Episode 67: Seven Weeks in Silicon Valley

Dan and Lex close out their seven-episode series looking at the seven weeks of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot, as an especially resonant symbol of our own time, which might be described as a time in between Judaisms. Looking back on our interviews drawing inspiration from Silicon Valley, the landscape of experimentation and innovation in our own day, Dan and Lex discuss the democratization of Judaism embodied and facilitated by the internet and revisit the question of Judaism as an operating system vs. Judaism as an app.

Dan and Lex Squarespace.png

(0:01 - 20:10): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex reflect on the ways that the digital world has helped to democratize Judaism, along with the ways in which there is still work to do on that front. [1] They discuss Eric Weiner's idea that the internet does indeed provide incredible access to data and information, but not necessarily to knowledge and wisdom. On a related note, Dan and Lex talk about how Jews often feel that they lack "permission" to experiment fully outside the bounds of "proper" or "correct" Jewish practice. [2]

(20:11 - 33:19):  Inspired by their exploration of Silicon Valley ideas, Dan and Lex return to a question they've explored in earlier episodes -- whether Judaism is best analogized to an "operating system" or an "app." [3] They look at this question through both a descriptive lens (is Judaism currently working as an operating system or an app in people's lives) and a prescriptive lens (should Judaism, in the future, work as an operating system or an app in people's lives). In exploring this issue, they discuss a variety of groups of Jews, including Orthodox Jews, Jewish Israelis, and those who are uninvolved in institutional Jewish life.

(33:20 - 44:16): To close the episode, Dan and Lex open up a new question which has resulted from their increasing sense that Judaism may, in fact, be an app and not an operating system today. If Judaism is an app, what is the app for? They also encourage listeners to check out Shavuot Unbound, an online initiative that offers diverse digital avenues for experiencing the tradition of all-night study on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, [4] and to consider joining or creating "podcast circles" -- book-club-style groups we are organizing that meet regularly to talk about subjects raised in the Judaism Unbound podcast and to experiment with applying the ideas in practice. [5]

Dive into Shavuot Unbound,  Judaism Unbound's all-digital Shavuot experience, at www.judaismunbound.com/shavuot-unbound! With "tracks" ranging from one-hour to twelve-hours in length, on a wide diversity of topics, you'll have plenty of material to fill as much of your night as you'd like!

Dive into Shavuot Unbound,  Judaism Unbound's all-digital Shavuot experience, at www.judaismunbound.com/shavuot-unbound! With "tracks" ranging from one-hour to twelve-hours in length, on a wide diversity of topics, you'll have plenty of material to fill as much of your night as you'd like!

[1] This episode is the last in a seven-episode series that coincides with the counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot. For the episodes that preceded it, click the following links: Episode 61: Wandering in the Wilderness - Zack Bodner, Tova BirnbaumEpisode 62: The Geography of Jewish Genius - Eric Weiner, Episode 63: JewTube - Oona King, Episode 64: Judaism By Design - Jesse Dorogusker, Episode 65: Investing in the Future - Oren Ze'ev, Episode 66: Jewish? Community? Center? - Zack Bodner

[2] Lex mentions two digital resources, MyJewishLearning and Sefaria, that are particularly useful. You can explore MyJewishLearning by clicking here and Sefaria by clicking here.

[3] To engage further with the question of Judaism as an "operating system" or as an "app," listen to Episode 21: jOS 4.0 - A New Jewish Operating System?

[4] Explore all the possibilities of Shavuot Unbound, Judaism Unbound's digital Shavuot initiative, by clicking here!

[5] If you would like to create your own Judaism Unbound "podcast circle," please email Lex@NextJewishFuture.org and/or Dan@NextJewishFuture.org.

Episode 66: Jewish? Community? Center? - Zack Bodner

Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, joins Dan and Lex in our Silicon Valley series to explore the shifting role of Jewish Community Centers, possibilities for a "Judaism 4.0," and what special role a JCC in the heart of the experimental and entrepreneurial landscape of Silicon Valley might play in playing with the possibilities. [1]

(0:01 - 11:11): To begin the episode, Bodner examines a frame that he and Dan share, but came to independently: "Judaism 4.0." [2] Bodner talks about the ways in which the missions of Jewish Community Centers shifted from "teaching Jews how to be Americans" to "teaching Americans how to be Jews." He also discusses the extent to which Orthodox Judaism has "cornered the market" on public displays of Jewish identity, opening up a broader conversation about whether the best course of action for non-Orthodox Jews is to re-vision existing Jewish ritual practices, create their own practices, or some combination of both. [3]

