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.

Episode 54: Judaism's Job - Irwin Kula Part II

How does our approach to Jewish life change when we suggest that Judaism can be "hired" to accomplish various jobs? What are the "jobs" it can be "hired" to do? Irwin Kula sheds light on that question in this episode, the second half of a conversation that begin with Episode 53: Death and Rebirth[1]

Image Credit: IntensityAdvisors.com

Image Credit: IntensityAdvisors.com

(0:01 - 11:49): To begin part two of his interview, Kula lays out the framework coined by Clayton Christensen as "jobs to be done," [2] and he applies that framework to contemporary Judaism. He also looks at the roles of individuals and communities, critiquing the pervasive idea of Judaism encapsulated by the phrase "the Jewish community." He explains why an emphasis on belonging makes it difficult for Judaism to better fulfill a variety of other important "jobs to be done." 

(11:50 - 27:16): Kula continues the "jobs to be done" conversation by asserting that the primary role of religion is to catalyze "human flourishing." He looks at the role that the field of positive psychology plays in making that flourishing possible, [3] and criticizes the tendency of contemporary religion towards "fetishized preservationism." [4]

(27:17 - 46:57): Kula provides a few examples of Jewish "technologies", such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur, that 21st century Jews could approach more effectively through a lens that incorporates disruptive innovation and jobs-to-be-done. [5] To close the episode, Lex reflects on the first full year of the Judaism Unbound podcast, thanking listeners (and anyone reading these shownotes!!) for all of their engagement over the course of the first 52 weeks of Judaism Unbound. He also encourages them (you!) to check out our other initiatives that are already released and to stay tuned for new launches in the future!

[1] Listen to part one of this two-part episode (Episode 53: Death and Rebirth) by clicking here. Learn more about Irwin Kula by reading his bio.

[2] To learn more about the "jobs to be done" framework, check out Clayton Christensen's most recent book, entitled Competing Against Luck.

[3] Learn more about positive psychology through the essay "Positive Psychology: An Introduction," by Martin Seligman.

[4] Read this piece, written by Kula and Craig Hatkoff (mentioned in the episode), for more information regarding how disruptive innovation can occur differently (and more slowly) in the realm of religion.

[5] In this section, Kula mentions the concept of the "Faux Mitzvah." Learn more about what these events look like by reading this 2012 piece in the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Episode 53: Death and Rebirth - Irwin Kula Part I

What does it look like when one version of Judaism dies and another is born? Irwin Kula, President of CLAL: The National Center for Learning and Leadership, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about that question and more. This episode represents Part I of a two-part conversation with Kula. The second segment will be released next week with the title "Episode 54: Judaism's Job."

Image Credit: Topsy.fr

Image Credit: Topsy.fr

(0:01 - 15:02): Kula begins the episode by telling his own story, highlighting the impact of Clayton Christen's work, which helped him to self-identify as a "disruptive spiritual innovator." [1] He also outlines the evolution of CLAL, [2] the organization he leads, providing an in-depth look at the thinking of its founder, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, and discussing its work in recent years as well. [3] Some of the central concepts that he emphasizes as he looks at the history of CLAL include "holy secularity," "radical pluralism," and "spiritual entrepreneurship."

(15:03 - 30:44): Kula, a few decades ago, posed the radical idea that "Rabbinic Judaism died" (note the past-tense formulation). Kula outlines what he means with that statement, along with why this "death" isn't necessarily a tragic one. He also explores the shifting ways in which society relates to authority figures, including rabbis, along with introducing a concept that will be explored in more detail in part II of this episode -- Judaism's "job to be done." [4]

Image Credit: CLAL

Image Credit: CLAL

(30:45 - 47:40): Expanding on the conversation about authority figures, Kula summarizes CLAL's relationship with the idea of leadership. He also explores the why most people understand religion primarily as an exercise in preservation, not creativity. He closes the episode by critiquing what he calls the "Jewish Identity Industrial Complex," which centers the idea of "belonging" at the expense of "human flourishing." [5]

[1] To learn more about the framework of "disruptive innovation," purchase The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. To hear more about the application of Christensen's framework to Judaism, listen to the sixth episode of our podcast.

