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Judaism Unbound

Institute for the Next Jewish Future
Chicago, Illinois United States
Leadership team

Daniel Libenson, President
Lex Rofes, Strategic Initiatives Coordinator

Organization website
Prize category
National/International
Operational
1 – 3 years
Target audience
20s & 30s, Adults, Baby Boomers, College Students, GLBTQ, Interfaith, Multi-ethnic, Unaffiliated
Categories
Arts & Culture, Interfaith, Jewish Education, Leadership Development, Media & Technology, Outreach & Engagement, Professional Development

In light of the Pew Study’s finding that so many unaffiliated Jews see being Jewish as important to them, the best way to understand these Jews is as dissenters who are expressing their dissent through exit. We seek to inspire these dissidents to become reformers by giving them the knowledge and the chutzpah they need to understand their potential roles in the grand Jewish tradition of changing Judaism itself in order to maintain its relevance for the times and places in which Jews are living, including the next great migration of the Jews, which is the migration to cyberspace.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Ultimately, our work is about inspiring and empowering "regular Jews" to rebuild Judaism in a way that works for them. We believe that Jewish wisdom is the key tool in this process, both in that it represents the core "building material" with which Jews will remix and rebuild Judaism, and also because part of the Jewish wisdom tradition is wisdom about how to go about changing Judaism itself. Our work aims to connect peripherally affiliated Jews and unaffiliated Jews with both kinds of wisdom, though we have focused first on the "process wisdom" about how Judaism itself changes because we believe that Jews must first understand and internalize the idea that change is authentic and traditional before they can do a deep dive into the granular content of what Judaism has been and what should be retained, remixed, amplified, or deemphasized in the next Jewish future.

One way that we think about wisdom is as that knowledge about living a good life that one can only learn from a wisdom tradition or from the school of hard knocks -- but if one learns it from the school of hard knocks, one often learns it too late. The Jewish wisdom tradition generally conveys its wisdom to most people using three tools: (1) law, habit, and ritualized activities; (2) stories; (3) the mimetic tradition -- mentorship, role modeling, etc. (The tradition is also conveyed through philosophy, but we do not believe that it how most people learn.)

We root our work in what we see as the most basic expression of Jewish wisdom about how to change Judaism, which is the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. As such, we built our first ten podcast episodes around the meta-story being told by the Torah's five books, and we continue to draw out and talk about what these stories tell us about the needs of the people during times of great upheaval and change and the challenges of leadership in such times. Our work is also deeply grounded in Rabbi Benay Lappe's perspective that an under-appreciated dimension of the Talmud is its being a message from the early Rabbis about how to radically change Judaism when the need arises. As such, we emphasize the multi-vocality of our texts and traditions and the wisdom that Judaism recognizes even conflicting voices as the words of the living God ("elu v'elu"). Our work on the translation of Yochi Brandes's novel "The Secret Book of Kings" was motivated largely by the book's emphasis on finding and appreciating the hidden or suppressed threads in the tradition and amplifying them when the need arises; the companion web site we are creating at www.secretbookofkings.com helps readers understand this multi-vocal Biblical tradition, and its meaning in our day, more deeply.

We emphasize the wisdom that the Jews are a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" in the sense that every Jew is authorized to take leadership responsibility, a perspective reinforced in various Biblical and Talmudic stories, such as that of the leadership structure that Moses's father-in-law Jethro advises him to install in the wilderness.

As to more practical and personal wisdom -- the building blocks that a remixed Judaism will be made of -- we will turn our attention to these on our podcast soon, once we have fully laid down the foundation we are building. In addition, we are planning an entirely separate podcast on Jewish holidays and rituals, which will be much more oriented to more day-to-day Jewish wisdom. We also are planning separate podcast series on the Torah and the Talmud, the aims of which are to mine these sources for the relevant wisdom they contain for 21st Century Jews. Taken together, our podcasts and other resources are meant to give people a very broad useful toolkit of Jewish wisdom and an understanding that remixing it is an authentic Jewish activity that regular Jews are authorized to do.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

A podcast is a particularly accessible form because listeners can engage with it at a time that is convenient for them and, unlike most other forms, while they are doing other tasks (like driving, cleaning the house, etc.). From the many listener comments thanking us for transforming their commutes into times of Jewish engagement and deep thought, we have come to recognize that this time-shifting of Jewish experience is particularly powerful. In the Jewish "circle of life," we see this as the return to a more portable Judaism that we see during times of Jewish change and that is represented in our mythology by the portable tabernacle (mishkan) in the wilderness. Similarly, our online resources can be accessed when convenient to those who use them -- for example, our Shavuot Unbound online experience was used by many people at times other than the first night of Shavuot.