(11:12 - 26:29): Bodner extends our conversation from recent episodes regarding the democratization of society made possible by the internet, along with how that shift could apply to contemporary Judaism. He then introduces five key factors that he sees as primary drivers of change in the Jewish world today, citing (1) the shift away from institutional affiliation, (2) digital technology, (3) ethnographic changes, (4) new forms of meaning and belonging, and (5) the unprecedented, simultaneous existence of both a Jewish state and a strong Jewish diaspora. He then explores the dichotomies of individual and community, being Jewish and "doing Jewish," [4] and gives a window into the ways in which JCCs can prove meaningful not only for Jews, but also for people of other backgrounds as well. [5]

(26:30 - 47:04): Bodner looks at elements of the Silicon Valley experience that provide unique opportunities and challenges, when compared to JCCs in other communities around the country. To close the episode, Bodner turns the tables on Dan and Lex, asking them what they see as the primary problem that Judaism Unbound exists to address. In conclusion, Bodner tells the Talmudic story of Yohanan Ben Zakai, [6] applying it to the 21st century landscape of Jewish life. 

[1] To learn more about Zack Bodner, you can read his bio, available at this link.

Image Credit: Imgrum.org

Image Credit: Imgrum.org

[2] Learn more about Dan's framing of Judaism 4.0 by reading his 2012 article, featured in Zeek. Read the Oshman Family JCC's "manifesto," which culminates in a call for Judaism 4.0, by clicking here.

[3] Lex mentions two articles he wrote for New Voices magazine on the topic of Jewish ritual practice. Read his case for wearing a yarmulke through the article "Why Are There Pringles On My Head?" and check out "On Scruffy Beards and Their Spiritual Significance," on growing a beard during the Omer period, by clicking here.

[4] Zack Bodner cites Mordechai Kaplan's trifecta of belonging, behaving, and believing. Learn more about that framework through Patti Haskell's short essay, "Belonging, Behaving, and Believing: Exploring Reconstructionist Process."

[5] For an article about the trend towards increased non-Jewish involvement in Jewish Community Centers, read this article by Anthony Weiss, entitled "Jewish Community Centers Open Their Doors to Wider Audiences,"

[6] For the Talmudic account of Yohanan ben Zakai's request for "Yavneh and Its Sages," in English translation, click here

Episode 65: Investing in the Future - Oren Zeev

Oren Zeev,  Founding Partner of Zeev Ventures, gives us a window into the mind of a Silicon Valley investor, as we continue to explore how the mindset of Silicon Valley might help us think about getting from the Jewish present to the Jewish future we hope might emerge. Oren Zeev is known for successful investments in early-stage companies, such as Audible.com and, recently, Houzz. How does he decide which projects to back? To what extent are the perspectives he has developed in the business world translatable to the Jewish non-profit landscape? [1]

Image Credit: TechCrunch

Image Credit: TechCrunch

(0:01 - 18:46): To begin the episode, Zeev describes his thought process in deciding whether or not to invest in a company. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of the people, by asking, "Who am I backing?" not just, "What am I backing?" He also explores, with Dan, the question of when and how companies should look to go to scale, in particular emphasizing how that issue can translate to Jewish non-profits that need the time and space to develop their ideas before they (eventually) grow. [2] Zeev then outlines the ways that relationships between funders and entrepreneurs can be healthiest in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors.

(18:47 - 29:40): Zeev dives deeper into the origins of Tipalti and TripActions, two successful companies that he backs, in order to demonstrate what it looks like to support an idea as it moves from "half-baked" to "fully-baked." He also expands on some of the issues that are more challenging for companies in the for-profit world, and compares these with the advantages and disadvantages that manifest more frequently for non-profits. [3]

(29:41 - 41:41): Zeev discusses the particulars of backing a non-profit organization, emphasizing that he cares more about the effectiveness of the organization than about his personal connection to the cause. In conclusion, he looks back on his investment in Audible.com, a company that was initially seen as a failure but eventually bloomed into a huge success, [4] reinforcing an idea that was discussed last week about the timing of ideas and how sometimes a great idea can only translate into a successful company (or non-profit) when external factors change (in Audible's case, the creation of the iPod).

[1] Learn more about Oren Zeev by checking out this 2014 article about him, featured in TechCrunch.

[2] In this section of the episode, Zeev emphasizes the need for both non-profits and for-profit companies to "go slow to go fast." Learn more about that philosophy by checking out this article, published by The Foraker Group.

