Dan Libenson is used to talking. As co-host of “Judaism Unbound,” a podcast and project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, Libenson, a Chicago native, has spent 169 episodes engaging with guests on topics pertaining to American Jewish life. “Judaism Unbound” recently marked its one-millionth download, and while the future of the digital endeavor appears promising, less certain is the state of contemporary Jewry.
A recent rise in anti-Semitism, Libenson said, has stymied the progress and comforts enjoyed by American Jews.
“I think that there are ways in which the experience of Jews in America, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, lulls us into a sense of comfort that maybe wasn’t fully warranted,” said Libenson. “I think that not only Tree of Life, but everything that’s going on in America over the last three years or so, has shaken me very much in terms of my understanding of what America is about and whether America is really about what I thought it was about; how safe America is for Jews and Judaism; what is the extent to which we need to be more active in guarding ourselves from anti-Semitism or demanding that others guard us from that.”
Libenson visited Pittsburgh last week for a special program with Temple Emanuel of South Hills. He also came to the Steel City one year prior to speak at Rodef Shalom Congregation. While the latter address focused on Jewish institutions, the former was “a bigger-picture point of view about where I think we are in Jewish history,” he said.
Sandwiched between Libenson’s two trips was last October’s attack. Although processing the murder of 11 Jews in the supposed safety of a synagogue is challenging, placing that crime in context of the larger American Jewish experience is also difficult, he explained.
“On the one hand, obviously it’s important,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m trying to make sure we’re always looking at the bigger questions of where we are in Jewish history.” Even as the murder of Jews is “incredibly scary,” he said, he wants to “make sure that we’re not not being completely pulled away from these big-picture questions about where we’re going and what the purpose of Judaism is, for example.”
Focusing too much on the murder of Jews can actually stagnate Jewish growth, he posited. Historically speaking, the Enlightenment and emancipation of Jews beginning in the 18th century brought profound changes to Judaism, “and I think that we have been sort of trying to put Judaism back together ever since,” said Libenson.
During the past 200 years, Jews have creatively reimagined their own possibilities and how faith or ritual affect those realities, he said. Disrupting that work, however, was the trauma of the Holocaust, as it kept “Jews connected to older forms of Judaism and older types of Jewish institutions.” As the Holocaust recedes, he said, younger generations express a need for more innovative ways to connect to Judaism.
“What I would say about the younger generation today, and what we’re seeing in terms of the lack of affiliation, part of what’s going on, is we’re seeing the power of the Enlightenment and the emancipation back again, sort of unmediated by the Holocaust trauma pushing in the other direction. And I worry that if those of us who are part of existing Jewish institutions kind of hunker down again and become focused on anti-Semitism and focused on fear, even though it’s totally justified, that we’re actually not going to do the creative work that is needed in order to keep the young people interested in Judaism.”
Libenson hopes that just as the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform spurred creativity in Jewish leadership and life, contemporary behavior can do the same.
Imagine, he said, if “we really invited creative people to take on leadership in Jewish life and celebrated them for doing things that may seem a little crazy, and that may ultimately not work, but are kind of infusing a spirit of creativity into what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. … The argument that I’m trying to make is that the same pressure that people were feeling in the early 20th century, and the late 19th century, is the pressure that we’re feeling now.
“We’ve had a break from it for, you know, 50, 60, 70 years after the Holocaust, and now we’re sort of seeing those same forces again. We would do well to go back to that period of history and build on top of the ideas that were floating around back then.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.