Synagogues unbound

Synagogues unbound

Federation leadership initiative features podcaster Daniel Libenson

Daniel Libenson
Daniel Libenson

How is the Jewish community changing? How can its institutions adapt? What new forms of Jewish community are coming into being?

These are the core concerns of Judaism Unbound, the three-and-a-half-year-old weekly podcast that recently celebrated its one millionth download. The podcast’s founder and co-host, Daniel Libenson, will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming SynaCon conference of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. (See box.)

Mr. Libenson didn’t set out to host a popular podcast. Judaism Unbound started as a research program for a book that would investigate Jewish institutional change, and his co-host, rabbinical student Lex Rofeberg, was originally hired to be a research assistant.

“The theory was that we would continue to do the research in the form of the podcast,” Mr. Libenson said. “We thought more famous people would be willing to talk with us.”

That proved true. In its nearly 200 episodes, Judaism Unbound has offered in-depth conversations ranging from the nitty-gritty of starting a Jewish organization to high level discussions of theology and meaning.

But it’s the occasional episodes where it’s just Mr. Libenson and Mr. Rofeberg discussing their theories of organizational change that reveal the show’s roots in another, non-Jewish podcast.

“I was listening to a tech podcast, ‘The Critical Path,’” Mr. Libenson said. That podcast looked at Apple through the lens of a theory known as disruptive innovation. Invented by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, the theory of disruptive innovation argues that existing companies are too invested in the status quo and serving their existing customers to embrace innovations.

“The best example is Apple getting into the phone business where they weren’t in the phone business before,” Mr. Libenson said. “Or even getting into the photography business, where they became the most dominant player.

“The assumption in the Jewish community is that innovations will be a tweak to something that already exists, that an existing Jewish organization or type of Jewish organization will come up with a new approach that meets a new challenge. That’s not how it works in Jewish history or any history. In a time of great change, new institutions come along that address those changes.

“One of the most important ideas of disruptive innovation theory is that the market for innovation is what in the business world you call non-consumers or in the religion or culture world you call non-participants. Innovation takes root and starts in the world of people who are not using it at all.

“A good example is Zionism, which came about in this time of great change and challenge for the Jews of Europe. It was not from any existing Jewish institution. It was something new that has since become the most dominant Jewish institution in the world, the State of Israel.

And true to the theory, “Zionism was initially most exciting to the poor Russians, not the institutionalized, entrenched elites of Western or Eastern Europe.”

Mr. Libenson brings this theory to bear on American Judaism. “We understand, based on all kinds of ethnographic studies and what we know in our gut, that the nature of Jews in America has changed substantially from what it used to be,” he said. “We’re trying to ask what it would look like if we had entirely new approaches to Jewish life.”

Which leads to the question: “What would it look like if we started to see new Jewish initiatives popping up among folks not already engaged in Jewish life?”

Mr. Libenson came to the question of innovation in Jewish life by being a quintessential insider outsider. He’s the son of a Conservative rabbi, a childhood role he did not enjoy. He became an outsider when, at 14, his father, Eli Libenson, left the pulpit of the Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview, Long Island, and the family made aliyah.

“I went to an Orthodox high school I really wasn’t prepared for,” Mr. Libenson said. “I experienced that really negatively. Left on a certain typical course I would not have been very Jewishly involved at all.”

But he found his own way into Judaism as he set off to college.

First, he read the book “Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Elliott Friedman, which presents the un-Orthodox, academic scholarly understanding of how the Bible was written and assembled by human authors and editors.

“It gave me a new perspective,” Mr. Libenson said. “It was my first experience where I felt you can take all the stuff you experienced and know and put it back in a new way you experience very positively.”

His understanding of Judaism had been disrupted — and he loved it.

And then, at Harvard, “I had an amazing Hillel experience. It was very open, very pluralistic, very affirming that all kinds of different paths to Judaism were equally valid.”

Afterward, he went to law school, and then became a professor at  the University of St Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

“I was teaching at a Catholic law school that was struggling and figuring out what it means to be a Catholic law school. I was more excited by that project than by teaching law. I decided that if I’m going to turn around a struggling religious institution, it should be in my own community,” he said.

For a time, that meant being Hillel director at the University of Chicago. “We were doing all this innovative work to engage students in Judaism and to get students to take a more creative approach toward Judaism and build new expressions of it that would be more likely to engage their peers,” he said. The response from his board members was envy of the students. “I came to realize that people really engaged in Jewish life aren’t really satisfied,” he said. “I saw that what we were doing on campus was more broadly relevant. I wanted to write a book.”

And thus was born the research project that became the podcast. (Fret not, book lovers: Mr. Libenson is working on a book spin-off of Judaism Unbound.)

So what innovations has he discovered?

Mr. Libenson’s list starts with Svara, a Chicago institution that bills itself as a “a traditionally radical yeshiva,” whose founder, Rabbi Benay Lappe, was his podcast’s first guest.

“It’s an organization that’s based on Talmud study focused on the perspective of the LGBTQ community,” Mr. Libenson said. “On the one hand, Talmud study doesn’t sound all that revolutionary Jewishly. But in a way it is. It has not been the practice of ordinary Jews to study Talmud. The fact it would be something ordinary Jews without tremendous Jewish education would do in their spare time is extremely innovative. The fact that you would do this kind of work in the world of LGBTQ Jews — who have historically been the most marginalized by existing institutions of the Jewish community — is exactly what the theory of disruptive innovation would hypothesize. It’s the outsiders who create the seed of something new.”

