By Cindy Mindell
BRIDGEPORT – A conference like the Union for Reform Judaism biennial is meant to inform and inspire Reform Jewish professional and lay leaders to rally and motivate their respective communities. At the most recent biennial gathering, held last November in Orlando, attendees heard from well-known personalities like Vice President Joe Biden, author Anita Diamant, and actor Michael Douglas. But there were plenty of other speakers, just as thought-provoking, who served as an unexpected catalyst for one Bridgeport rabbi.
“I came back to Connecticut and a lot of the speakers I was so excited about were not on people’s radars,” says Rabbi Evan Schultz of Congregation B’nai Israel. “I realized that there’s a disconnect: unless you’re going to these conferences and events, you’re not necessarily hearing or learning about people who are thinking in new ways about the Jewish conversation.”
When his search for podcasts of interviews with these “interesting Jews” yielded nothing, Schultz decided to create his own. He discussed the idea with his mentors and polled B’nai Israel members, and the reaction was so encouraging that he launched “Really Interesting Jews” in December.
In some ways, Schultz is a natural fit for a podcast host. As an undergraduate at Brandeis, he hosted his own radio show. Then, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he was selected as a Bonnie and Daniel Tisch Fellow, joining with leading scholars, professors, and like-minded students to discuss the key issues facing American synagogues and Jewish communities. Above all, he says, “I love engaging people in conversation and crafting questions.”
Schultz takes inspiration from one of his teachers at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who likens Judaism to a “conversation.” This is especially important to foster in the digital age, when social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions. While the synagogue is still a place for local Jewish community-building, its educational reach is only as wide as its staff resources.
“A synagogue is limited by the fact that we can only bring in so many speakers during the year and a rabbi can only teach so much during the year,” Schultz says. “There are so many people who are disengaged from Jewish life or not interested in joining synagogues. So the podcast is a different way to engage people – to bring these speakers and thinkers into people’s cars and living rooms and headphones and to get people talking about Judaism.”
Schultz says that the response has been very positive. So far, he has interviewed seven really interesting Jews: Rabbi Shai Held co-founded Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian Jewish educational institution based in Manhattan. Molly Antopol wrote the award-winning collection of short stories, The UnAmericans. Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann founded Mishkan Chicago, a new independent Jewish community. Musician Noah Aronson creates passionate and accessible Jewish music. Rabbi Sara Luria is founder and executive director of ImmerseNYC, a new pluralistic Jewish feminist organization providing a framework for life transitions. Rabbis Molly Kane, David Segal, and Matt Soffer make up the comedy trio “Three Rabbis Walk Into a Bar.” And, most recently, Eric Lindberg and Dani Zasloff of Nefesh Mountain, which they describe as a “Jewish Americana” band.
“Each guest presents new ideas and a different way of thinking about Judaism; they show us that there are so many ways of engaging, so many different portals of Jewish life,” Schultz says. “Everyone I ask is very excited to be a part of it and people are sort of surprised that something like this didn’t really exist so far. My synagogue has been so supportive and I’m having a blast.”
To join the conversation: reallyinterestingjews.com
CAP: Eric Lindberg (left) and Doni Zasloff (right) of Nefesh Mountain, a “Jewish Americana” band, flank Rabbi Evan Schultz, at the most recent recording of “Really Interesting Jews.”