[2] Learn more about CLAL: The National Center for Learning and Leadership by visiting its website here. Read Kula's bio by clicking here.

[3] Explore Greenberg's ideas further through his 1985 essay, entitled "Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?" and his 1987 essay, entitled "The Third Era of Jewish History: Power and Politics." 

[4] Irwin Kula mentions two projects that signify a shift in how individuals relate to religious authority, Daybreaker and Buffalo Mass Mob (part of a national "Mass Mob" movement). Visit their respective websites at the following links: Daybreaker   Buffalo Mass Mob

[5] Hear more from Kula by listening to part two of this episode, Episode 54: Judaism's Job, and by watching this 2014 talk he gave as part of the Business Innovation Factory Summit (click play on the video above).

Episode 52: Nothing Sacred - Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist, writer, and graphic novelist, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation reflecting on the decade since he published his book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, in which he advocated for "open source Judaism." [1] Rushkoff argues that that 21st Century Judaism should be based on contemporary interpretations of the traditional pillars of iconoclasm, abstract monotheism, and social justice.

Image Credit: Rushkoff.com

Image Credit: Rushkoff.com

(0:01 - 15:02): Rushkoff looks back on his book Nothing Sacred, published about a decade ago. [2] He discusses elements of his thinking that have shifted since publishing the book, along with ideas he presented in the book that continue to resonate today. In particular, he focuses on the "open source ethos" of Judaism, which he found to connect very effectively with his work advocating for a more open source present and future on the internet. Rushkoff criticizes the Jewish communal focus on counting Jews [3] and also calls for Judaism to treat all issues as "arguable" and open to conversation. [4]

(15:03 - 33:25): Rushkoff presents his framework of iconoclasm (what he terms "the killing of false idols"), along with his take on the concept of abstract monotheism. He also talks about some of the projects he has helped launch in the Jewish world, which were designed to resonate in a deeper way with a group he calls "lapsed Jews" (a term with which he himself identifies). After first presenting the term, he elaborates on how he understands this group and the relationship of its members to contemporary Judaism. [5]

(33:26 - 48:14): The conversation pivots to the question of Jewish atheists. Rushkoff argues against those who believe that monotheism is a requirement of Judaism, instead presenting the idea that atheism is consonant with Judaism. [6] He also elaborates on a variety of Jewish teachings and rituals that help ensure its deep connection to social justice work. Rushkoff closes the episode by arguing that Judaism is not most accurately understood as a religion, but instead as a "process through which human beings get over their need for religion." [7]

[1] To learn more about Douglas Rushkoff and his writings, you can visit his website by clicking here.

[2] To purchase Nothing Sacred, Rushkoff's book on contemporary Judaism, click here.

[3] To hear more from Rushkoff about why Jews should avoid judging Judaism "by the numbers," read his 2002 piece in the New York Times on the subject. 

[4] Dan and Lex share Rushkoff's critique of the counting of Jews, and you can hear more from them on that issue in two early episodes of this podcast. Episode 7: Numbers (Featuring Barak Richman) and Episode 8: Numbers II

Image Credit: Vertigo

Image Credit: Vertigo

[5] To read a short excerpt from Nothing Sacred about "lapsed Jews," click here.

[6] For more on Jewish Atheism, read this Haaretz article by Benjamin Cannon, entitled "You Don't Need to Believe in God to Believe in Judaism."

[7] Learn more about Rushkoff's other books and comics, including TestamentOpen Source Democracy, and his most recent -- Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus -- by clicking here.

Episode 51: Being Jewish in the Era of Trump

What does American Judaism look like as we enter the Trump era? How might the new political reality of the United States alter the landscape of contemporary and future American Jewish life? Dan and Lex wrestle with these questions, and their implications for deeper questions of why Judaism matters, in Episode 51 of Judaism Unbound.