Another example is Moishe House, the network of communal living residences combined with Jewish programming.

“Moishe House also focuses on a population that until it started was pretty unengaged with existing institutions of Jewish life, specifically people in their 20s and 30s. It’s not an engagement program — the goal of Moishe House is not to engage those people in coming to synagogue more or joining Federation. It’s saying, how can we create an entirely new organization for the people we’re looking at?”

What advice does he have for synagogues who want to innovate and adapt?

“One possibility is for a synagogue to operate more the way a Hillel operates. To not define itself around the basis of its religious services. They can still have them, but not say that’s the most significant part of the organizations. And stop denominationally restricting themselves to a particular type of service.

“My question is, what would a synagogue look like that reimagined itself as the center for Jewish life for its particular geographic location?

“There are a lot of secular Jews in any community. Almost by definition those Jews are saying they would never go to a synagogue. Nothing a synagogue will do will get them to go there. They understand a synagogue to be fundamentally a religious institution and they don’t feel that way about a JCC. The best Hillels make themselves understood to students as not only religious institutions.

“It’s a heavy lift to say we’re going to call ourself temple such-and-such but we’ll run programs for secular Jews. But if we announce we’re changing our name and will be the Center of Jewish Life and start running programs for secular Jews, there’s a good change they will participate.”

Mr. Libenson said that synagogues who look to marketing as the solution for declining membership don’t understand the market.

“Most synagogues operate under the assumption that there are a lot of people interested in the core experience of what we’ve been offering all along. If we can make them feel that we’re more warm and welcoming than they think we are, they’ll come. But it’s not that people have misperceptions about the synagogue. It’s that they’re not looking for that kind of Judaism. All the demographics suggest they are looking for Jewish experiences, but not for that kind of Judaism.”

Mr. Libenson believes that the synagogue model of his father’s generation worked because most members joined “because Jews were less socially accepted in other dimensions of American society. Classically, Jews moved to the suburbs and were not able to join the non-Jewish country clubs. They were joining the synagogue to serve a human need for community. As Jews have become increasingly accepted in all kinds of social spaces and clubs, that element of what synagogues were offering was no longer something Jews needed. In the past, they were willing to pay the dues and subsidize those Jews who were seeking a religious experience. Once they could get that human need met in a different way, they were no longer willing to join a synagogue, because they didn’t need it any more.

“I don’t think synagogues are reporting they have fewer people who are coming every week and praying. They’re losing membership among people who never came to services and are now not willing to pay the dues any more.

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking there’s some kind of magic bullet that will make it work again. At the same time, we should address the question optimistically. Don’t ask ‘Is this the end?’ but ask, ‘If we were to come out of this strongly, what would the path look like for that to be true?’”

Mr. Libenson said that synagogues and other Jewish institutions have to stop looking at what the Jewish needs of their potential constituents are. Instead, they should look at their human needs.

“No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Oh no, I’m assimilated!’ But they do wake up saying ‘I don’t know if I can make ends meet!’ or ‘I’m depressed,’” Mr. Libenson said, in the name of Rabbi Irwin Kula of Clal, the New York-based Jewish organization where Mr. Libenson has been helping New York area synagogues reinvent themselves.

“What would it be for a synagogue to be a place where people can get not just spiritual help, but more concrete kinds of help?” Mr. Libenson asks.

Mr. Libenson said that he has learned through Judaism Unbound “that, to my surprise, there is a lot more openness than I imagined about the idea that Judaism needs to change profoundly. I expected there would be more fear of radical ideas, more of an attempt to hold the line in terms of traditional ideas and beliefs. I expected to get a lot more negativity in terms of pushback from the podcast. All sorts of people, rabbis, Jewish leaders, have been incredibly affirming.

“The flip side is that it’s made me more frustrated and more disappointed about the lack of creative responses. If they do believe in a radical point of view and are acting very conservatively, that’s frustrating,” he said.

It’s also, he said, predicted by the theory of disruptive innovation.

“Christensen writes that the reason the large existing players don’t tend to be the ones bringing radical innovations to the market is that if they have some amount of happy customers, the happy customers don’t allow them to focus their time and energy and money on radical innovations, on experiments that might fail, on all kinds of unfamiliar ideas. All these practical pressures that are getting in the way of doing what everybody wants to do, which is to have a more robust experiment of Jewish practice.”

He is starting to think that the future of Jewish innovation lies less in “institutions and organizations and more on people. If a person just wants to do something different in their family, they don’t need any funding, they’re not under any pressure. What would the world look like if Jewish innovation became a cottage industry where everybody was experimenting with one or two things, where all these experiments are going on, and they’re talking and sharing ideas? Over time, new organizational forms will emerge out of this.”

“Most people think conservation is the way we’re going to maintain Judaism. My experience is that substantial changes are the way we’re going to maintain Judaism. Precisely when you make those changes people can generate a passion for it, because it spoke to them for the first time.”

What: Jewish Federation SynaCon conference for synagogue leaders

When: Sunday, November 17, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus

How much: $18

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