[3] If you'd like to compare and contrast non-profits and businesses even more deeply, we recommend reading the following two articles in tandem. First , read "Why non-profits should run like businesses," featured at NonProfitPro.com, and then follow it up with "Why You Should Run Your Business Like a Non-Profit," featured in Forbes Magazine. 

[4] We encourage our listeners to check out the offerings of Audible.com. Thousands of audiobooks can be found there, including many of those published by past guests of Judaism Unbound.

Episode 64: Judaism By Design - Jesse Dorogusker

In the fourth episode of Judaism Unbound's seven-part series exploring Silicon Valley and the period between Passover and Shavuot known as the "Omer," Jesse Dorogusker, Hardware Lead for Square Inc, brings ideas from product design and technological innovation and thinks with us about how they might be applied to renewing contemporary Judaism. Dorogusker helps deepen our thinking on topics introduced in previous episodes, including integration, modularity, and "jobs to be done."

Image Credit: TechCrunch

Image Credit: TechCrunch

(0:01 - 10:57): Jesse Dorogusker talks about his own professional background in engineering and product design, [1] and focuses on the importance of empathy for design. He also tells the story of the origin and mission of Square, the company for which he works today, [2] and he and Dan discuss ways in which the story is relevant to Judaism.

(10:58 - 27:10): The question of integration vs. modularity, a frequent topic on our podcast, comes back into play. Should Judaism manifest as an "integrated system," where people incorporate all of it into their lives or none at all? Could there be an alternative approach, where Judaism is "modularized?" [3] Dorogusker brings his experiences wrestling with similar questions at Apple and Square to the Jewish conversation. He also provides his own take on the question of "jobs to be done," a frame introduced by Clayton Christensen. [4] Dorogusker applies these questions to Jewish life directly, exploring the ways that he himself connected to Jewish life largely because it effectively met an important "job to be done" that he had at the time (childcare).

(27:11 - 44:21): What is "ruthless editing" in the context of Silicon Valley, and how does it help companies avoid the danger of "over-service"? Could Judaism (and should Judaism!) be "ruthlessly edited" such that a few key "features" of it are centralized while the remainder are eliminated (or at least treated as less crucial)?  To close the episode, Dorogusker gives his thoughts on two issues -- aesthetics and accessibility. In Silicon Valley, it is straight-forward why both of these are crucial to the success of a product, but Judaism has not necessarily transitioned to emphasizing them in an age where individuals can choose whether to not to participate in Jewish life. [5]

[1] Learn more about Jesse Dorogusker by reading this piece about him, featured in Wired Magazine. 

[2] Check out this article in St. Louis Magazine to learn more about the origin story of Square.

[3] To hear more about the issue of integration vs. modularity as it relates to Judaism, listen in to Episode 25 of our podcast, entitled "Unbundling Judaism."

[4]  Dorogusker alludes to the question of "jobs to be done" as it applies to a Chicago architecture tour. Read this article, entitled "Integrating Around the Job to Be Done," to explore that case study further. 

[5] Listen in to Episode 32: The Art of Judaism if you'd like to explore further the role that aesthetics could (or should) play in contemporary Judaism.

Episode 63: JewTube - Oona King

Oona King, former member of the British Parliament, currently on leave from the House of Lords, and now Director of Diverse Marketing at YouTube, takes us on a deep dive into the democratization that new internet-based technologies, like YouTube, potentially represent, and we discuss possible applications to the process of re-imagining Judaism.

Image Credit: DigitalSpy

Image Credit: DigitalSpy

(0:01 - 20:09): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex review the ongoing theme of the Omer period (the seven weeks from Passover until Shavuot) as a time for an increased openness to Jewish creativity. After this introduction, Dan continues as solo host (because the interview was conducted live on a trip Dan made to Silicon Valley), entering into conversation with Baroness Oona King. [1] They explore the extent to which YouTube represents a shift similar to the story of Jethro, in the book of Exodus, where more people are invited and empowered to take leadership of society. They also discuss King's work at YouTube to confront societal differences in the treatment of men and women. [2]

(20:10 - 35:57): King delves further into the topic of stereotypes, discussing the harmful role that they can play. In particular, she opens up about her own experiences as a target of antisemitism, [3] including how those experiences provoked her to explore her Jewish identity further. She talks about how her identity as a mixed-race person causes her to always feel a bit like an outsider, even as a member of a quintessentially "inside" organization like the House of Lords. She explores the ways in which that experience resonates with Jewish traditions of marginality or "outsider-ness" to a great extent.