Image Credit: C-Span.org

Image Credit: C-Span.org

(0:01 - 16:42): Dan and Lex begin by dicussing an issue that many Jews are wrestling with in the current American moment: What does Judaism have to say about Donald Trump? How can Jews support Donald Trump in light of a Jewish tradition that seems to stand against so many of his ideas, behaviors, and actions? Does support for him cross a red line? If not, is one of the reasons Judaism needs to be remixed and rebuilt that some red lines need to be re-established? Dan and Lex reflect on (and condemn) Trump's executive order on immigration, [1] though the two co-hosts disagree about the extent of the role Judaism plays in their opposition to it. [2]

(16:43 - 35:18): Dan and Lex flesh out their disagreement about whether Judaism can tolerate Trump, looking at how this reflects two different ways of approaching the "jobs" that Judaism performs in our lives. Dan expresses his hope that Judaism can serve as a moral system in our lives, while Lex poses an alternative possibility -- that Judaism is and should be more like a library.

Image Credit: Miami Herald

Image Credit: Miami Herald

(35:19 - 50:12): To close the episode, Dan and Lex pivot from the philosophical to the institutional. They look at today's Jewish institutional landscape and analyze the various strategies that organizations could employ as they relate to the Trump administration. [3]  They consider the question of what kinds of Jewish expression and organizations are likely to grow and thrive over the next four years, [4] and which institutions may struggle for relevance in today's political and religious climate.

[1] In a rare unified stance, the four largest denominations of American Judaism have all issued statements in opposition to Donald Trump's refugee ban. Read more about it in this JTA article

Image Credit: JTA

Image Credit: JTA

[2] For an article reflecting on the role that 20th century Jewish history plays with respect to Trump's immigration order, click here

[3] Dan and Lex reflect on the ways that many contemporary Jews, whether religious or not, are "praying with their feet" through protest and social justice work. Read one article about Jewish participation in the National Women's March by clicking here and explore what the quote "praying with my feet" connotes (first uttered in a Jewish context as "my legs were praying" by Abraham Joshua Heschel, based on a quote by Frederick Douglass) through this brief audio commentary from Erica Brown.

[4] To learn more about IfNotNow, an organization discussed in this episode that is at the forefront of the "Jewish Resistance" to Donald Trump, read this article by Ben Sales.

Bonus Episode: Dan and Lex on RIJ (Really Interesting Jews) Podcast

Dan and Lex were privileged to be featured as guests on a recent episode of RIJ (Really Interesting Jews). RIJ is a podcast hosted by Evan Schultz, a rabbi based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In the episode, they talk a bit about their own Jewish background-stories, provide a behind-the-scenes look at how Judaism Unbound's podcast came to be, and explore their own favorite Jewish (and "unbound") teachings.

Thank you to Evan Schultz for graciously allowing us to share this episode on Judaism Unbound's page in addition to RIJ's!

Episode 50: Bending The Arc - Jason Kimelman-Block

Jason Kimelman-Block, Director of Bend The Arc: Jewish Action, joins Dan and Lex to discuss the ramifications of Donald Trump's presidency for American Jewish individuals, communities, and American society as a whole. The conversation explores questions as broad as "In what ways do politics and Judaism overlap?" and as specific as "What is the difference between a 501c3 and a 501c4 organization in terms of permissible political activity?"

Image Credit: Jason Kimelman-Block

Image Credit: Jason Kimelman-Block

(0:01 - 13:34): Kimelman-Block begins the conversation by providing an overview of Bend the Arc's mission and work. [1] In particular, he discusses Bend The Arc's work in opposition to Donald Trump, which began in November 2015 through their "We've Seen This Before" campaign and continues now, as Donald Trump begins his presidency. [2] Kimelman-Block and Dan discuss the weight of and reasoning behind invoking the Holocaust and push back against those who believe doing so should be absolutely off-limits. [3]


Image Credit: MSNBC.com

Image Credit: MSNBC.com

(13:35 - 30:42): To better understand the moment we are facing, Kimelman-Block outlines exactly what it is about Donald Trump and the group he terms "Trumpists" that is particularly disturbing and dangerous. He asserts that there is no distinction to be made between Republicans and Donald Trump at present. We delve into the ramifications of the Trump presidency on Jewish institutions and individual Jews, [4] in particular looking at the differences between 501c3 organizations (non-profits), which are most prevalent in Jewish life, and 501c4 organizations like Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which are not very common. [5] Is it possible that the organization of Jewish life into the 501c3 system "domesticates" Judaism more than we can afford, or more than most Jews want, today?

