of our "fast thinking mode," becoming internalized to the point that they operate instinctively in people. Woocher and Moore also consider how sensibilities can be both particularly Jewish and universal simultaneously.

Image Credits: Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

Image Credits: Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

(15:36 - 26:23): Through exploring the recent campaign of Bernie Sanders, [3] Woocher discusses how Jewish sensibilities might be engaged even by those who don't consciously ground those sensibilities in Jewish texts or observances. Our guests also look at the extent to which these sensibilities can have a positive impact on the broader world beyond the lives of individual Jews.

(26:24 - 35:05): Dan connects the ideas in Yuval Noah Harari's upcoming book, Homo Deus, to the ideas being discussed in this conversation, [4] asking whether the sensibilities that Jews developed in thinking about God might be even more relevant today as guides for human behavior. He gives listeners a brief summary of the ten sensibilities that the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has emphasized. [5]

(35:06 - 48:48): Woocher and Moore consider how these sensibilities could affect the work of contemporary institutions in a practical sense. They conclude the episode with a conversation about the first-ever Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, including an analysis of the importance of "applied Jewish wisdom" today. [6] 

[1] Learn more about the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah by visiting their website.

[2] Read Vanessa Ochs's article from Sh'ma magazine that introduced the framework of Jewish sensibilities here.

[3] To explore some ways in which Bernie Sanders's campaign illuminates a variety of important conversations about contemporary Judaism, listen to Episode 14 of our podcast, entitled "Putting the 'American' in American Judaism."

[4] Pre-order Homo Deus on Amazon at this link (the book will be released in English on February 21, 2017).

[5] The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has created a series of cards based on the ten Jewish sensibilities that they emphasize. The cards, and the sensibilities, can be viewed here.

[6] Learn more about the Lippman Kanfer Prize by visiting its website.

Episode 36: What Jewish Looks Like Today - Benay Lappe

Is being "welcoming" and "inclusive" enough? Is pain a necessary prerequisite to the successful implementation of radical, new, Jewish ideas? Benay Lappe, the founder of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva [1] and recipient of the 2016 Covenant Award for exceptional Jewish educators (considered akin to the "Nobel Prize for Jewish education"), [2] returns to Judaism Unbound as a guest co-host to tackle these questions, and many others, with Dan and Lex. [3]

Image Credit: Rabbi Benay Lappe

Image Credit: Rabbi Benay Lappe

(0:01 - 11:53): Our guest co-host, Benay Lappe, begins by describing the evolution of Jewish communal attitudes toward LGBTQ people, beginning with blatant exclusion, then progressing to what she calls (and critiques) as "Inclusion 1.0." Dan opens a discussion of whether the model of "inclusion" is also harmful because it defines the primary goal as the maintenance of current institutions -- not the invention of new ones (if necessary for true flourishing).

(11:54 - 21:31): Lex makes a distinction between those who are marginalized due to elements of their identity, those marginalized due to their beliefs, and those marginalized due to issues of practice (most prominently intermarriage). [4] Dan, Lex, and Benay discuss the extent to which individuals are willing to put aside core elements of their identities, beliefs, or practices in order to feel accepted by and connected to Jewish communities, especially when they do not believe there is any other way to feel connected to Judaism and to experience a rich Jewish life. Perhaps, they wonder, some of the enthusiasm for Judaism Unbound stems from its raising the possibility of another way.

Image Credit: DigitalTrends.com

Image Credit: DigitalTrends.com

(21:32 - 32:16): Benay suggest that, in order for individuals to really put forth groundbreaking new Jewish ideas, they may need to have experienced a great deal of pain. She even goes so far as to say that their work "has to be a matter of life or death." Continuing, she presents a frame that distinguishes between individuals who are LGBT and individuals who are "queer," explaining how it is possible to be one but not the other. [5]

(32:17 - 44:40): Dan synthesizes a number of the issues and reflects on the life of Steve Jobs (his 5th yahrzeit -- the anniversary of his death -- occurred in early October), and how it relates to the questions about innovation and scale that we have been discussing.