(35:58 - 50:09): How does YouTube actively take steps to induce a spirit of creativity in its users? To what extent could contemporary Jewish communities learn from their efforts? [4] King looks at those questions, and even presents the idea of Judaism as a "Spotify playlist for religion." [5] She closes by diving deeper into the particular mission of Google (of which YouTube is a subsidiary), and why she is passionate about channeling it towards creating a better world. [6]

[1] For a full bio of Baroness Oona King, click here.

[2] King alludes to a controversy surrounding an antisemitic video made by a viral YouTuber named PewDiePie. Learn more by clicking here.

[3] Read more about the antisemitism directed at Baroness King through this BBC article.

[4] For a scholarly piece that looks at these questions from the lens of Jewish Studies, read "The Democratization of American Judaism," by Jonathan Sarna, available in full at this link.

[5] For another thinker that proposes we utilize the framework of a "playlist" to better understand contemporary Judaism, see Kerry Olitzky's book Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future.

[6] For a recent piece that describes the potential YouTube has to catalyze broader diversity online, including a profile of Baroness King, click here.

Episode 62: The Geography of Jewish Genius - Eric Weiner

What factors can cause a particular location to be one where "genius" thrives? How could perceptions of Judaism change such that Jews feel they can find holiness and meaning within the realm of their own "home" tradition? Author Eric Weiner joins Dan and Lex to discuss two of his books, The Geography of Genius and Man Seeks God, and the vast array of questions that the two works provoke. 

Image Credit: HighBar.tv

Image Credit: HighBar.tv

(0:01 - 13:56): Weiner begins our conversation by introducing two of his books -- The Geography of Genius [1] and Man Seeks God. [2] In particular, he looks at the characteristics that have historically defined places well-known for their creativity and for producing "genius," along with providing a snapshot into his time in the Israeli city of Safed (Ts'fat). [3] He also elaborates on the title for Man Seeks God, explaining the reasons he used the word "God" in particular, as opposed to "Man Seeks Meaning" or "Man Seeks Holiness." [4]

(13:57 - 27:24): Weiner delves deeper into contemporary Judaism in particular. Are many Jews feeling alienated from Judaism because it feels inordinately focused on rules and regulations and uninterested in deeper forms of meaning or spirituality? Is it possible that feelings of alienation, or a sense of being "uprooted," may help create a climate for disenchanted Jews to create new forms of Judaism? He then introduces his "3 D's of all creative places" -- diversity, discernment, and disorder, which he believes are fundamental building blocks for any environment where genius might flourish. [5]

(27:25 - 46:36): Is it necessary to have only one spiritual home-base? In other words, should we move towards a paradigm where individuals and groups consciously look to find practices from more than one religion and utilize them in their own lives, or should we continue to work within a paradigm where most people center themselves primarily in one religious tradition? He elaborates on similarities and differences between the qualities of a "seeker," and those of a "genius," and explores the benefits and limits of sharing between and among various religious traditions. [6] Weiner concludes the episode by bringing his ideas about the roles that the internet can and cannot play in the future of American Judaism. 

[1] You can purchase The Geography of Genius: Lessons from the World's Most Creative Placesby clicking here.

[2] Purchase Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With The Divine, by clicking here.

[3] In discussing his time in the city of Safed, Weiner mentions the book Jewish Meditation, by Aryeh Kaplan, which has been influential for many residents of Safed. Purchase Jewish Meditation by clicking here.

[4] Weiner discusses the phenomenon of individuals, especially in America, considering themselves to be "spiritual but not religious." He is correct that the opposite formulation, "religious but not spiritual," is far rarer. To read a piece from someone who identifies as the latter, check out this piece by Michael Toy, featured in Princeton Revisions. For a full study that focuses on those who are "spiritual but not religious," read Robert Fuller's book Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America.

[5] Weiner mentions his desire for more rabbis to state, openly and honestly, that they don't have all the answers. In response, Lex alludes to a statement in the Mishnah (first section of the Talmud), where one rabbi does just that (technically, he says "I forgot"). To read this text (Mishnah Middot 2:5) in full, click here.

[6] Weiner cites with interest the title of the book Jewish With Feeling, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, stating that he would like to see a Jewish future where there is no such thing as "Jewish without feeling." You can purchase Jewish With Feeling by clicking here


Episode 61: Wandering in the Wilderness - Zack Bodner, Tova Birnbaum

Dan and Lex are joined by guest co-hosts Zack Bodner and Tova Birnbaum, from the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. In this episode, they explore the Torah's narrative of the wandering in the wilderness, asking how lessons from that story can apply to contemporary Jewish life.