(30:43 - 47:53): Kimelman-Block broadens the conversation by speaking in general about the ways in which religion and politics overlap, especially when looking at the Jewish tradition. [6] He also comments on the distinction between "classic" 20th-century Jewish institutions and newer organizations that may, in some cases, prove to be more relevant for our contemporary times. 

[1] Learn more about Jason Kimelman-Block by reading his bio here, and explore Bend the Arc: Jewish Action's work by visiting their website.

Image Credit: JewishAction.us

Image Credit: JewishAction.us

[2] Kimelman-Block mentions Bend the Arc's "We've Seen This Before" statement being shared on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. Watch the footage from that November 2015 episode here.  

[3] Learn more about the ongoing We've Seen This Before campaign by visiting Bend the Arc's website. To read a petition opposing Islamophobia that came out just days before this episode was released, click here

[4] To learn more about the successful campaign, led by Jews United For Justice, for paid medical and family leave in Washington DC, which Kimelman-Block mentions, read this article, featured in Slate.

Image Credit: The Hill

Image Credit: The Hill

[5] Lila Corwin Berman provides a detailed overview of what Jewish 501c3 organizations can and cannot do in the realm of political advocacy in this article, featured on The Forward's website.

[6] To learn about Jewish involvement in the Women's March Against Trump, check out this article

Episode 49: The Prophetic Voice - Shai Held

Shai Held, President and Dean of Mechon Hadar, [1] joins Dan and Lex on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration to discuss what Jewish ideals have to say about the incoming president and what his rise means for contemporary Judaism. [2]

(0:01 - 13:09): To begin the show, Held lays the Jewish basis for his condemnations of Donald Trump, explaining that he sees that opposition as having nothing to do with partisan political debates. He also looks at the role Jewish institutions and individuals should play in today's political climate, focusing on Judaism's historic ability to serve as a counter-cultural force.  [3]

(13:10 - 28:08): Held considers the genuine difficulties that exist for Jewish communal leaders in this political moment. In particular, he discusses the complicated situation of American rabbis, who seek to balance their prophetic and pastoral roles. Held also looks back to the book of Exodus to reflect on the responsibilities of Jews in every era to stand up for the principle that every human being is holy and deserving of respect. [4] [5]

(28:09 - 47:23): Do the political developments we see demonstrate a need for new synagogue structures? Held, along with Dan and Lex, examines that question. He also looks at the difference between safely expressing approval for civil rights struggles of the past and standing up for civil rights issues in the present. [6]  In conclusion, Held lays out elements of his theological views and discusses their relevance for people whose views differ from his. [7] [8]

[1] Read Shai Held's full bio here.

[2] To hear more from Shai Held, you can listen to his audio commentaries on Torah, available on the Mechon Hadar website (just search "Shai Held" from this page). You can also read dozens of his Div'rei Torah (short essays on the weekly Torah portion) by clicking here.

[3] Shai Held cites Ibn Ezra's commentary on Exodus as evidence for the idea that there is no such thing in Judaism as an "innocent bystander." View this text in English translation (and the original Hebrew text) on Sefaria by clicking here.

Image Credit: ForkAndMap.wordpress.com

Image Credit: ForkAndMap.wordpress.com

[4] Held is the author of the book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, which you can purchase here. He also has a book coming out in September 2017, entitled The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, Genesis and Exodus, that you can pre-order here.

[5] Learn more about the Anti-Semitism that has been brought to light in Whitefish, Montana in this article in the Forward.

