The following is a transcript of Episode 146 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Lauren: Hello and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. My name is Lauren Berkun and I serve as vice president of rabbinic initiatives at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Right now I’m in Jerusalem, where we’re running our annual Rabbinic Torah Seminar, a unique learning opportunity for rabbis of all denominations to come together, study Torah, and discuss the issues facing the Jewish people today.
For today’s episode, we’re bringing you a very special conversation between Donniel Hartman and Yehuda Kurtzer, recorded in front of a live rabbinic audience on Tuesday, July 4th. In this conversation, Donniel interviews Yehuda about how Hartman North America has grown under his leadership, and he also invites Yehuda to share his aspirations for the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Jewish people as a whole. We hope you enjoy.
Donniel: Good evening everyone. Erev tov. For 13 years, now, Yehuda and I have appeared together at the rabbi’s conference, shared podiums together, is this called the podium, shared stages, shared stuff, but tonight is really special because this is the first time I get to introduce him as co-president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
And that’s about as big of a deal that Yehuda wanted you to make tonight. He didn’t want more, he said, I had a lot. This was it. And Yehuda chose, and this is my first question to you. Hi. How are you?
Donniel: The first one is the easy question. You chose to have this evening, RTS. There were other forums that we had where we could have officially been co-presidents on something like this together. But for you, it was important to do this in front of rabbis. Why?
Yehuda: You know, when I first came to the Institute, 13 years ago, which felt at the time like a very significant professional risk, in that I was leaving behind what felt like a possible academic career, I knew then that I wasn’t convinced that I wanted an academic career, and I wanted to figure out how someone with an academic background could work for the Jewish people. So it was like a leap of faith.
And it was also a leap of faith for you, because I had never worked before, but bigger than that, Donniel: Just for the record, the category of leap of faith doesn’t exist for Hartman people.
Yehuda: That’s right, it was a, it was an intellectual leap of consciousness.
When I first came, I remember the first rabbis conference, and you didn’t let me teach at it. And that actually was the right decision. Rabbis didn’t know who I was. I actually, I didn’t fully get rabbis. When I first came to the institute, in fact, I had spent a lot of the last six or seven years before coming to Hartman starting an independent minyan, and becoming convinced that, because my friends and I didn’t need a rabbi, at that time in our lives, that was like a scalable theory of possibility for the Jewish people.
So I didn’t totally get it. I had never been to the Institute before. So it was not just a leap of faith in the sense that I was coming in without the professional background to do this, but it was also a leap in the sense that a lot of the folks who teach in this institution and who represented grew up here as scholars, as doctoral students, and kind of gradually moved, as is oftentimes the case in yeshivas, from being students, to some point along the way, you become teachers. And I knew that that was an important part of this. And I actually learned a lot from that first summer, by, in essence, your protecting me from not being allowed to teach the rabbis.
You weren’t putting me in a position where it was going to be strange, in some ways threatening for rabbis who had been here for 20 or 30 years to be like, who is that guy? And it took me a couple of years to feel and to understand how and why this institution cares so much about rabbis, how the ways that rabbis get beaten down in the world and devalued and discredited, does not stand in the way of the fact that rabbis are the carriers of the Jewish people, and have been for thousands of years. It took me a while to get that and I started to love this program.
And I do remember the first time that you saw me do some teaching in America and then you said, okay, you can teach that this summer to the rabbis. And I was like, that felt actually incredible. When you’re told, the stakes really matter for this. And even though it maybe is like officially part of your job that you should be able to do this, I’m not going to let you do it until you’re ready to do it. That stayed with me a long way.
And this program is the kind of beating heart of the summer for the Institute. No disrespect to the lay people, some of whom might be watching, who were here a week or so ago, but I think they know it too. A lot of the reason they come is because they’ve had rabbis for years who have told them about the value and meaning of this place.
We had actually somebody who came this summer, this was amazing, I don’t even know if I told you this. There was a lay leader who came this summer who came over and said, the reason I’m here is because my rabbi is going to be in the next cohort of RLI, and I want to see what this is all about. I was like that was amazing. I really hope that what he meant was, I want to find a way to support him for the next three or four years of this program. I think he did. But this is the beating heart of the work, and the stakes, I feel, when rabbis are here, about what Torah learning could be for them and for the people they’re meant to serve, just feel higher.
So given the opportunity to kind of celebrate this new role and to do so together with you, this felt like the obvious context to do it.
Donniel: You’ve made it.
Yehuda: Right. Thank you.
The rabbis, are applauding for yourselves, you know.
Donniel: That’s okay. We’ll take care of either one.
Yehuda: Yeah, it’s good.
Donniel: You said this before about people who teach here grew up here, like I know there are so many things that guide my presidency, that were shaped by the stories that I was raised on. Who I am, what I think this institute is, nobody wrote a formal game plan. Certainly not my father. He wasn’t that organized. He just did. And you watched. And you collected stories and you and from what was happening you had an understanding of what this place is.
Now, you’re no longer just a teacher at Hartman. You’re one of the key stakeholders and shapers, together with me, of where this institute’s going to go. I’m picking the number two, but it could be three or one. What are two, of these last 13 years, two stories or experiences that you had at Hartman, this is shaping how you under, because where you want us to go is where we’re going to go, like it’s now up to you. What are two stories that, yeah, this is the Hartman Institute, and this, I have to internalize this in my presidency.
Yehuda: You know, you asked me before, do you want to get the questions in advance, and I said no, but I have some regrets about that decision. Maybe this is story one.