(0:01 - 10:59): To begin the episode, Dan introduces the series that this episode commences. He explains that the next seven weeks of episodes coincide with the observance of the counting of the Omer, from Passover through Shavuot. In conjunction with this period, Judaism Unbound will be entering into conversation with a variety of people immersed in the creative world of Silicon Valley. How can their knowledge be applied to contemporary Judaism? Guest co-hosts Zack Bodner and Tova Birnbaum introduce their work as leaders at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, [1] which is fully immersed in the landscape of Silicon Valley. Birnbaum also tells the story of her journey from growing up in traditional religious Judaism to becoming one of the founders of BINA, a "secular Yeshiva" in Israel. [2]

(11:00 - 27:19): The four co-hosts enter into a conversation on the book of Exodus, specifically highlighting the period of wandering in the wilderness that occurs after departing Egypt. To what extent can this period of wandering serve as a model of a period of uncertainty -- of not-knowing -- that we might replicate today? That question serves as a launch-point into an analysis of the story of Jethro, best known for helping Moses to re-structure Israelite society.[3] How did his advice help to "flatten" Israelite leadership? Was the fact that it was an outsider like Jethro (he was a Midianite priest, not an Israelite) gave such crucial advice coincidental, or was his "outsider-ness" central to his ability to help the Israelites re-invent themselves?

Jethro, as depicted in Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt      Image Credit: Cornel1801.com

Jethro, as depicted in Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt      Image Credit: Cornel1801.com

(27:20 - 44:48): Myriad other stories from the wandering in the wilderness enter into the conversation. How do the narratives of the twelve spies, [4] the crossing of the Jordan 40 years later, [5] the construction of the Golden Calf, [6] and the death of Aaron's sons (Nadav and Abihu) [7] apply to a re-visioning of Jewish creativity in the 21st century? Additionally, Birnbaum asks how the opposing themes of mourning and joy, both present in the Omer, collide in ways that could prove meaningful for today's Jews. 

[1] Learn more about the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto by visiting their website.

[2] Visit the website of BINA's Secular Yeshiva by clicking here.

[3] The story of Jethro's advice to Moses can be found in chapter 18 of Exodus.

[4] Read the story of the twelve spies in chapter 13 of Numbers. For another application of this story to contemporary Jewish life, view Lex's ELI Talk (available by clicking the video on the right)

[5] For more on the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, which chose not to cross the Jordan, read chapter 32 of Numbers.

[6] To read the story of the golden calf, check out chapter 32 of Exodus.

[7] For the story of Nadav and Abihu's death, read chapter 10 of Leviticus.

Holidays Unbound Episode 4: Passover Part III - The Passover Seder (Abigail Pogrebin, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Vanessa Ochs, Justin Goldstein)

Dan and Ruth dive into the history of the seder and ideas about how to use—or not use—the traditional haggadah. They also explore how to experiment with new seder rituals that resonate with us, with our guests, and with our children, while keeping everyone interested and focused on the purpose of Passover. Dan and Ruth are joined by Abigail Pogrebin, Vanessa Ochs, Amichai Lau-Lavie, and Justin Goldstein, all of whom share interesting perspectives and great ideas.

Episode 60: The Future is Already Here

The writer William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." In this episode, Dan and Lex apply that quotation to the Jewish world. In doing so, they reflect in particular on their recent conversation with Juan Mejia on conversion to Judaism, new ways of understanding the role of ethnicity in Jewish life, and more.

(0:01 - 17:11): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex reflect on Juan Mejia's recent episode (Episode 57: Becoming Jewish On the Web). [1] In particular, they discuss Mejia's quotation that Jews "are crying over spilt milk on the beach, with their backs to a tsunami." How would Judaism change if there were an influx of converts? Would that "tsunami" challenge the way that we have historically related to the idea of Jewish ethnicity? [2] They also explore the factors that cause many Jews today to believe that nobody (or very few) people would be interested in converting to a religion that has faced so much historical trauma and oppression.

(17:16 - 29:48): The two co-hosts ask an important question: Could Jewish institutions look outside the population of those who are currently Jewish in order to increase the quantity of people connecting to the work that they do? They also whether new forms of connection may arise for individuals who aren't Jewish in terms of their identity (in the sense of "being Jewish"), but who do connect deeply to Judaism in one way or another. In other words, is official conversion the only way for non-Jews to connect in a deep way to the material of Judaism?