Image Credit: JTA

Image Credit: JTA

[6] Held speaks about the "domesticated" version of Martin Luther King that often is discussed in contemporary life, both in Jewish institutions and in the broader world. To read more about this idea, check out this Salon article, entitled "Martin Luther King Jr, the Radical".

[7] For more on Held's activist work, check out this JTA article, entitled "Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Randi Weingarten arrested at Garner protest."

[8] Andrew Fretwell wrote a recent piece for eJewishPhilanthropy entitled "Uncomfortable Truths: Our Fundamentally Broken Model," that synthesizes elements of our recent conversations on funding (Episodes 47 and 48) and this episode with Shai Held. Read it by clicking here.

Episode 48: Jewish Funding - Bound and Unbound

Dan and Lex reach back to the beginnings of the Judaism Unbound podcast, providing a look back at some of our foundational concepts for those who may have started listening recently. They also ask big questions about Jewish funding, ranging from "Who is a funder?" to "What is Jewish giving?"

(0:01 - 25:48): For the first half of the show, Dan and Lex reach back to the foundation of our ongoing conversation. [1] They re-introduce the idea of disruptive innovation and share the lens through they believe it can be applied to Jewish life today. [2] They also continue a conversation started by Andres Spokoiny in the previous episode, looking at the ways in which Judaism is in the midst of a transformation. In looking at these big-picture questions, they respond to a few frequently asked questions that they have received via email from listeners to the podcast.

(25:49 - 35:48): Dan and Lex pivot to look directly at questions related to funding of Jewish organizations. In doing so, they look back at Jewish history (including a look at "Jewish mega-donor" King Herod) and suggest ways that we can learn from that history in our own time.

(35:49 - 45:38): Lex discusses his own experience with a fairly new form of philanthropy -- a Jewish giving circle. [3] He and Dan think about ways that forms of philanthropy such as that one, along with crowd-funding online, are drastically shifting what it means to be a "funder," along with what "Jewish giving" may look like in the future.

[1] In the first half of this episode, we briefly provide a synopsis of many of the key frameworks of our discussion. If you would like to engage with our lens more comprehensively, we recommend listening to our first 4 episodes, that cover these issues with greater detail. They can be accessed at the following links:    Episode 1: Genesis     Episode 2: Genesis II     Episode 3: Exodus (featuring Benay Lappe)     Episode 4: Exodus II

[2] The idea of disruptive innovation (and the related idea of sustaining innovation) are phenomena that we refer to frequently. For those who wish to learn more about the meaning of these terms, we recommend a number of works written by Clayton Christensen, who pioneered these understandings. In particular, we would highlight his books The Innovator's Dilemma, The Innovator's Solution, and his recent work Competing Against Luck.

[3] Lex mentions his participation in NATAN's Giving Circle Incubator (Amplifier). If you would like to learn more about this initiative, you can access the Amplifier website by clicking here.

Episode 47: The Jewish Funders Network - Andres Spokoiny

Andres Spokoiny, the President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network, [1] joins Dan and Lex for a deep dive into questions of Jewish philanthropy. Spokoiny takes on big-picture questions like "what is Jewish giving" and also tackles the particulars of how such giving can be conducted most effectively. He also provides his thoughts on broader trends in 21st century Judaism.

(0:01 - 14:15): To begin, Spokoiny gives an overview of what the Jewish Funders Network is and contrasts independent philanthropy with philanthropic giving that occuring within the Jewish Federation system. He continues by laying out how the idea of "adjacency"  [2] can be crucial for start-up projects and outlines the struggle Jewish organizations have to "fail intelligently."  [3]

(14:16 - 29:21): We broaden the conversation, asking some big questions. How are healthy relationships between funders and non-profits maintained? What do we mean when we use the term "Jewish giving?" Returning to a conversation we have discussed in the past, we also explore the shift by American Jews away from "Jewish-specific" giving and towards philanthropy to organizations that are not serving the Jewish community specifically. [4] Continuing forward, Spokoiny distinguishes between the challenges of a start-up and the challenges of bringing an organization to scale.