We work hard to make sure that we and our guests do not use "insidery" language and terminology on our podcast, and we put together extensive shownotes on our web site that clarify statements that not everyone will understand and that also allow interested listeners to do a deeper dive into the topics. We also try to real model the process of trying to make wisdom relevant to life in our monthly analysis episodes in which we look back at the last few interviews and try to make sense of their meaning for a changed Judaism that remains rooted in its timeless material. Part of our goal in these analysis episodes is to offer specific thoughts on how to make the wisdom relevant, and part of our goal is to role model for listeners how they can think for themselves.

It is important to note that, while a podcast is our first major public program, and we have other podcast projects at advanced stages of development, our work is not limited to podcasting. Our work includes writing books, translating books, and creating a web-based hub for exploring a wide variety of Jewish material that regular Jews may want to learn more about as they develop new expressions of Judaism. As one can see from our Shavuot Unbound web project and the Resources for Readers section of our www.secretbookofkings.com web site, we believe in curating the best and most accessible resources that are easily accessible with a few clicks of a mouse that allow people to educate themselves Jewishly, all presented through a lens that says the ultimate goal is to remix the material in a way that works for today's Jews.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

The Judaism Unbound podcast launched in late March of 2016 -- approximately six months (and 26 episodes) before the submission of this application. At present, more than 2,700 unique individuals per week and 6,000 per month listen to the podcast. The monthly number has been growing steadily between 500 and 1,000 listeners each month. We receive email from listeners on a regular basis telling us not only how much they enjoy the podcast, but also that the podcast has become a meaningful weekly practice for them. We have been somewhat surprised to realize that, while we thought we were creating a show about Judaism, many listeners use it as a practice of Judaism.

Based on the profile of the nearly 1,500 Facebook likes our Judaism Unbound page has received, we know that our listenership cuts across age demographics. Our Facebook community is 45% under age 35, 37% between 35-54, and 18% 55 and up. Given that Facebook use skews younger, we believe our listenership is quite evenly distributed. We have 48 five-star reviews on iTunes and 22 written reviews, which can be viewed on iTunes.

These two comments from listeners are typical of what we receive on a regular basis in emails and Facebook messages and postings:

"I'm not Jewish (and have no plans to convert) but my husband is. We have two young daughters and it is both hard and exciting to try to figure things out together while honoring both our traditions. I discovered your show when you did the episodes on intermarriage and I really related to so much of it. I'm thinking of starting a discussion group (like a book club)...using your episodes instead of books. It has been so freeing to know I'm not the only one asking these questions, especially regarding intermarriage and what it means to be Jewish."

"I found your podcast about a month ago. It was Shabbat afternoon, and I wanted/needed something Jewish to listen to, to connect to. I downloaded the Player.fm app, and came across your episode on intermarriage with Professor McGinity. Since then I've subscribed, and I'm listening now from the beginning. It's been incredibly refreshing having this podcast in my life. It is prompting me to think about Judaism, my Judaism, in new ways -- at a time when I need and have to do so. Thanks for the show."

While many of our listeners are "regular Jews," we also have many listeners who are Jewish professionals and lay leaders of Jewish organizations, both new and of longstanding. In the last few months, we have been invited by numerous large Jewish organizations, ranging from synagogues to JCC's to federations, to give talks and workshops on the subject-matter of our podcast and other work. We believe these invitations constitute direct evidence of impact, but we also have been told repeatedly by the Jewish leaders who invite us that they are fans of the podcast and that it is very stimulating to them and meaningful to know that they are not alone in seeking to put together a new understanding of American Judaism in the 21st Century.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

The most important thing we have learned is that there is a hunger for serious conversation about what Judaism is and what it might become, and if this conversation can be offered in a way that fits into people's busy schedules and allows them to engage without feeling embarrassed that they don't know enough, many Jews will engage. The idea that Judaism does not have to be a grab-bag of rules and regulations that one doesn't really understand, but rather that it has a rich history of remaking itself by remixing its older material, is appealing not only to unaffiliated Jews, but also to highly affiliated Jews -- even individuals in leadership roles -- who know this to be true but do not find support for such thinking and activity within the institutions with which they affiliate.

The deepest Jewish wisdom of all, we have discovered, is trust. The Jewish tradition, in a profound way, trusts Jews, individually and as a collective, to make changes to tradition when such changes are needed. The wisdom of Jewish study for its own sake ensures that, when the time comes, Jews will have access to a wealth of material to draw upon. We have learned that, if Jewish study is understood as mining a wisdom tradition, as opposed to "religious education," and that the goal of the learning is to be able to reshape Judaism in a process analogous to the way an artist reshapes material into an old-new work of art, people are interested. We have actually been surprised to discover that listening to our podcast -- that is, thinking about Judaism -- has become a meaningful ritual for many people, but upon reflection, that is consistent with the grand Jewish tradition that study is a form of practice.