[1] Learn more about Benay Lappe's work by visiting SVARA's website.

[2] Read about why Benay Lappe was selected for the prestigious Covenant Award by visiting the Covenant Foundation's announcement.

[3] Tune into Benay Lappe's first appearance on Judaism Unbound by listening to Episode 3: Exodus. (Benay was the first-ever guest on Judaism Unbound.)

[4] Lex mentions a recent article by Jay Michaelson, in which Michaelson argues against attending High Holiday services. Read that piece (from The Forward) by clicking here (and also, stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Judaism Unbound featuring Jay Michaelson).

[5] To learn more about Benay Lappe's vision for the Jewish future, you can view her ELI Talk (available by clicking the video to the right)



Bonus Episode: UpStart Unbound

UpStart Unbound is our first-ever collaborative podcast episode, recorded in front of a live studio audience in Silicon Valley. [1] UpStart has been the premier accelerator of Jewish innovation over the last decade, and we wanted to explore together the idea that the over 40 organizations [2] that UpStart has helped move from idea to organization could be viewed as prototypes that are field-testing some big ideas about the future of Jewish life. The episode was recorded as part of the UpStart Lab, an annual gathering of innovators from across the country. 

(0:01-2:05): Dan gives a short introduction of UpStart and the special UpStart Unbound collaborative crowd-sourced podcast recording event, which was recorded with a live audience on September 20, 2016, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in Silicon Valley. Dan explains that the event included three components: initial framing and thoughts from a distinguished panel; responses and further thoughts from leaders of innovative organizations currently part of UpStart's accelerator program; and contributions from members of the audience, which included Bay Area lay leaders and supporters of Jewish innovation. 

(2:06-16:23): Dan introduces the opening panel: Aaron Katler, CEO of UpStart; Aaron Britt, who at the time of recording was Senior Editor and leader of the communications team at IDEO.org, which uses human-centered design to create products, services, and experiences that improve the lives of people living in poverty; and Lana Volftsun, philanthropic adviser, founder of White Light Strategies, and member of the board of Slingshot, a collective fund that provides support for a subset of innovative Jewish organizations featured in the Slingshot Guide. Dan invites the panel to think about the organizations that UpStart has accelerated over the last ten years as prototypes "of some kind of new approach to Judaism that we are grappling toward." Aaron Britt explains that a prototype is a "minimum viable expression of an idea" that is put into the hands of users for the purposes of learning. Themes that emerge from the panel include surprising discoveries that have come from being willing to just try things out, the level of risk tolerance of the Jewish community, and the question whether "failure" should be more celebrated in the world of Jewish innovation, seen as a source of learning, which is the dominant attitude toward failure in the worlds of design thinking and Silicon Valley.

(16:24-44:19): Jewish innovators--members of UpStart's accelerator program's three current cohorts--add their views and talk with Dan, Aaron Britt and Lana. The participants in this part of the conversation included Shanel Melamed, executive director of 30 Years After; Alex Jakubowski, founder and executive director of Kahal: Your Jewish Home Abroad; Lizzi Heydemann, founder and rabbi of Mishkan Chicago; Sarah Waxman, founder of At the Well; Rebecca Milder, founding director of the Jewish Enrichment Center; Jane Shapiro, a founding faculty member of the Orot Center for New Jewish Learning; Fred Margulies, co-founder of Pushing the Envelope Farm; David Winitzky, founder of the Jewish Plays Project; and Jeff Kasowitz, co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Studio Project. Topics that arise include empowering people to express their own voices; organizations figuring out how to show instead of tell; the extent to which innovators are driven by creating what they themselves need or whether they actively seek to discover what others need; whether new organizations are being pushed to scale too quickly, potentially inhibiting the process of research and development and refining their "product"; and what can give Jews permission to "play" with Judaism and to look at it the way that artists look at the materials of art.