(29:22 - 45:25): Spokoiny outlines three major transformations occurring in the Jewish world right now, referring to them as transformations of meaning, community, and structure. [5] To close the episode, we look at the ways in which organizations and funders measure success in the Jewish world, along with whether those metrics may need to shift due to the transformations referenced earlier.

Image Credit: JFN

Image Credit: JFN

[1] To learn more about Andres Spokoiny, read his bio at this link. To learn more about the organization he leads, visit the Jewish Funders Network website.

[2] Read more of Spokoiny's thoughts about the "adjacent-possible" by reading this piece he authored for eJewish Philanthropy, entitled "The Next Big Thing, or The Next Near Thing?"

[3] Spokoiny mentions two organizations, Moishe House and OneTable, as exceptional examples of when there has been a commitment to bringing a project to scale. Learn more about these projects by listening to past Judaism Unbound episodes with Moishe House CEO David Cygielman and OneTable Executive Director Aliza Kline.     Episode 19: Moishe House - David Cygielman    Episode 31: Designing OneTable - Aliza Kline

[4] To further explore trends in philanthropic giving by American Jews, check out this 2013 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, entitled "Jewish Donors are Generous, Especially to Non-Jewish Causes."

[5] To hear more from Spokoiny on big-picture philanthropic issues, take a look at this interview of him, entitled "It's Not Your Grandfather's Charitable Organization Anymore" and conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Episode 46: How Hanukkah Explains Everything - Jay Eidelman

The historian Jay Eidelman joins Dan and Lex to explain his theory of "How Hanukkah Explains Everything." [1] Through a comprehensive encapsulation of the historical events of Hanukkah and analysis of them, Eidelman shines many new lights on what Hanukkah has meant and could mean.

(0:01 - 15:25): To begin the episode, Eidelman gives some background about how he came to his "theory of everything" for the holiday of Hanukkah. He also provides a detailed look at the events of Hanukkah from a historical perspective. [2]

(15:26 - 30:34): Eidelman explores elements of the Hanukkah experience that appeared later in history. He, along with Dan and Lex, also looks at ways in which Hanukkah resemble other non-Jewish holidays -- both those that were observed in ancient times and some that are observed today. Eidelman also takes on the role of interviewer himself, asking Dan and Lex what they think the most important transitional moments in the history of Judaism were and contributing his thoughts as well. [3]

(30:35 - 47:04): Eidelman and both co-hosts explore possibilities for new meanings that Hanukkah could take on today. One that they discuss prominently is the potential of the Hanukkah story to shed light on the Trump presidency. 

[1] If you would like to read Eidelman's bio, you can do so by clicking here.

[2] For another look at the historical events of Hanukkah, check out this article on MyJewishLearning.

[3] Eidelman mentions the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. To order it, click here. It is also available as an audiobook, which you can purchase on Audible.com by clicking here.


Episode 45: Hanukkah Unbound - Ruth Abusch-Magder

Dan and Lex are joined by guest co-host Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Rabbi-in-Residence and Director of Education at Be'chol Lashon [1] , for a discussion about the future of Hanukkah in America. Starting with the premise that Hanukkah is no longer a minor holiday, but rather has become a major festival of contemporary Judaism, Dan, Lex, and Ruth explore how Hanukkah could (or maybe should) shift to meet contemporary Jewish needs.

(0:01 - 16:19): The three co-hosts begin by expressing why Hanukkah in 2016 is not a minor holiday, as many claim, but actually one of the major moments of the Jewish calendar year. Expanding on that point, Dan emphasizes that the three major holidays of today's Jewish life -- Passover, the High Holidays, and Hanukkah -- only share one holiday in common with the three major holidays (pilgrimage festivals) of Biblical Judaism (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). The co-hosts also explore the idea of re-scheduling Hanukkah so that it would occur from Christmas to the New Year every year, as it did in 2016. [2] [3]

(16:20 - 36:41): Why has Hanukkah proven to be so widely observed in today's Jewish world? What about it is worthwhile? The discussion shifts to look at what Hanukkah is today, along with ways in which it can affect people's lives. In doing so, the three co-hosts explore the themes of light, fire, Jewish pride, and more. [4] 

(36:42 - 52:39): The co-hosts discuss the importance both of intellectual engagement with Jewish rituals along with pure, simple, joy. They also explore ways that the story of Hanukkah can be informative for us in the wake of Donald Trump's election. [5] In closing, Dan, Lex, and Ruth offer their final thoughts on what new rituals or ideas could further enhance Hanukkah in the future, and they also call on our listeners to propose ideas of their own!

