Judaism Unbound Episode 184: Disorganized Religion - Dan and Lex


Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg call for future forms of Judaism that will be less institutional and more disorganized. [1]

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(0:01 - 11:58): To begin the episode, Dan hones in on recent conversations with Urban Kibbutz and Judaism On Our Own Terms, bringing up the idea of “pseudo-organizations.” [2] Questioning the idea that “sustainability” should be among the most important characteristics of our Jewish organizations today, he argues that we should find ways to define organizational success that are not based simply on the continued existence of an institution. Lex brings up the “life cycle” of student-groups on many college campuses as a way of building on this idea. Specifically, he notes that a huge percentage of student-groups that currently exist on campuses were formed in the last 5-10 years, that a similarly huge percentage will not exist in 5-10 more years, and that may actually be a positive story.

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(11:59 - 28:18): Dan asks an open-ended, and maybe counter-intuitive, question. What could be achieved in a Jewish world only if the norm became organizations (or “disorganizations”) that exist for a short period of time, whose goal is not at all to be sustainable over many generations? Lex answers by saying that focusing on the here and now, and not on sustaining an organization for the future, automatically allows for ideas that are more radical, ambitious, and (yes) risky. [3] Lex also calls back to a recent episode with the New Synagogue Project, arguing that we could benefit from less “organized Judaism” and more of an “organizers’ Judaism” (a Judaism built by community organizers). Dan carries that point forward, asserting that an organizers Judaism would, on one level, benefit existing institutions, but perhaps more importantly it would create a thriving ecosystem of Jewish life manifesting outside of organized institutions.

(28:19 - 44:26): Lex reflects on his own blind-spot, earlier in this conversation, whereby he mapped ideas of community organizing only onto existing institutions, instead of broadening the idea to encompass Judaisms that manifest outside of institutions as well. Dan pivots to talk about how contemporary Jews (and Jewish organizations) define success and failure. He looks at the story of BimBam — a digital home for videos about Jewish texts, holidays, and culture that closed recently — as an example of how we could re-conceptualize ideas of success that hinge on continued existence over many generations, which automatically define closure of an organization as failure. [4] Lex advocates for a future of Jewish organization-building in which many projects would, from the get-go, be designed with an expiration date. [5] To close the episode, Dan draws an analogy of Judaism to starting a fire, which begins not with the biggest logs, but with tiny twigs whose flames can then expand to larger logs, and Lex takes the opportunity to look at how that analogy connects to the next theme Judaism Unbound will tackle: Jewish education.

[1] At the top of the episode, Dan mentions two exciting Judaism Unbound developments! The first is that our 2nd-annual edition of Elul Unbound is almost here: sign up to participate by clicking here. The other is that we are in the process of raising funds for a book, to be published soon (working title is Judaism Unbound…Bound). It will be a collection of transcripts of some of our best episodes, plus commentary, discussion questions, and more! Help make this book a reality by clicking here.

[2] Check out the full conversations with these two (pseudo) organizations here - Episode 182: Judaism On Our Own Terms - Tal Frieden, August Kahn, Episode 183: Intentional Community - Sara Levy Linden, Shira Rutman

[3] In this section of the episode, Dan cites Benay Lappe and Amichai Lau-Lavie, two of our past “frequent flyer” podcast guests (more than one appearance each!), as the rare kinds of folks that are finding a way to craft innovative organizations that are reaching people who wouldn’t otherwise be connecting to Jewish institutional life at all. Listen to their appearances on the show at any of the following links: Episode 3: Exodus - Benay Lappe, Episode 29: Lab/Shul - Amichai Lau-Lavie, Episode 36: What Jewish Looks Like Today - Benay Lappe Episode 56: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva - Benay Lappe, Bonus Episode - Intermarriage: Changing the Rules - Amichai Lau-Lavie

[4] Listen in to our episode on BimBam, featuring its founder Sarah Lefton, by clicking here - Episode 24: BimBam - Sarah Lefton. Dan also mentions the closing of JDub Records, which you can learn about here, as an example we can learn from as we seek to re-define institutional success in Jewish life.

[5] Dan notes that the Avi Chai Foundation, which has committed to spend down all of its assets before the end of the 2020s decade, provides one model for what this kind of thinking could look like. Learn more about the phenomenon of foundations in Jewish life that are spending down by reading “When Foundations’ Days Are Numbered,” a 2012 piece in The Forward, written by Amy Schiller.