(44:20-48:56): Members of the audience are invited to add their thoughts and questions and ideas into the mix, such as the effect of the rapid pace of change in our technological age; how to harvest the best ideas from organizations that did not successfully turn them into organizations; and how to be more honest about failures and struggles without being afraid of losing funding.

(48:57-60:45): Dan, Aaron Katler, Aaron Britt, and Lana Volftsun offer closing remarks. Dan asks whether the frame of entrepreneurship may cause us to overemphasize scale, as opposed to a frame of R&D or art, which would focus on quality; Aaron Britt re-emphasizes the value of failure; Lana offers words of encouragement with regard to finding the right funders; and Aaron Katler emphasizes the great opportunities that are out there and suggests that innovators try to "solve for the opportunity," not the problem.

[1] Due to time constraints, the 90-minute live event was edited down to a 60-minute podcast. You can watch the full unedited version of the event by clicking on the video link to the right. You can also visit the UpStart Unbound page on UpStart's web site by clicking here.

[2] Click the links to see the full list of organizations currently in UpStart's accelerator program and the list of alumni of the program. Previous Judaism Unbound guests who are UpStart alumni include David Cygielman (Moishe House), Sarah Lefton (BimBam), and Noa Kushner and Yoav Schlesinger (The Kitchen). Benay Lappe (SVARA) is a member of a current UpStart cohort.

Episode 35: Twice Blessed - Joshua Lesser

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, of Bet Haverim (House of Friends), a Gay- and Lesbian-founded synagogue in Atlanta, joins Judaism Unbound for a discussion on being Jewish and Queer, reflecting on the history of Queer Jews in American Jewish life, the positive shifts that have taken place over the past few decades, where there is still work to be done, and the significance of the Queer experience for other Jews who may feel less than welcome in many Jewish spaces. [1] [2]

Image Credit: SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network

Image Credit: SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network

(0:01 - 14:13): Lesser speaks about his upbringing in Atlanta, particularly his education and experiences in an Orthodox Jewish day school. He also discusses how the landscape of LGBTQ issues has evolved in the Jewish community over the last three decades, both in Atlanta and on a national level. [3]

(14:14 - 25:58): Lesser expands his discussion of LGBTQ-Jewish histories, emphasizing unique gifts that LGBTQ people can bring to Judaism. He offers a critique of the language of "inclusion" and "welcoming," [4] suggesting that as between the "center" and the "margins" of contemporary Jewish life, the margins may actually be more appealing.

(25:59 - 34:26): Lesser addresses the topic of normativity as it applies to gender and sexuality, discussing in particular the tendency of synagogues and other Jewish organizations to center upon families with children, which can cause those who do not have children -- whether by choice or not -- to feel marginalized. 

Credit: Amazon.com

Credit: Amazon.com

(34:27 - 45:08): Lesser then discusses his work with SOJOURN - The Southern Jewish Resource Network, serving LGBTQ Jews in the South as part of a consideration of whether greater openness to marginalized Jews may lessen the impetus to develop powerful new approaches at the "margins." [5] In closing, Lesser looks at what contemporary trends might mean for present-day synagogues, especially those that have historically centered themselves around LGBTQ Jews.

[1] Learn more about Rabbi Lesser's Gay- and Lesbian-founded congregation -- Bet Haverim in Atlanta -- by visiting their website

[2] To learn from one of Rabbi Lesser's former congregants, Sandra Lawson, listen to our previous episode of Judaism Unbound, featuring her as our guest.

[3] Rabbi Lesser references the book Twice Blessed, by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, as a particularly influential one in his life. Published in 1989, it featured essays from Gay and Lesbian Jews, reflecting on their life experiences. A worthy read, this book features an essay by Lex's uncle, Eric Rofes, entitled "Living as All of Who I am: Being Jewish in the Lesbian/Gay Community." You can order the book here.