Well, one of them is a story that actually happened recently and I fear that I’m going to speak about it in generalities, because I don’t want to embarrass the person, but it felt to me like one of the things that we seek to do in the world, actually, which is, you know, we started this program, I guess it was maybe seven or eight years ago, called the David Hartman Fellowship. It can’t be more than that because it was named after your father. And the program, basically, is an incubator for early-career scholars. Folks who are at the end of their doctoral phase, or perhaps at a critical point in their early to mid-career of their rabbinate, who have tremendous potential to be intellectual leaders for the Jewish people, and acknowledging that the systems around academic training don’t train you to do that.
In fact, they actually oftentimes train you against that. They ask you to atomize and focus on something arcane and irrelevant with the only criteria being, no one has written it before. And actually, like, something I learned from you, the best ideas that we have are oftentimes shared with other religions, because human beings crowdsource great ideas over time. So the fact that you can find something that no one has said before is no guarantee that it’s actually worth hearing.
Donniel: The opposite.
Yehuda: The opposite. So we started this program for early-career scholars and it has a few different, for the benefit of the audience, a few different manifestations. There’s a version of there’s a cohort here in Israel that’s for women doctoral students in Jewish studies, because women start at equal numbers in Israel in doctoral programs and Jewish studies, and finish their doctorates at a one-to-ten rate to men. So this program is an incredible success story of incubator of women, I think, the women have come through Maskilot here at the Machon, 100% of them have finished their doctorates through this program. And we started a parallel program, not exclusively for women, for early career scholars in Jewish studies.
One of the hard things about this whole business is even as you get narrowed in terms of your training, of course you have something to say. You have ideas, you have tremendous learning that comes through a doctorate, and we don’t say to anybody, just because you have something to say, we’re going to put you on the stage at the Hartman Institute. We really don’t. We put people who have finished six, seven years of a doctoral program into multiple years of training, to help them form and forge who they want to be in the world.
At this lay leaders conference, we pushed one of our scholars to teach the Beit Midrash to the lay leaders. And she did great. And it was incredible to watch. I sat in the audience watching it and not just watching, how’s this person going to do, but learning from them. And it was a reminder that like, some of the best work, and the whole point of this is you can’t really change the Jewish people and the Jewish community at scale. We think that we can. We think that the best programs are if the most people are going to get there, but one of the commitments of this institute for a long time, and I think this was your father’s legacy, is start by investing a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of resources in a small and talented group of people, and hopefully through that, you can create scale.
So to see the individual successes of people as they emerge, it’s a funny example, because it doesn’t describe what may feel like the seismic change that the Institute wants to do in the world. That felt to me like a story of what this institute is about. It’s a story that I feel I identify with, because I kind of also went through it, but to also say, I could be on the other side of helping to move some people into the world, and once you’ve once you’ve trained great scholars and teachers, you have no idea the kinds of impact that they’re going to be able to create in the world. I guess that’s,
Donniel: My father would have liked that one. He would have really really liked that one.
Yehuda: I think he would have. Yeah. I mean, the legendary story that I learned here is that the Hartman Institute started in your father’s living room and it was a conversation with graduate students. Largely because they weren’t being talked to, in any sort of serious way, in their academic training, about why study the Rambam. Like why does it matter? Nobody cares about this tiny, arcane detail, or maybe a handful of people do, but if you’re engaged in this degree of investment, in work, in scholarship, and there’s something about you that drove you to this work, investigate that question of why you started caring about Jewish studies to begin with, and if you probe that question, you might have something happen on the other end. It was a long version so I just picked one instead of two.
Donniel: Now we’re gonna get, I’m gonna shift it slightly, the name of this institute is the Hartman Institute. You’re the first non-Hartman to be in the leadership role, so tell us two Kurtzer stories, two stories, because now you’re going to be shaping the legacy. What are two stories of your Abba and the Imma and your family that you grew up on, that define and have shaped your leadership, your life, and where you want this institute to go.
Yehuda: Thank you for that. I grew up with parents who are peacemakers. My dad’s professional role was as a diplomat, and ultimately completed his career, formerly as a public servant, as U.S ambassador, first to Egypt and then to here, and then retired from the Foreign Service in 2005, but I grew up partly here because his first tours of duty were from 79 to 82 in Cairo, where I went to kindergarten, and then from 82 to 86, here in Israel, where I went to an Israeli public school for three years, and then we went to the American school from 85 to 86, because we were moving back to America and we didn’t know English. So they were like, okay, we’ve got to get you up to speed.
But I don’t, I never under, I never processed my father’s work as being a diplomat. I think diplomat is a beautiful word that actually imagines a kind of standing aside from societies, like, that it’s about the dinner parties and about the relationships. The reason my father did the work that he did, based on having been here in June 1967, right after the war, when my father was 18, he got on the first plane that could get here, and spent a month cleaning up the rubble at Mount Scopus at Hebrew University. And I think from that moment, he said, my job in this, in the limited time that I have, is to figure out whether I can actually bring peace to this place.
Good news, bad news. It’s so elusive and so impossible, but like any of the most important projects we could do in life, the fact that you don’t succeed for the period of time that you do it doesn’t mean that it’s not the work that’s worth doing.
So my father, even then, since his retirement and now is a professor at Princeton, has spent his life as a peacemaker. And I think I watched a lot of things from that as a kid. One was, I was growing up in a modern Orthodox Day School environment, back in the Washington area, but we knew Palestinians. That was weird. It was a strange thing. And it never was strange in our house. There was a stretch of time in like, the pre-Madrid, Oslo days when I would just answer the phone and it would be someone like Hanan Ahrawi. Hey, Yehuda. How’s it going? How are your brothers? Is your dad around? I interviewed her for my high school newspaper. It didn’t go well, it wasn’t well received in the high school newspaper.