A Korean children's book on the Talmud. Image Credit: The New Yorker

A Korean children's book on the Talmud. Image Credit: The New Yorker

(29:49 - 43:57): William Gibson has been credited with the quote "The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed." [3] Dan has mentioned this quotation in the past, but in this episode, the two co-hosts explore it in a fuller fashion than they have before. Which elements of contemporary Jewish experience, not yet understood as central, may prove to be the seeds that flower into core elements of the Jewish future? In this conversation, they also reflect on recent episodes featuring Carmel Chiswick (Episode 58: Jewish Economics) and Hayim Herring (Episode 59: Jewish Futurology). [4] 

[1] Listen to the full episode, featuring Juan Mejia, by clicking here.

[2] For a fuller article on the phenomenon of Koreans exploring the Talmud, click here.

[3] For an article applying Gibson's quote to the digital world, click here.

[4] Listen in to these two episodes at the following links: Episode 58: Jewish Economics, Episode 59: Jewish Futurology

Holidays Unbound Episode 3: Passover Part II - Did the Exodus Really Happen? (Steven Weitzman, Richard Elliott Friedman)

Dan and Ruth speak with scholars Steven Weitzman of the University of Pennsylvania and Richard Elliott Friedman of the University of Georgia (author of Who Wrote the Bible?) to explore the critical question—or is it?—of whether or not the Exodus was a historical event. Professors Weitzman and Friedman walk us through the elements of the story that seem to reflect true historical memories and the elements that are likely embellishments, and both reflect on the power of the story regardless of its historicity.

Holidays Unbound Episode 2: Passover Part I - What is Passover For? (Shai Held, Rachel Kahn Troster, Abigail Pogrebin)

Dan and Ruth begin the discussion of Passover by asking what the point of the holiday is! In answering, they consider the ideas of guests Shai Held, Rachel Kahn Troster, and Abigail Pogrebin. Among other questions, Dan and Ruth consider whether and why Passover is a good place to start our examination of the Jewish holidays and how we might create Passover experiences for ourselves that are truly transformative in our lives.

Episode 59: Jewish Futurology - Hayim Herring

Dan and Lex are joined by Hayim Herring, an expert in Jewish entrepreneurship and self-identified "Jewish futurist." [1] They discuss challenges faced by synagogues and opportunities available to them in today's ever-shifting landscape of American Judaism.

(0:01 - 14:16): What is a Jewish futurist? Herring explains what he does and also tells the story of his professional journey, including his time at STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal. [2] He also addresses the transitional period of Judaism in which we find ourselves today. [3]

(14:17 - 27:28): Herring explores the twin issues of mission and purpose as applied to synagogue life. [4] How can synagogues ensure that they remain focused on 3-5 particular functions that they are uniquely well-positioned to serve? How can institutions that educate leaders of Jewish life (rabbis, cantors, etc) shift their structures and curricula to better meet the needs of contemporary Jews? [5] [6]

(27:29 - 45:19): Herring suggests that we emphasize trans-generational forms of connection and community in Jewish life. He also, along with the co-hosts, explores both the dangers and benefits of forms of Jewish life that occur digitally. He closes the episode by advocating for an elevation of the role of artists in contemporary Judaism.

[1] Learn more about Hayim Herring by reading his bio here.

[2] Learn more about one of STAR's most well-known initiatives, "Synaplex," by reading this 2003 article in JTA.

[3] Herring mentions Lab/Shul as a congregation that is growing and thriving. Learn more about their work by listening to Episode 29 of our podcast, featuring Lab/Shul's Spiritual Director, Amichai Lau-Lavie.

[4] Purchase Herring's most recent book, Leading Congregations and Non-Profits in a Connect World: Platforms, People and Purpose, co-written with Terri Martinson Elton, by clicking here.

[5] Purchase Herring's book Keeping Faith in Rabbis, featuring an essay co-written by our very own Dan Libenson and past podcast guest Barak Richman, by clicking here.

[6] Hear Dan and Barak present some of their related ideas, through the video directly to the right.

Holidays Unbound Episode 1: Introductions (Abigail Pogrebin)

Dan Libenson and Ruth Abusch-Magder introduce a new podcast series exploring the Jewish Holidays, aimed at helping "regular Jews" get more creative with their holiday celebrations. They are joined by Abigail Pogrebin, whose recent book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, tells the story of her "extreme sports Judaism" year of observing every holiday on the Jewish calendar.


Episode 58: Jewish Economics - Carmel Chiswick

How do Jews decide how (and whether) to invest their time and money in Judaism? Economist Carmel Chiswick joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about that question and more in this episode of Judaism Unbound. [1]

(0:01 - 13:35): Chiswick begins by discussing her own journey that led to writing the book Judaism in Transition, [2] and providing a brief summary of some basic concepts in labor economics. She also begins to explore how those concepts can be applied to contemporary forms of Jewish observance.