Credit: SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network

Credit: SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network

[4] In discussing the language of "inclusion" and "welcoming," Lesser alludes to the work of Rabbi Benay Lappe. Lappe was the first-ever guest on our Judaism Unbound podcast, and you can listen to that episode at this link. She is also co-hosting next week's episode (Episode 36) with Dan and Lex, which expands on the conversation that took place in this episode, along with Episodes 33 and 34. 

[5] SOJOURN (The Southern Jewish Resource Network) is an organization that Rabbi Lesser founded for LGBTQ Jews in the Southern United States. To learn more, visit their website.

Episode 34: The Snapchat Rabbi - Sandra Lawson

Sandra Lawson, described in a recent article as "an African-American lesbian who converted to Judaism, eats vegan, and is now studying to be a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College," joins Dan and Lex in a discussion on the present and future of Judaism. She offers her take on issues ranging from race, sexuality, and intermarriage to the future of synagogues and  emerging forms of digital Jewish life. [1] 

Image Credit: Sandra Lawson

Image Credit: Sandra Lawson

(0:01 - 11:38): Lawson tells her personal Jewish story and what led her to become a rabbi. [2] She also outlines the work she is doing today, beyond rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, including what she has done to blend the seemingly disparate worlds of Torah and Snapchat. [3]

(11:39 - 23:03): Lawson discusses the broad set of American Jews who are interested in Judaism but not currently involved in Jewish institutions, looking both at barriers standing in the way of their involvement and at possible paths forward that could create compelling forms of Judaism for this cohort. She also explores the issue of intermarriage as it related to her experience at the LGBT-founded Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. 

Image Credit: Sandra Lawson, Snapchat

Image Credit: Sandra Lawson, Snapchat

(23:04 - 36:31): Lawson explores the contemporary landscape of digital forms of Judaism, from social media to the recent phenomenon of Pokemon Go. She also shares her thoughts on conversion and proselytizing. [4]

(36:32 - 46:46): In closing, Lawson examines questions of economics and affordability in contemporary Judaism. To what extent has the financial cost of 21st Century Judaism become overwhelming for many who might otherwise be interested in participating? To what extent are non-financial barriers standing in the way?

Image Credit: TheRealWeeklyShow.Wordpress.com

Image Credit: TheRealWeeklyShow.Wordpress.com

[1] To learn more about Sandra Lawson, check out these two recent pieces published by Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). The first is a June 2016 article about her, and the second features her as one of "10 Jews You Should Follow on Snapchat."

[2] In telling her own story of conversion and the choice to enter rabbinical school, Lawson credits her connection to Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, along with its rabbi, Joshua Lesser. Stay tuned for next week's episode of our podcast, where Lesser will join us for a conversation on Judaism and LGBTQ Jews.

[3] There are many articles online about the dangers of Pokemon Go for Jewish life, but one that expounds the opportunities it provides for innovative ideas in Jewish education can be found here (courtesy of DigitalJLearning Network).

Bonus Episode: Yom Kippur Unbound - Afternoon Haftarah Reading

In honor of Yom Kippur, Dan and Lex are looking at the four major Biblical readings associated with the holiday. They ask how these texts can apply to 21st century life, and they provide a variety of answers, including many that incorporate historical understandings of the Bible gleaned from Biblical source criticism. In this "mini-episode," they tackle the Book of Jonah.


Bonus Episode: Yom Kippur Unbound - Afternoon Torah Reading

In honor of Yom Kippur, Dan and Lex are looking at the four major Biblical readings associated with the holiday. They ask how these texts can apply to 21st century life, and they provide a variety of answers, including many that incorporate historical understandings of the Bible gleaned from Biblical source criticism. In this "mini-episode," they tackle Leviticus 18 and 19.


Bonus Episode: Yom Kippur Unbound - Morning Torah Reading

In honor of Yom Kippur, Dan and Lex are looking at the four major Biblical readings associated with the holiday. They ask how these texts can apply to 21st century life, and they provide a variety of answers, including many that incorporate historical understandings of the Bible gleaned from Biblical source criticism. In this "mini-episode," they tackle Leviticus 16, which outlines the ancient scapegoat ritual.