But I’m mentioning that not to name drop, it’s actually to say that like, the humanity of Palestinians was like a normal part of our lives growing up, and it didn’t mean that my parents didn’t identify as Zionist, they were like nostalgic zionists in a lot of ways, but they never understood that there had to be some cognitive dissonance between being a Zionist and understanding the human relationships that Jews and Israelis have to have with Palestinians.
So that was like incredibly formative and a real forge, and it also meant that like my whole life kind of was between these two places, as an American citizen living in Israel, with again, without the kind of silly cognitive dissonance that’s implied by categories like dual loyalty. My father always thought dual loyalty was like a weird thing. It was about other people’s fears and suspicions, rather than our possibility of being American Jews, after 1948, capable of understanding what it means to have special relationships to these two places.
And the second thing I want to flag is, it’s not my father, but my grandfather, of blessed memory, who, this was just an incredibly important part of of my upbringing, was knowing that my grandfather fought against the Nazis as an American GI in World War II
My grandfather missed D-Day because of an accident. He basically got into a boxing match in South Carolina, in the base, while they were bored waiting for D-Day to happen. He knocked out all of his teeth. And the next day, while he was in the hospital, his unit deployed to D-Day. So he missed that, wound up in France, and ultimately got a Purple Heart, wounded at the Battle of Metz on the French-Belgian border. And that was the end of his war.
I’m mentioning it because Americanness is like, deeply in our veins. It was not some contingent part of our identity of like, well we happen to be Americans, but that means that we are diaspora Jews. No, for my family, like, America really mattered. I didn’t fully get that until I met my in-laws, who are first-generation Americans, and for whom that’s like, a different story. Their story of America is much more within the frame of diaspora, but to be a fourth-generation American, you know, all my grandparents born in the United States, meant that this was in our blood, in our DNA.
And I feel, actually, like I’ve tried to carry that into this institute. When the Institute opened up a presence in North America, there was a way in which we could have shown up and been kind of like a lot of other Israeli NGOs trying to make a presence in America. Not really interrogating America, not really caring about Americanness. As being like, something that has actually transformed Jewish identity for American Jews, and I know it was hard actually, I remember
Donniel: We’re going to come to that in my next question. But before you do that, you didn’t know what my questions were, I don’t know what your answers were going to be. Could you please share this, because now I connect
Yehuda: Is there something you want me to say?
Donniel: No, I connect to a story that you told me about your grandfather being a boxer and your father being a wrestler in Israel. You got to share that story, oh my God, it’s just, I didn’t know, but like, you got to hear this.
Yehuda: It’s a truly great story, actually. So we were walking home,
Donniel: I didn’t know, when you said my grandfather was a boxer, I didn’t know he’s alive because.
Yehuda: He wasn’t an actual boxer. He,
Donniel: He was a Jewish athlete.
Yehuda: My grandfather was very tough. He was not actually a boxer but the reason he boxed was because his commanding officer told them, everybody was bored, they were waiting for something to happen, and he was told, if you boxed for the unit, you could have a weekend pass. And he was already married to my grandmother. So he boxed, got the weekend pass, but wound up being in the hospital with all his teeth like that.
Anyway, the story you wanted me to tell is when my father, when we’re living here between 82 and 86, this must have been about 1985 or so, so I was about eight. We’re walking back from shul on Friday night. We lived in Kfar Shmaryahu, and we walked about a half a kilometer to the Orthodox Shul, and we’re walking home. And if you’ve been to that area in the last number of years, they changed the whole structure of the highway, and they moved the highway down, and now there’s underpasses and overpasses, but at the time, the main highway, I think it was One, or Two, the Kvish Hachof ran, we were basically like a block and a half off of that highway and so cars would come flying off the highway and onto our street.
So we’re walking home Friday night, walking on a crosswalk, and a car comes right in front of us, almost clipped us. It was me and my brothers and my father and my grandfather. And my dad was a diplomat with like, periodic glimpses of rage, which I actually have, I’ve inherited this too. As the car drives by, my dad slaps the back of the car. The cars screeches to a halt. And the guy jumps out and comes at my father and that’s, my dad, who was a wrestler at Yeshiva University, pins the guy down on the street and is holding him down in the middle of the crosswalk, in the street, my grandfather is now on top of my father yelling, let me at him, let me at him. And my dad is yelling, Dad, I can’t, you’re on top of me.
Anyway the point is that guy wound up spending a night in jail and the Israeli police, when they picked him up, they’re like, you idiot, you hit a diplomat. So that was the end of that story.
Donniel: I just, it was just,
Yehuda: It’s an amazing story.
Donniel: And it also puts the context of your father as a peacemaker and all these other things in an interesting context.
Yehuda: And the best part actually was I ran into the house and I said to my mom, Imma, there’s a fight going on in the street. And she said, okay, come inside. I said, no, no Abba’s in it. That was the, that was good. Buried the lede.
Donniel: I want to pick up on what you started to say, because it’s true, see, initially, as you said, the question was, how are you going to fit into Hartman? Was it you were going to learn our Torah? I gave up on that pretty quickly because you had all this Alexandria stuff that you always wanted to bring in, so I accepted that you were going to add to the canon. And it just, I know, I figured. But it took a while. But then I saw you were doing Hartman moves, with new texts. And so, yep, you’re in.