[1] You can read Abusch-Magder's bio by clicking here. Check out Be'chol Lashon's website here.

[2] In Episode Five: Leviticus, Dan and Lex take on the question of moving the dates of Jewish holidays from a slightly different angle, with guest Vanessa Ochs. Listen in to that conversation here.

Image Credit: ThanksgivukkahBoston.com

Image Credit: ThanksgivukkahBoston.com

[3] In this segment, Lex mentions Thanksgivukkah, a holiday that occurred when Thanksgiving fell on Hanukkah in 2013. Look back at that occasion through this article on Religion Dispatches that was published just before its observance.

[4] In this section, Abusch-Magder tells a memorable story that took place in Billings, Montana in 1993. To read the full story, check out this article she wrote on MyJewishLearning.

[5] To explore Hanukkah's wisdom for the age of Donald Trump in more detail, you can read Danya Ruttenberg's piece in the Washington Post, entitled "What the Hanukkah story teaches us about the Trump administration."

Episode 44: A Secular Humanistic Hanukkah - Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism's Dean for North America and rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, Illinois. He joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Secular Humanistic Judaism, Hanukkah, and trends in contemporary Jewish life. [1]

Image Credit: Hjrabbi.wordpress.com

Image Credit: Hjrabbi.wordpress.com

(0:01 - 13:02): The episode begins with Chalom giving a basic introduction of Secular Humanistic Judaism. [2] What are its key tenets? What are some of the common myths and misconceptions about it? How does it orient itself towards the idea of God? He also discusses the ways in which Secular Humanistic Judaism relates to a duality that the podcast often explores -- that of tradition and change.

(13:03 - 29:28): Chalom gives his take on the holiday of Hanukkah, along with some ways that Secular Humanistic Jews observe it. [3] He also discusses how his movement's approach to education differs from the approaches of other Jewish movements. [4] Specifically, Chalom looks at elements of Jewish mythology that clash with historical or archaeological evidence, providing a new lens for how Jewish institutions could teach this material.

Image Credit: www.iishj.org

Image Credit: www.iishj.org

(29:29 - 42:58): To close the show, the conversation pivots from questions directly focused on the secular humanistic Jewish world to trends in American Judaism more broadly. Chalom discusses a variety of data gathered both from the Pew Study of Jewish Americans and his own analysis. [5] His final thoughts tie together these ideas about the present and future of Judaism with the series's ongoing theme of Hanukkah.

[1] To learn more about Adam Chalom, visit his bio at this link. You can learn more about the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and Kol Hadash by visiting their respective websites.    IISHJ     Kol Hadash

The IISHJ sends its best wishes for a Happy Hanukkah to listeners of this podcast! Image Credit: International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

The IISHJ sends its best wishes for a Happy Hanukkah to listeners of this podcast! Image Credit: International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

[2] Paul Golin, the Executive Director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism was a guest on Episode 16 of our podcast, entitled "Intermarriage and the Future." Listen to it at this link.

[3] To learn more about the history of the dreidel game, which Chalom alludes to, read this article, entitled "The Surprising Origin of the Dreidel," from MyJewishLearning.com.

[4] In this segment, Chalom highlights a story involving Rabbi David Wolpe, a conservative rabbi who caused controversy by questioning the Exodus's historicity from the pulpit. Learn more about what happened by reading this article, featured in the Bay Area's J Weekly.

[5] This page, from the website of the Pew Research Center, outlines many of Pew's key findings from the study "A Portrait of Jewish Americans," some of which Chalom alludes to towards the end of this episode.


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.