Judaism Unbound with Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes

It was indeed a great treat and honour to chat with Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.   Their project, based in my hometown of Chicago, is a “hub for ideas, education, and action dedicated to accelerating bold innovation in Jewish life.”   They are looking to bring Next Judaism into the now.

As part of their efforts, they have a podcast called Judaism Unbound. Check out all nine episodes!  Its a riveting exploration of their ethos and ideas using the Torah as a frame for the discussion – and, of course, listen to Episode 9 which just dropped today in which I reflect upon the End Of The Jews four years later.

It is time well and thoughtfully spent.


Relevance in the Age of Affordability

OR:  How Michael Steinhardt is doing it wrong.

I have tremendous respect for Michael Steinhardt.  He has invested a lot of time, thought and money in Jewish education.  If you google “Steinhardt” and “Jewish education”, the first ten hits highlight the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development which has robust degree programs in Jewish Studies and Education. He co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel.

So he cares.

And that’s wonderful.

So when a Tablet piece came across my feed, reproducing a March 9th speech Steinhardt delivered at the Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, I was piqued… but ultimately disappointed.

I was dismayed not because of what Steinhardt asserted. He made a passionate argument for a vision of secular Judaism that could proudly take its place alongside the traditional vision of Judaism-as-religious-tradition.  Secular Jewish Education has been Steinhardt’s thing going back to the late aughts, and it is a compelling idea which has curricular implications as well as cultural ones.

At the same time, Steinhardt has been very critical of liberal Judaism’s (failed) efforts to educate the next generation of Jews.

So with all of this churning away in the background, I thought Steinhardt would drop some science on us, and perhaps (once again) open up a new frontier in Jewish education.  But Make Jewish Education Relevant fell down before it even got rolling.

One cannot have a serious discussion about relevance in Jewish education, about creating learning opportunities that speak to the next generation of Jews and foster viable Jewish identification without addressing the most pressing issue of 21st century Jewish education.


One cannot be alive in 2016, eight years after the 2008 Financial Crisis and two Obama presidencies of tepid recovery, and not be cognizant of the fact that Jewish families, liberal Jewish families, even with the best of intentions, cannot afford to send their children to Jewish day schools.

They cannot get their kids into the room where relevant (or irrelevant) Jewish learning takes place.  Their kids cannot take advantage of the best practices and all the opportunities available in day school settings because their salaries cannot keep up with the increasing cost of day school tuition.

I feel this issue in my bones, my kishkes, and my bank account.  I have three Jewish children.  I even wrote a counterfactual history of Birthright where Steinhardt decided to fund day school education in the same manner as he planned to fund Birthright trips.

So it strikes me as tone deaf when Steinhardt writes:

Most attribute the [declining] results to affordability, but there are more important factors.  Jewish immersion experiences where traditional religious elements define the environment with a certain parochialism have become a foreign proposition to the vast majority of American non-Orthodox Jews.

Really?  More important than affordability?

I could go into a numbers rant here but Michael Steinhardt is a hedge fund guy.   And perhaps he even looked at the numbers.  But I would argue that for every Jewish family who preferred to send their child to a school with a more haimishe view on universalism (say, a Quaker school) than a parochial Jewish day school, there are at least THREE to FIVE Jewish families who would have loved to fill that open spot in the Jewish classroom but simply could not afford it.

Let’s get everyone into the room first.  Once we accomplish that, we can discuss what we should learn and how best to learn it.  And Steinhardt is just the guy to figure out how to achieve both goals, but in their proper order.

FDR said that people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.  We cannot expect to have a viable Jewish community if vast number of us are ignorant of our history, culture, language and tradition.  This is the stuff of which irrelevance is made… and extinction.


End Of The Jews in the News, Part 23

In case you haven’t seen this piece shared dozens of time in your Twitter feed, the New York Times reports that many rabbis will not speak out about Israel because of the divisive nature of the topic.

The handful of examples brought up in the piece, however, represent a larger trend which has been building up steam for years.

I know of at least two congregations in TO where all sermons and d’var torahs have to be vetted before delivery in fear of roiling the laity.  I am sure there are more with more informal “arrangements”.

Although many folks are only now tsk-tsking this unfortunate trend because it is has steamrolled over a handful of beloved congregational rabbis, as I wrote in Chapter 9 of End Of The Jews, Israel has stopped serving as a rallying point for the Jewish community for years.

Coupled with the flailing of the right-tilting establishment who try to force the dichotomous “Either you’re with us or against us” party line (especially in times of trouble in Israel), what we are seeing in the mainstream media (finally) is a bubbling up of that ubiquitous disaffection and perhaps a little soul-searching.

Nonetheless, no one likes being presented with ultimatums, but if forced to choose, many fair-minded folks who cherish Jewish values might sadly choose the door.  Some, like suburban Chicago’s Rabbi Brant Rosen, have already hit the bricks.