But as you said, the biggest shift was at Hartman, you stood up for America. You stood up for North American Jewry, and you insisted that Shalom Hartman Institute of North America not be a place where Israeli Torah is taught, but where America Torah is also learned. And you’re right, it was very hard. My biggest doubts about you at the beginning were whether it was going to be safe, because, were you going to be enough of a lover of Israel?
And I was waiting and I’m watching and I watch, I’m watching and watching, but what you taught us is that there’s a real Torah there. A Torah that Israelis have to learn and a Torah that the Jewish people have to hear. And you stood up for it, it was very clear this was your, in many ways, your first leadership move at Hartman was to force us into that dimension. So what is the greatest strength of North American Jewry? What is it that we have to celebrate? Because we’re always kvetching, and we’re, you know, we’re pulling ourselves into depression.
Yehuda: So I want to just first acknowledge the difficulty in that first year.
Donniel: It was a few years.
Yehuda: I felt it was solved by after year one. But I remember early on when we started doing the iEngage project, and by the way, from an institutional history perspective, Shalom Hartman Institute North America basically started on January 1, 2010, and the iEngage project started the same day. And in retrospect, those decisions, which weren’t happening directly in relationship to each other, were essential to the success of both projects, because Shalom Hartman Institute North America, that was talking about generalities of Jewish life, but not actually addressing the issue of Israel, which was becoming the most important and divisive issue in Jewish life would have doomed us to fail. And doing iEngage from here, without really being in the American Jewish Community, I think would have been doomed to fail. So I feel very fortunate that that happened.
But I remember one of the earliest discussions we had, there was a very contentious conversation. This was like slightly prior to when we moved to video conferencing, so it was on the phone. It was a conference call on the phone. There were Americans, there were Israelis. I remember at one point Micah Goodman said something to the effect of, Yehuda, he got like worked up, he said, don’t you know that this is the game, that this is the playing field, and you’re in the stands? You’re not even in the game. You’re in the stands. And I said, Micah, even if you want to go with that metaphor, the fans can boo, they can turn against you, and they can also just stop buying tickets. They’re going to stop coming, I said.
So I don’t agree with the metaphor but even leshitapcha, even according to your metaphor, you’re setting up a dynamic between us that’s just not going to work for the long time story of the Jewish people. I don’t know if I convinced Micah. Micah is in many ways like an old-time Zionist. I’m not sure you can really convince Israelis that they have to let go of the Zionism that is so essential to the lifeblood of being a Jew here, which is that this is the center of gravity for the Jewish people.
But I think the best we could do is maybe start introducing another story. So that story to me, I know the Alexandria stuff, I get it. Although it is Torah, it’s there in the Torah. The reason those stories and those texts matter to me so much is because very rarely do you get in Jewish tradition the argument of, forget about Israel, locate the center of gravity somewhere else, that there has to be a zero-sum game when it comes to homeland that it’s either Israel or a Bavel. You get examples of that in the Bavli. You get moments of that in Jewish history, when people say, forget about a return to the land, this is the new Promised Land.
But you do get enough of a voice from so much of the diversity of Jewish life and especially from the American Jewish experience that argues, why can’t I have both? Why can’t I believe in some notion of home and homeland? Why do I have to feel as though these two extraordinary stories of Jewish life, that we happen to be born in and alive in as a gift of our being American Jews? Why do I have to feel as though these are in combat with one another? Why can’t I understand that these two stories of flourishing have actually been interdependent with one another?
Most of the serious American Jewish historians of the 40s and 50s and 60s will notice that the American Jewish community changed around its relationship to Israel, not necessarily because just Jews sent money to Israel or supported Israel through Congress, but because we started to think about ourselves differently as Jews because of the experience of the state of Israel. And the reverse is also true. Israelis thrive, in part, because of the extraordinary successes, the creativity, the ritual ideas, that American Jews bring to the table. It’s as simple as the radical idea of saying, just because two things can be homeland, doesn’t mean that their in tension with each other. That, to me, is the most powerful idea that American Jews can bring. And you see it so much with, especially with rabbis, who come here, who insist, I can feel at home in this courtyard or in the street or in this place, and it doesn’t make me any less motivated as an American to be involved politically in America, to return home and to feel at home.
Like I said to the Rabbanut Yisraelit folks this morning. I studied this with them. I said, I have this, I feel at home here in a way, Stephanie and I talk about this a lot, where there’s no other city in the world where I kind of feel as at home as I do here, but then after seven weeks, when I get back home, I unlock the door and I feel I’m at home.
That to me feels like the gift of this moment in Jewish history, that I think we’re, I think we’re screwing up. But what would it take for us to say, and therefore invest in the infrastructure and the majesty of what American Jews can make possible, precisely because it could give us dual set of resources and riches at the same time, that simply make for a stronger Judaism?
Donniel: Let’s take the reverse. I know that a major part of Shalom Hartman Institute Israel is to try to see what we’re getting wrong and to feel that we have to be part of the solution and that’s part of what it means to define an institution as a shaliach tzibur. It’s not about us, it’s not about what we want. We have to understand and have a sense of what’s going wrong.
You know, my father used to speak about one of the great advantages of Israel, he said, is that all your problems are going to rise to the surface. You’re going to know them. And so in Israel, a lot of the failures and challenges, which were hidden in the diaspora, are here, and this is a chance where we’re going to be able to to heal them. It’s much harder than we thought. It’s like there’s something even depressing, sometimes, we enjoy being sad, so it’s not depressing, but like, we look at, like it’s just sort of a thing, but like we made an ideology out of it, what we really spent like, what’s going on here? And sometimes even people who come to the Institute, like, it’s hard. Can’t you tell me the good news of Israel? You know, like why always the challenges of Israel?