(13:36 - 26:10): Chiswick looks deeper at Judaism, both in the 20th and 21st century, through the lens of labor economics. [3] First, she engages with shifts in how and when Jews have chosen to allocate their time (or not) to Judaism. In doing so, she highlights the concept of substitutes and complements, and puts forth an argument for how it can help us understand the contemporary emphasis in Jewish life on the principle of Tikkun Olam (social justice). [4] 

(26:11 - 40:42): Our podcast has looked at the period directly after the destruction of the 2nd temple from a wide variety of angles, but Chiswick's lens of labor economics had not entered into our equation. Here, she brings her perspective to that historical development. In closing, she looks forward into the Jewish future, examining the impact that new forms of technology will have on the economics of Judaism in the 21st century and beyond. [5]

[1] Learn more about Carmel Chiswick by reading her bio, accessible by clicking here.

[2] Purchase Judaism In Transition by clicking here.

[3] Chiswick's essay "How Economics Helped Shape American Judaism" provides further depth on a number of issues discussed in this episode. Read it by clicking here

[4] Learn more about the framework of substitutes and complements by clicking here.

[5] Chiswick refers to the book The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History as another helpful resource that explores the intersection of economics and Judaism. Purchase it by clicking here.



Episode 57: Becoming Jewish On the Web - Juan Mejia

Juan Mejia, the Southwest/Latin America Regional Director for Be'chol Lashon, [1] who grew up Catholic, converted to Judaism, and became a rabbi, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about conversion, the growing importance of the internet in contemporary Jewish life, and emergent forms of Judaism arising in Latin America, and what it all might mean for the future of Judaism.

(0:01 - 15:00): Mejia tells the story of his own background, [2] beginning with his journey into Judaism, and going on to describe the events that led him, once Jewish, to choose to become a rabbi. He emphasizes the important role that the internet played in his own journey and the reasons why and ways in which it is proving even more pivotal for individuals exploring Judaism all around the world today. [3]

(15:01 - 31:41): Mejia outlines the development of his work over the past decade. At first, he focused on anusim (descendants of Jews who had been forced to convert during the Spanish inquisition). [4] Eventually, though, he decided to broaden his work to include even those who are not likely to have Jewish ancestry but nonetheless become interested in becoming Jewish. He describes how he connects with these people, including the role that his Spanish-language prayer book has played. [5] He then discusses barriers in addition to language that his work aims to surmount. Mejia talks, too, about the growth of Jewish communities outside of his own region of focus -- spotlighting the Jews of Uganda as a case study. [6]

(31:42 - 51:05): Mejia recounts the role that his own past struggles to connect to Judaism plays in informing and motivating his work engaging people dealing with similar challenges today. He warns against the danger of "spiritual colonialism" and argues that we are in the midst of a period of "de-diasporization." In conclusion, he analyzes important realities in today's Jewish world, including the growing importance of non-Jews in Jewish communities, and the strength of Spanish-speaking Jewry within the United States. [7]

[1] Learn more about Be'chol Lashon by visiting their website.

Image Credit: The Forward

Image Credit: The Forward

[2] Gain another window into Mejia's fascinating story by reading this 2007 Haaretz article, entitled "In Spain Our Name Was Messiah"

[3] Mejia introduces some of the debates around conversion to Judaism taking place online. Engage these issues more further through this JTA article.

[4] This 2009 JTA article provides a look at Mejia's early work, focusing on anusim. If you'd like to access some basic information regarding the history of anusim, click here.

[5] Mejia's prayer book, entitled Kol Tuv Sefarad, is digitally available, in full, at this link. For his full website, featuring Spanish-language videos, texts and more, click here.

[6] Learn more about the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda through this 2016 article, featured in Tablet Magazine.

[7] Mejia identifies B'nai Jeshurun, a congregation in New York City, as a strong example of a synagogue that is thriving under the leadership of Latin-American Jews. Learn more about B'nai Jeshurun by visiting their website.


Episode 56: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva - Benay Lappe

In celebration of our one-year anniversary as a podcast, Dan and Lex are joined by the very first guest we ever had on the show, Benay Lappe, making her third guest appearance on Judaism Unbound. [1] In this episode, we do a deep dive into Lappe's organization, SVARA, which defines itself as a "traditionally radical yeshiva," a place to study Jewish texts through a "Queer lens."