Episode 33: JewAsian - Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt

Whitman College's Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of Students, respectively),  join Judaism Unbound for an episode on their book, entitled JewAsian. [1] The book discards the idea that provides an in-depth exploration of two important groups of people: couples made up of one Jewish partner and one Asian partner (the Asian individuals may or may not be Jewish themselves) and the children of such relationships. Kim and Leavitt discuss their findings with co-hosts Dan and Lex, along with a wide variety of related topics as they relate to the ever-shifting landscape of contemporary American Judaism.

Image Credit: TheJC.com

Image Credit: TheJC.com

(0:01 - 12:44): Kim and Leavitt begin the episode by providing an overview of their book. They discuss the two populations they studied -- couples with one Jewish and one Asian member and children of couples with one Jewish and one Asian member -- and briefly summarize some of their findings.

(12:45 - 24:46): Our two guests explore some of the ways that multi-racial Jewish families (or individual members of those families) have felt isolated or marginalized in Jewish spaces. They consider the ways in which we discuss Jewish authenticity or the idea of "looking Jewish," alongside other related issues. They also explore the positive impact that proudly Jewish and Asian public figures (like Rabbi and Cantor Angela Buchdahl) and couples (like Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan) can have as role models to JewAsian children and families. [2]

(24:47 - 36:30): Dan and Lex ask Kim and Leavitt about their findings as related to questions of religious and cultural syncretism. To what extent did they find examples of cultural "fusion" in these families? To what extent are their Jewish practices often indistinguishable from those of other American-Jewish households?

(36:31 - 46:28): Our two guests close by examining the lenses through which American-Jewish institutions (and American-Jewish demographers) understand themselves. [3] Specifically they elaborate on some reasons that quantitative, sociological studies have played a larger role in the past few decades of Jewish demography than studies like their own that are smaller and qualitative. They also consider ways that Jewish communal organizations could best connect with Jewish millennials, a cohort that often understands Jewishness as one identity among many others. [4]

[1] If you would like to purchase a copy of JewAsian you can do so at this link. You can learn more about the book and its authors by liking their Facebook page.

[2] Check out this article by past Judaism Unbound guest Paul Golin about the occasion of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl lighting the Menorah at the annual White House Chanukah party in 2014. For video of that occasion, click the video directly below.


[3] In analyzing Jewish demography, our guests refer to Gary Tobin. Click here for a provocative 2008 article he wrote on questions of race and intermarriage. He, along with his wife Diane Tobin, also helped to establish Be'chol Lashon, one of the leading Jewish organizations working on issues of relevance to Jews of color. Access their website by clicking here.

[4] In closing, Professor Leavitt mentions an earlier block of Judaism Unbound episodes on intermarriage. Listen to one or multiple of these episodes by clicking the following links: Episode 15: Men, Women, and Intermarriage - Keren McGinity   Episode 16: Intermarriage and the Future - Paul Golin   Episode 17: Intermarriage - A Fact of 21st Century Judaism

Bonus Episode: Rosh Hashanah Unbound - Day 2 Haftarah Reading

In honor of Rosh Hashanah, Dan and Lex are looking at the four major Biblical readings associated with the holiday. They ask how these texts can apply to 21st century life, and they provide a variety of answers, including many that incorporate historical understandings of the Bible gleaned from Biblical source criticism. In this "mini-episode," they tackle Jeremiah 31, the Haftarah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Bonus Episode: Rosh Hashanah Unbound - Day 2 Torah Reading

In honor of Rosh Hashanah, Dan and Lex are looking at the four major Biblical readings associated with the holiday. They ask how these texts can apply to 21st century life, and they provide a variety of answers, including many that incorporate historical understandings of the Bible gleaned from Biblical source criticism. In this "mini-episode," they tackle Genesis 22, which tells the story of the binding of Isaac.