Next Judaism at its Best: The Third Temple Indiegogo Campaign

In Chapter 1 of End Of The Jews, I wrote about the Temple Institute and their drive to rebuild the Temple of Solomon on Mount Moriah.  As part of their state of constant vigilance, Institute artisans have prepared all the vestments, implements and ritual objects so when the time comes, members of the organization will be ready to assume all the duties, responsibilities and functions of that institution – including animal sacrifice.   Though calling back to a Judaism that predates the common era, the folks at the Temple Institute also employ 21st century tools, namely the internet and the power of social media.

In other words, even the Temple Institute folks are NEXT JEWS!

And like many a thoughtful Next Jew in need of financial support for their project (see also Jewcer), the folks over at the Temple Institute have launched an Indiegogo campaign.

This piece in the Forward brought a smile to my face almost as wide as the old man’s at the end of the YouTube clip below.

You can read the details of the campaign here.

My favourite: If you donate $1,800, you get an autographed headshot of the Kohein Gadol!

Okay, that was a joke.  But for $5,000 you can get a VIP tour of the Temple Mount and the Temple Institute led by the Institute’s director!

I wonder what will happen if they reach their modest goal.  Will they have to build the Third Temple within a set period of time or merely break ground or… ?

And I also wonder: Was Kickstarter not mehadrin enough for this campaign?  …Because going with Indiegogo makes a definite statement about taste and affiliation.

What remains now is the ol’ “wait and see” until September 25, Rosh HaShanah 5775 which, if the campaign launches, could be a really interesting year.

Consider this counterfactual

The following was crossposted at The Jewish Futures Blog as part of a thought experiment on the Jewish future.  Enjoy!

Consider this counterfactual.

In 1994, after having coffee with me, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt decided, rather than funding flashy 10 day junkets to Israel, to create Areivut insteador as it came to be known: “The Pledge”.

“The Pledge” was simple.  In conjunction with the Israeli government, private philanthropists, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish Federations across North America, Areivut would provide every Jewish child in North America with a free Jewish education from junior kindergarden to Grade 8.

The launch announcement, made on Erev-Erev Shavuot, 5760, (or June 8, 2000), was met with typical Jewish verve.  In other words, many opinions were expressed.

Jewish parents committed to public education responded to the Pledge with a polite “no thank you”, but the legion of working and middle class Jewish parents who groaned under the rising costs of Jewish education (costs which far outstripped the rate of inflation) fervently signed up to become Areivim over the intervening summer months.  The surge in signups at www.kolisraelareiv.im threatened to bottleneck internet traffic anywhere east of the Mississippi.

Jewish day schools which saw numbers dwindle and communities which faced the loss of their sole educational institution were suddenly overwhelmed by demand.

Universities and teachers’ colleges in major metropolitan areas also rose to the challenge of this new demand, expanding their programs to train a new cohort of Jewish educators.

In the first five years of the Areivut, over 55% of Jewish children were enrolled in five-day-a-week programs across North America.  In Year Ten, the percentage rose to 70%.

In the meanwhile, day schools themselves were transformed.  Denominational education was still attractive to many families, but community institutions, representing the broadest spectrum of Jewish experience, began to command more attention.  Banding together was a move that was once driven by economics, but in this new age, creating “open tents” was inspired by the Pledge’s message of shared responsibility and mutual obligation.

And these community spaces evolved to serve different sectors of the community depending on the time of day, week or year.  In the early morning, as parents headed off to work, the day school provided day care.  During the school day, trained Jewish educators taught and learned with the next generation of kids.  And in the evening, a different cohort of educators learned with adults.  On the weekends, the space was open for people to congregate, pray and learn.  And, in the summer, the space housed a variety of Jewish day camps.

And though the financial debacles of 2008 could have easily resulted in the shuttering of many a Jewish school, Areivut had set aside funding to keep the program running at least until 2048, when they projected to have educated not only a (nearly) complete generation of Jewish children, but also theirchildren and grandchildren.

And thus, the words from Shir HaShirim Rabbah were fulfilled.  For when God said to Israel: “Bring Me good guarantors and I shall give you the Torah,” they said: “Indeed, our children will be our guarantors.”  And so, God said: “Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you.”

Another review of End Of The Jews


Checking the table of contents from the latest issue of The Jewish Quarterly, I was pleased to discover a review of End Of The Jews by London-based sociologist and writer Keith Kahn-Harris.

He made many salient points about the book, especially when instructively juxtaposed with Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now … but, alas, it lurks behind a paywall.

You can track down the piece here and read the first page for free or shell out $39 for the book review (a GREAT Purim gift) or ask someone with academic privileges to access it and read it aloud to you over the phone.

When you do, let me know what you think of the review.  I have some thoughts…