(0:01 - 14:57): Lappe gives a basic overview of what the organization the she founded, SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, does. [2] In particular, she discusses the Talmud, which many people think of as antiquated or boring, but which Lappe understands as "pleasurable and rewarding" -- especially for folks who are marginalized by society. [3]

(14:58 - 30:14): Lappe tells the story of her own journey into the world of Judaism and Talmud, which ultimately led to the founding of SVARA. She discusses her departure from Judaism and lengthy sojourn in the world of Buddhism and then explains how she came back to Judaism and entered rabbinical school, where she had to be in the closet, how she "went into hiding to get the Torah." Lappe also provides insight on why in-depth Talmud study can be particularly joyous, bringing a sense of achievement to learners, and why she thinks that Talmud study can be meaningful even to those who do not identify as Jews.

(30:14 - 44:23): An important question arises as the episode arcs towards its conclusion: Increasingly, people who are not LGBTQ are learning about SVARA and looking to engage with its offerings. Lappe talks about the tension between serving the growing numbers of non-LGBTQ people who are interested in SVARA and maintaining the uniquely queer and radical framework that has helped make SVARA so successful. [4]

[1] If you would like to hear more from Benay Lappe, check out two of our past episodes of Judaism Unbound in which she has been our featured guest: Episode 3: Exodus and Episode 36: What Jewish Looks Like Today

[2] Learn more about SVARA by visiting their website, svara.org.

[3] In discussing the pleasure that flows from meeting the challenge of learning Talmud, Lappe alludes to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Learn more about his work, through a TED Talk he delivered, entitled Flow, The Secret to Happiness (to view it, click on the video directly to the left). Purchase his book, also entitled Flow, by clicking here.

[4] Lappe closes the episode by referring to the "Alma Mater" statue at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Learn more about the statue's history, and learn the text of its moving poem, by clicking here.

[5] View Lappe's influential ELI Talk, entitled "An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take," a 17-minute distillation of "Crash" Theory that has been viewed by thousands, by clicking the video link directly to the left.


Episode 55: The 365th Day

1 year. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. It seems like just yesterday that Judaism Unbound launched a wild experiment -- this podcast -- designed to induce thoughtful conversation about the Jewish present and future. In this episode, Dan and Lex look back on themes of the jam-packed first year of the podcast. They also look forward to the second year of Judaism Unbound's continuing work.

Judaism Unbound Grey Background.png

(0:01 - 16:40): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex look back at the "trinity" that Douglas Rushkoff laid out in Episode 52, of iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice (he sees these three concepts, collectively, as an expression of the essence of Judaism). They ask if Judaism really does have an essence at all (or if it should in the future), whether it's Rushkoff's three-fold essence or another set of core values. [1] Jumping off from that conversation, they discuss whether or not monotheism must be a core characteristic of Judaism. [2] In doing so, they wrestle with the idea of Judaism as a "God-optional" system. Should Judaism be "God-optional" in the future? Is it already? [3]

(16:41 - 30:58): Dan and Lex take on the "R-word" -- religion. Is Judaism a religion? Must religions revolve around questions of theology? [4] Is "religion" a term that has become so alienating (to some Jews and others) that it can, for many people, no longer serve a useful purpose? [5]

(30:59 - 46:13): To close the episode, the two co-hosts look back on the first year of Judaism Unbound and forward to its second year. They review some key learnings that have come to light from a variety of guests on the podcast, [6] reflect on some of the other initiatives, in addition to the podcast, that Judaism Unbound has implemented over the past year, [7] and look forward to new offerings we have in the works for the future.

[1] For a comprehensive look at the question of Judaism's essence, or lack thereof, we highly recommend Michael Satlow's book Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice. You can purchase it on Amazon by clicking here.

[2] To engage further with the issue of monotheism's place in the past, present, and future of Judaism, we encourage listeners to read Donniel Hartman's Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, available on Amazon at this link.

[3] To learn more about the framework of "God-optional" Judaism, listen to Episode 29 of Judaism Unbound, featuring Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul.

[4] Lex discusses, in the middle portion of this episode, alternative understandings of religion that do not revolve around theology. For six themes that religion often embodies (or, to use our language, "jobs to be done" that religion can achieve) we recommend taking a look at page 6 of How We Gather, by Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston.

[5] For more on the similarities between non-Orthodox Jews and Atheists, see this Haaretz article by Peter Beinart, entitled "The American Jewish Divide is About Much More than Iran."

[6] In looking back at Judaism Unbound's first year, Dan and Lex reflect on a theme first identified by David Cygielman of Moishe House -- that successful leaders tend to focus on solving a problem that they themselves face. To hear Cygielman's initial framing of this idea, listen in to Episode 19 of our podcast, featuring Cygielman as our guest. For an expansion on that theme, check out our 24th episode, featuring Sarah Lefton of Bimbam.