Shalom Hartman Institute North America as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute, its job is to serve North American Jewry, but to do that, we also have to have a clear sense of what’s going wrong. What are the problems that we want to be some of the answers to? What do you feel, don’t, it’s too many, just pick one or two that you feel are, I, Yehuda, I, the Shalom Hartman Institute, these are the problems that we have to stand up to and talk about and try to develop initiatives and solutions and Torah to solve.
Yehuda: So I guess two that I would focus on in terms of our work in North America, two that sit very heavily and they, one of them relates to Israel, but is not actually about Israel, which is that the degree of conflict that American Jews have about Israel oftentimes exceeds even the amount of conflict that Israelis have with one another. There are times at which, actually, the temperature around the conversation around Israel-Palestine, between Israelis and Palestinians or as, between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine, on college campuses, is oftentimes wildly out of proportion with even what’s happening in, between Israelis and Palestinians. There’s something bizarre about it.
And I spoke about this last week with Yossi in this conversation that we put on the podcast, which is our instinct as diaspora Jews, one of our most troubling instincts is this language of becoming warriors for Israel, as opposed to trying to ask, what is our job as American Jews to be peacemakers and healers of the Jewish condition? And I find that to be like, a shocking habit of American Jewish life, as though what the state of Israel needs more from American Jews is belligerence. Oftentimes, the target of the belligerence is other Jews. So we are using the framework of the thriving of the state of Israel to actually create deep divisions among ourselves as a community. That feels like one big one.
And I oftentimes I feel like this is what we’re doing all the time. We’re trying to model a different conversation around Israel, a different message, different Torah, and I feel like it’s splashes of water against a waterfall. All of the temptations of why the American Jewish community seems to want something different on Israel, which is counterproductive to the goals, and counter to our own values. That feels like one.
The other is a really different challenge, which is to paraphrase Gerson Cohen’s essay with the same title, the blessing of assimilation in Jewish history is that America and Canada provide to Jews the opportunity to be so good at assimilating our Jewish values to our cultural surroundings, and assimilating our cultural values to our Jewishness, that it becomes that Jewishness offers nothing productively counter-cultural that can stand up for itself.
The thing that I’m most fearful of for the future of Jewishness in America is its thinness. It’s so thin. I hear it with the rabbis all the time. So many rabbis who I talk to are basically like, what’s the metaphor, like buoys in a storm, holding on to something on behalf of others. They have to serve as exemplars in communities, which actually gets in the way, sometimes, of teaching, because teaching is an act of empathy, but if you’re trying to just hold up something that no one else is or can be, that’s like a weird.
It’s a weird dynamic, And one of the things that’s so strange about this right now is that the hunger that American Jews tend to exhibit for content and meaning and spirituality and purpose, that hasn’t tempered, because human beings have not anthropologically changed that fast that we don’t need community, meaning, and purpose. Of course American Jews want it. And we see in our work, and I feel a lot of guilt about this. I see in our work, the reason why we have grown so much in North America is because a lot of people want serious, unmediated Jewish content, that doesn’t have to route itself through an institution, and doesn’t come with a membership form at the end. They want that. They just don’t seem to want it in the forms that it is largely presented to them, in the institutions to which it’s sometimes associated, and they want to then shape their Jewish identities in whatever ways they want.
But in the meantime we are stuck in a place of a community of tremendous shallowness as Jews.
Donniel: I feel, in Israel, I regularly like to delude myself into believing that it’s winnable. And from time to time, we have, I can even point to things where a liberal Jewish agenda is on the rise. Could we win your challenge?
Yehuda: One way to be an optimist about this is, if you talk to historians, so, once in a while, if you talk to Jonathan Sarna, what he’ll say is, the reason why you think this is what’s happening is,
Donniel: It’s always been this way.
Yehuda: No, no it’s because we have dips.
Donniel: I see.
Yehuda: So there’s going to be at some point a Great Awakening and when there’s another Great Awakening, Jews will be part of that current that will draw people back into synagogues and back into institutions. I see some shaking heads of like, why would I gamble on the possibility that there’s going to be a historical current again? That’s one possibility.
I think there’s another gamble that some people are advancing in the American Jewish community, which I think is a terrible gamble, which is the great hope of anti-semitism. Anti-Semitism is going to bring people back to Judaism. It will not. It will turn off a lot of people from Judaism because they view it as like, why would I want to be a part of this team that everybody hates? And it mostly will drive an industry of fighting anti-Semitism with periodic, banal lines like, the best way to fight anti-Semitism is with more Judaism. It’s not serious, right?
So I think that’s a bad gamble. I don’t, I don’t actually know if it’s winnable. I don’t. And I don’t think there’s a point in being in Jewish education if you’re not an optimist. I really don’t. Or being in the Rabbinate. I don’t think that. So I’m gonna, we’re gonna keep doing it. I don’t have all these people here, who came to study Torah for 10 days, because they believe it’s possible to find people who want to hear that Torah, and to build strong communities and strong institutions so the only way to get there together is together.
Donniel: I think, though, that part of your answer, which gives me again, as an optimist, that hope, is that we have to stop lying to ourselves about the solutions. Because there’s so many lies, whether it’s anti-Semitism or whether it’s allocation of huge amounts of resources, to things that aren’t going to make a difference. You know, we constantly are, constantly trying to, I know you know this one, but like my favorite Private Benjamin line when Goldie Hawn says, anytime someone promises you the world for 10 cents, chances are you’re getting something that’s not worth a dime.
