Dan Libenson did not get into the business of re-imagining the Jewish future because his father was a Conservative rabbi. Or because he made aliyah along with his family at the age of 14. Or because he attended an Orthodox high school in Israel.
In fact, the Chicago-based co-host of the popular podcast “Judaism Unbound” admits he “hated” all of those things about his life.
“I see the story much more like Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather [Part III],’ when he says, ‘Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.’ I’ve actually tried to avoid it,” he said.
Nonetheless, Libenson — in Pittsburgh last week for the opening plenary panel of Rodef Shalom Congregation’s “The Weeks of Jewish Flourishing” program — has found himself at the epicenter of contemporary discourse on where Judaism is headed and how to steer it on a course that will preserve the enterprise into the next generation. He is the founder of an organization he calls The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, whose primary function is the production of the podcast.
In “Judaism Unbound,” which has about a half million downloads a year, Libenson and co-host Lex Rofeberg chat with guests who are exploring new ways to approach Jewish life, with an eye toward engaging those Jews who do not participate in traditional or established Jewish institutions.
Libenson had been teaching at a Catholic law school when he turned his attention back to Judaism, he explained.
“There was this struggle at the Catholic law school about what kind of law school they were going to be,” he recalled. “Was it going to be left/social justice tradition, or right/culture wars sort of thing? And I was so interested in this struggle.”
That’s when he got the idea to explore that struggle in his own community, he said, and left law to work as executive director of the University of Chicago Hillel. He was dismissed from that position after six years when he and other Hillel leaders demanded independence from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which controlled campus Hillels in Illinois, according to a 2012 report in The Forward.
Libenson then launched a new organization at the University of Chicago intended to engage students, calling it jU. While jU still appears as one of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future’s “affiliated labs” on its website, Libenson said that because of funding challenges, that organization is no longer active.
Now, he is focused on his podcast, which he and Rofeberg began as a way to do research for a book they hoped to write about the future of Judaism, “because we thought more important people would talk to us if we did it as a podcast.”
That strategy worked. They are getting big names on their show, including renowned American Jewish history scholar Jonathan Sarna, author Anita Diamant, and Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of the Lab/Shul NYC.
That Jews are currently in a crisis was well-described, he said, by Rabbi Benay Lappe, the founder of the “traditionally radical yeshiva” SVARA: “You know you’re in a crash by how many people are headed for the exits.”
Libenson is convinced that at least one of the reasons for the mass exodus from organized Jewish life is that the “vast majority of Jewish institutions are not looking for creativity, but numbers.”
He pointed to Forward columnist Jay Michaelson’s theory that in order to flourish, synagogues will have to look to a “food court” model rather than a “restaurant model.”
“I think the real question for synagogues is, ‘Does your pride allow you to become a stall in that food court, or would you rather just sell the whole thing and let the food court move in because you can’t do that contracting?” Libenson queried. “That would be sad, because I think what the synagogue offers is still important and rich for a lot of people, just not enough to sustain the institution at its current size.”
It will be imperative, he said, for institutions to overcome longstanding territorialism and embrace new models of engagement and cooperation in order for Judaism to thrive.
“If you think that the goal is to stay the way that we were, this stuff is threatening,” he acknowledged. “But if you see the goal — and this is where I think the language of flourishing is really valuable — the goal is to not preserve any particular kind of Judaism. The goal is to preserve or even build a Judaism that helps people do what people need to do, and no matter what, we’re on that mission. And if it means this place is going to look profoundly different in 20 years than anything our grandparents could have imagined, then that’s good, because that means it’s working.”
Libenson theorizes that because Jews have already satisfied the bottom rungs of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid — physiological, safety, and a sense of belonging — Judaism must now try to address the need on the top of the hierarchy: self-actualization. And in order to provide the means to self-actualization, Judaism will have to “become a hybrid of Judaism and other stuff,” because Judaism itself was not designed to lead to “human flourishing.”
“That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing in Judaism that leads to human flourishing, but that’s not its main job,” Libenson continued. “So, we are going to have to hybridize it with other material, and we’re going to have to invent new stuff. And that’s exactly what we did before.”
He pointed, as an example, to rabbinic Judaism having developed from a “fusion of pre-rabbinic Judaism and stoicism, Hellenism.”
Libenson takes a broad view of what can be considered “Jewish” in any given model.
“The answer to what makes it Jewish is, it’s playing with Jewish material,” he said. “There has to be Jewish stuff that carries through. I just can’t tell you that it is specific Jewish stuff. And I think it has to be the product of the good faith engagement of those who care about Judaism, saying, ‘We want this to be Judaism.’
“So, if something was invented by non-Jews and had no Jewish material in it, I would say it’s not [Jewish], because it has no Jewish material, nor was it produced by this community that said, ‘We’re in this chain.’
“That’s not to say that non-Jews can’t play a role,” he quickly added. “I think they can play a huge role. But somehow, it has to see itself as part of the chain.” PJC
To download the podcast, go to judaismunbound.com.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.