Daniel Libenson on Present and Future Judaism
Date: April 19th, 2015

What are the challenges facing contemporary Jews in America?  Following on Carmel Chiswick’s interview last week, we invite Daniel Libenson — director of jUChicago and founder/president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future — discusses his perceptions of the landscape facing American Jews and how he has been engaged in organizations such as Hillel and the rationale behinds the ones he now directs.  As a “thinker-practitioner,” we get an inside look into how somebody is leveraging research being conducted in academic circles, including by Daniel himself, to adapt to a changing environment.

Our conversation begins with a discussion of challenges facing contemporary Jews in America.  Dan notes that Judaism is not only seen as a religion, but as an ethnicity.  And even though there has been an increase in the number of “secular Jews” religiously, there remains a great deal of pride in heritage among this group, which he notes provides a great opportunity for engaging Jews who may have been falling away from their spiritual roots.  We talk about some of the demographic categories that were mentioned in last week’s interview with Carmel Chiswick.  Dan works closely with college students and understands the difficulty of “young adult singles” as they enter a period of their lives that is often devoid of Jewish rituals.  He also spends some time discussing how Jews have always had to respond to changing circumstances, and discusses the emergence of a “controversial re-imagination of Israel” in the form of secular Zionism over the past century and a half.  He notes that young people today are trying to grapple with these changes, and likens the challenges and adaptations he sees going on currently to the business concept of “disruptive innovation.”

We then turn attention to his work with young Jews on college campuses, first looking at Hillel.  He explains the historical background of Hillel as a place designed to make Jews feel comfortable in a culturally Christian college setting dating back to the 1940s.  Over time, Hillel has tried to appeal to Jews who are intensely religious, occasionally involved in the faith, and those who have no conscious need for Jewish ritual activities but nonetheless want to feel connected to their ethnic heritage.  Balancing the needs and wants of these three communities can be difficult.  It is in this context that we talk about his work with jUChicago, which seeks to meet many of the more secular Jews in spaces they feel comfortable and yet still make them feel part of a larger community.  Unlike Hillel that has a building where college students come to assemble, jUChicago is designed with no real central location (other than some administrative space) and will engage students for dinners in their apartments, social events in the city, or wherever the participants desire to be met.  This flexibility is a key feature of the organization that adapts to student needs, a process Dan calls “design thinking.”   During this discussion, Tony also learns about the “small letter” culture spurred on by Apple media products, and a little bit about Chabad.

The final portion of the podcast picks up on the theme of where American Jews are heading in the 21st century and the creation of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.  While based on college campus, this organization is aimed at engaging the Jewish community throughout the entire life cycle.  The goal of the institute is three fold.  First, it is designed as a think tank to study Jewish needs and strategies in the coming decades.  Second, there is an emphasis on training religious and lay leaders in ways that continue to foster Jewish human capital.  And finally, the institute seeks to facilitate the networking and funding of Jewish leaders who they train.  Tony asks Dan about his thoughts on where Judaism is heading and he connects back to his earlier thoughts on how Judaism has changed historically.  While conveying an anecdote about how a Jewish sociologist thought that Judaism might not be recognizable a century from now, Dan did not think that was necessarily a bad thing given his optimistic belief in how humans adapt to new environments, yet preserve lineages to the past.  Recorded: April 8, 2015.


Daniel Libenson’s bio at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.


Hillel International.

The Jewish Innovator’s Dilemma, an ELItalk by Daniel Libenson.

The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identify for the Next Century, by Alan Dershowitz.


Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America.

Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of American Judaism.

Linda Weiser Friedman on Jewish Humor.

Colleen Haight on Jewish Peddlers in 19th Century America.

Jeff Levin on Judaism and Health.

Mark Glickman on the Cairo Genizah.

Mark Koyama on the Economics of Jewish Expulsions.

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