And most of our resources are for what’s quick, what’s a dime, and I think part, maybe is to say, not in a mourning sense, oops, we lost another Jew yesterday, oops, we lost another one, but to say, this is the problem, and if we don’t get serious about it, because this is not going to solve it, and part of it is speaking that honesty and speaking as you do to philanthropists and lay people and talking honestly about what a serious Judaism might be. I don’t know if that’s the solution but at least it’s starting in honesty, which enables to compete.
Yehuda: Yeah, you alluded to the studies, the social science business behind this, and I don’t, I don’t totally begrudge it, even though, you’ll learn this source, the sources with Micah, but, you know, David Hamelech has to repent for his counting of the Jews. It’s not something you’re supposed to do, but we do a lot of it. And I think it’s rooted in a lot of fear and anxiety that there’s not enough of it, so a lot of dollars that are going towards counting Jews could be dollars that are going towards engaging Jews or empowering Jews.
And maybe the definition of Jewishness doesn’t matter that much in the American Jewish community, because we’re opening up totally new frontiers about people, family members, attached to Jews, and reimagining what Jewish identity is supposed to look like, but even so, that’s not going to get us there. It’ll make us feel like there are more people but it will still feel thinner.
I do sometimes feel that one of our big mistakes as a collective community is that there’s much greater anxiety and attention paid towards those who are not yet in our midst, as opposed to those who are in proximity. And that concerns me immensely. Because those people who are in proximity are probably not going to leave. They’re just gonna be sad. They’re gonna have weaker institutions and weaker resources available to them. Their cost of Jewish living is going to go up, because there are fewer people who are going to come in, because they can find ways of connecting to Jewish life on the margins, that are cheaper and easier to access.
And that’s just, and I see it with our family and with many rabbis’ families, who are the clients of Jewish summer camp and other institutions that that cost, human cost and material cost, is really quite significant. And I wonder whether there’s a way psychologically to shift some of that terrain a little bit, to get us to a place of, I guess the reason why to be optimistic that that could work is because I think that the best gamble that the Jewish people can make in North America, that more and more Jews would want to be part of Jewish life, is to have compelling Jewish institutions that people are envious to be a part of. That’s the obvious thing, right?
So instead of trying to leave the framework of our institutions, to try to convince people over there that something about Jewishness should matter to them, could we build thriving, powerful models for what that could look like that could actually be exciting places for people to participate? That feels to me like one of the only worthwhile gambles of why we should spend our life doing this, and by the way, the nice advantage of that is that we will get to take advantage of those thriving institutions, whether or not other people decide to throw their lot in with us.
Donniel: Last question before I open up to the audience.
The Hartman Institute having two presidents, one in Israel and one North America, reflect the dual commitments of the Institute, but it also reflects a belief that we have to listen to each other. And we in Israel always felt, this is one of the great paradoxes, whenever Israelis tell North American Jews, don’t comment, make Aliyah before you, like, we in Israel? We talk a lot of
Yehuda: A lot of opinions.
Donniel: All the time. We talk about you, we know what’s wrong with you, and we have the solution, besides Aliyah, we’re not inhibited, we could do anything we want. We could send funds, or talk about the funds. We could do it, but our commitment is to create a place where Jews in Israel and in North America talk with each other, learn from each other, because the meaning of Jewish peoplehood is that we claim each other. And to claim each other is to be responsible for each other. And you’re responsible when you have opinions.
My last question as a North American Jew: Comment on Israel.
Donniel: Tell us. Like, what is it, you know, what do you see, what are some of its blessings, some of its difficulties, some of its opportunities. We believe you are not any more president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. You’re president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. So what do you see here?
Yehuda: Look, one of the things that I felt I understood better about my own Zionism since coming to the Institute was reading and hearing a Torah which basically said, the state of Israel the Zionism of this place is rooted in the belief that the state of Israel is the Jewish people’s great crucible. It’s what you alluded to before. It’s the Kuzari’s question. We have all of these questions that we’ve asked about ourselves for a couple thousand years. What would it be like if we actually got to be in charge? What it would mean for us to exercise power? Are we going to be as good morally as we think we are? What’s it going to look like to take the tapestry of Jewish identity and all of its tribal manifestations and create a shared public square around it? Is this going to feel like ki beiti beit tefillah yikarei l’kol ha’amim, my house shall be a house of prayer for all comers, or is it going to feel like, as I think Tal Becker talked about, this is the biggest shtetl in the world. That was like the test.
And I think the tragedy of that Zionism is that you never feel it’s complete. It’s not Messianic. You know, the nice thing about other forms of Zionism is you can say, enough, all I wanted to do was come home and be proprietary in my own house, and now that I’m here I’ve succeeded. Never mind the fact that it’s not as good as I wanted it to be. Those are Zionisms that are easy. This Zionism is really hard. This constant test of, am I doing what I’m supposed to do? The constant feeling that there’s another frontier that’s yet to be opened.
You know, one of the things I thought was one of the most powerful stories in the last number of years was when we started the Muslim Leadership Initiative a number of years ago, I guess it was 2014 or 2015. And it was because we brought,
Donniel: Just for the record, I’m 65, I don’t remember.
Yehuda: Yeah, 2014, 2015. Actually, no, it was summer of 2013, because the summer that that first cohort came back was the Gaza War, right, so they were here right before that Gaza War.
One of the things that happened in this Institute was because we were bringing North American Muslims here, and partly because they noticed it, and partly because you noticed it, it became very obvious that it makes no sense for the Institute to be doing interfaith Jewish Muslim work in North America and not doing it here. In fact, there are big stakes to doing significant interfaith work in North America and a lot of those stakes are around preventing like what I alluded to before, the importing of hostility between Israelis and Palestinians to North American Jews and North American Muslims.
But the real project is, what happens when Jews are the majority in a state and a society with a significant Muslim and Christian minority? Are we capable of building the ideal society that we want?
Basically, the lesson was, it felt like a little bit of that midrash about Avraham and the Birad Oleket, the minute you see something, you feel obligated by it. The minute you notice, how is it possible that we have a center for Jewish thought and research, focused on the major questions for the Jewish people, sitting here in Jerusalem, that doesn’t have Palestinian scholars? How is it possible that we’re not working there? And what’s exhausting about it is that the minute you take that mindset, then everyone’s like, well what about Haredim? What are we doing in this country, not to fix Haredim, but to make a place in which the full diversity of the Jewish people is manifest, so that we can actually figure out how to be in a relationship with each other. It’s exhausting. It really is.
It’s regularly not easy. And I know I’m speaking to the choir here, to be a leader in the American Jewish community or North American Jewish community and a Zionist. It’s not easy, not only because of the critics that come at the positions that we hold, whether from the right or from the left, but also because your heart breaks. This is a heartbreaking day in Israel. There’s a pigua in Tel Aviv. There’s all of the incursion going on in Jenin. Most of us don’t know more than we can see on Twitter, oftentimes curated by people who have very strong opinions about what it already means, whether or not it correlates with reality, and it feels like our job as leaders is to hold all of that complexity, maintain our nuanced commitments, and then try to help other people still sustain those commitments. That’s just really hard. And that work happens even before you get to the work of how do you actually fix this country?
So, I don’t know. I think that the best chance that we have is to try to build institutions that just see, they see, whatever is going on here in Israel, the Shalom Hartman Institute is responsible for. You have to just start saying, we’re responsible for it. Doesn’t mean that we are alone in taking responsibility for it. It also means, by the way, that because you have multiple things that you see, you hold all of the various pieces of joy and tragedy simultaneously as part of that story.
And I would love for us as leaders in North America and here to be able to model holding all of that together, because that’s the blessing and curse of this time that we happen to live in a Jewish history.
Yehuda, it’s exciting. It’s an honor. And it’s also a joy to have you as the co-president of the Hartman Institute.
Yehuda: Thank you.
Donniel: Thank you.
Yehuda: Thank you. Thanks team. Thank you.
Donniel: Now it’s your turn. We have a few minutes, any questions, anything. Yes, I can’t really, good, there’s people who see, who see, and there’s microphones, too.
Rebecca: Thank you. I’m happy to be here for the second time.
Yehuda: Welcome back.
Rebecca: Thank you. My name is Rebecca Lillian and I live in Copenhagen Denmark. I have a question to exhaust you.
Rebecca: Yeah. I just want to frame it this way. We are the Jews of Alexandria, today, if North America is Bavel and Yerushalayim is still Yerushalayim. So yeah, what about us?
Yehuda: What about Europe?
Donniel: That’s you.
Yehuda: Oh, man. You’re right. Honestly, you’re right. There’s a fellow who comes every year to the lay leaders program from Uruguay, and year-round he takes things that come out from the Institute and on his own, translates them into Spanish and publishes them, to a huge number of people in South American countries. And I’ve joked with him that one of my dreams, one day, is to change the name of the organization from Shalom Hartman Institute of North America to Shalom Hartman Institute of the Americas, and to find a way to really engage with the Jewish people wherever they are.
The same goes for European Jewry. There’s so many actually exciting things going on in European Jewry, with the amount of, again, cultural creativity around Jewishness, institution building going on in Europe. So I would say, I think you’re right. I think it’s probably in some ways part of our responsibility to figure that out. And I don’t if we know how to do that yet. I just don’t. But I would say it’s, to me, it feels like a yet question, as opposed to no, it’s like somehow we have to decide that just because the two major centers of gravity right now for the Jewish people are Israel and North America, that that’s like an ideological decision. I think it’s much more of a practical set of concerns and considerations. But we can talk.
Ed: I’m Ed. This is my 21st year. This institution began and has continued to champion the creation of new ideas for the Jewish people and I think a great deal of us, a great deal of our love for both of you, is that you are both so profoundly cerebral about this project. But one of the great renaissance events going on in the Jewish world right now is in the arts, in the creation of new Jewish music, film, literature, drama, all sorts of arts production. And in the same way that you talked about gaps between North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry, there aren’t 10 people in my congregation who could tell you any Jewish singer, any Israeli singer after Chava Alberstein. There is a gap between the two communities.
Does the Institute have room for an art institute, for a music school, for a film school, to celebrate the renaissance in Jewish artistic and emotional creativity, beyond the cerebral that both of you are so wonderful at?
Yehuda: You know, I had a great conversation a few months ago, actually, with a phenomenal writer, best-selling author, who’s really interested in doing something like what you described. He said that there’s no shortage of artists, cultural creators, musicians, poets, hanging around in North American Jewish communities, not being gathered in any sort of serious way, not being funded in any sort of serious way, not being incubated.
And we started brainstorming. Is there something to do here? The truth is, though, where we diverged was that what he basically wanted was a a place for residency. Let people do what they wanted to do. And my feeling was, the role of the Institute in a relationship with folks like that is giving them the cerebral, is putting them in an environment of learning, because ultimately, if we are joined to the business of cultural production, but we can’t thicken it, then we’re missing out on our unique contribution of what the Hartman Institute can offer.
So I would say we’re still talking. I think that the Institute can take some credit for the fact that some of the stuff that happened here in Israel over the last couple of decades, of the amount of musicians and writers engaging in the study of Torah, actually some of those some of that idea was incubated here at the Institute, and then carried out by people who graduated from the Institution and went out and did it elsewhere in the world. And I think that’s essential.
So I do want to do some of that work. I just think that it has to happen through the thing that we’re good at, which is creating a serious environment for the study of Torah, and if we can find the types of folks and the right program model of people who say, I basically want to do what I do in the world, and you guys at Hartman are not going to help me figure out how to paint, but you could help me learn about the big issues facing Jewish life, that what we can produce, as artists and culture makers, could expand, therefore, the canon of how Jewish Ideas show up in the world, then I’m all in for that type of exercise.
But the last thing I want to say on this, Eddie, is that, you know what, we played around with an idea a few years ago, after we put out the Tribes of Israel iEngage curriculum. And the iEngage curriculum on tribes tried to map out all of the different subgroups of Israeli society and to ask, what does it look like to really imagine them being part of the same society. And we had a big idea, which was going to be a tribes of Israel concert series. We’d get all of these incredible musicians who represent different sub-sectors of Israeli life to travel together and go on tour.
Anyway, it didn’t happen, partly it didn’t happen, it was costly, and it was difficult. But the starting point was so remote for most of the audiences in the American Jewish community and the language gap so profound, that to bring, I don’t know, Maureen Nehedar, who is a Persian Jewish piyyutan, to come sing the original piyyutim that she’s writing to an American Jewish audience, felt like it wasn’t going to work. Now I would love to be wrong about that, but I do think that some of the gaps that we have to deal with, it’s not American Jews simply don’t know about the cultural creativity here, that there are huge just obstacles to be able to break through. to make it make it intelligible to American Jews.
Jill: Hi I’m Jill, I’m from Seattle. It’s my first time here. And I think you just started answering part of the question I want to ask, but I’m going to still ask it. I’m curious, you talked about having Judaism that was not thin. And I’m curious to hear some examples of what you think that looks like, in addition to what’s already taking place, but some of the things you’re dreaming of, but also in particular, interested in hearing, what are the types of things you can imagine that people can be doing it on their own independent of Hartman and independent of this type of funding, that’s actually like doable examples of not being thin on smaller scales, that, that we could implement?
Yehuda: Great. So, first of all, the thinness thing sometimes gets messed up with cultural expectations of what thick Judaism looks like. So, again because I love the ancient Jews of Alexandria, I’ll give my favorite example Philo of Alexandria wrote a 22 volume commentary on the Torah without reading a word of Hebrew. That’s kind of an impossible idea for most of American Jewish life today, because those who have things to say about Judaism are oftentimes disincentivized from being able to be original creative thinkers about Judaism, because they’re told, until and unless you can read these sources in the original, you can’t say anything credible. I just don’t think that’s true. He wrote the commentary, actually, that Alexandrian Jews need. So number one is we have to start adjusting our sights about what we think is actually possible for American Jewish cultural and intellectual creativity.
I’ll give you an example of something that I, we were astonished by this year, a project we started at the Institute, that we need your help for, which is, we started a program called the Hartman Teen Fellows. The teen fellowship program was open to 10th through 12th graders. It was two shabbatons for kids all around the country, and then weekly Zoom classes, and monthly Zoom Seminars. The weekly Zoom classes are electives, they get to choose what they want to do, and the monthly seminars where with all of our senior faculty. Donniel did one, Micah, Mijal Bitton, Elana Stein Hain, Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi.
The students, our teens, it’s like a crazy program. Until we hit winter break and a whole bunch of challenges around vacation schedules, we had a hundred percent participation on the Zoom electives. The kids wanted to be there. And they wanted to be there precisely because it was set at an absurd bar of intellectual rigor. That’s an interesting social experiment of, how do you change the bar?
It was, there was no introduction to Judaism as part of this. Kids actually came from wildly different backgrounds. It was a third day school kids, a third public school, a third non-jewish private schools. They sorted out the differences in terms of leveling, because actually, sometimes, you know, the day school kids may have seen a text before, but the kids in a private non-Jewish high school may have more skills reading philosophy. They sorted out those differences between them, and we feel like we’re on the cusp of something really significant that argues that, you don’t set a lower bar to increase participation, you set a higher bar to incentivize people to challenge themselves.
I think that’s true on a local level, not by the Hartman Institute and with rabbis. I remember a colleague of mine, a senior rabbi, taught a class really successfully for many years, which was basically academic articles in Jewish studies. And the people who wanted to be there would read the academic articles each week, and he would get together and discuss it with them. And of course, that’s not like a mass-market project. But it is a way of signaling, to some stakeholders at times, you want to be here, and this is going to be a good use of my time, we’re going to really challenge ourselves intellectually. We’re going to challenge ourselves spiritually.
And I do believe that we are doing a little bit too much on the reverse, of what are the entry level, where are the entry-level opportunities.
And, by the way, we’re not great at entry level, right? We’re not converting nearly enough people. There are not great introduction to Judaism classes. But it’s also true, on the other end, there’s more we could do that would signal to our stakeholders, we actually want to set a higher bar, and invite people who want to try to clear that bar, with us, to be part of our community as well.
Speaker: So at the risk of potentially breaking the rules of the the evening, I’m curious to know from both of you, what is your vision for having a co-presidency, with one here and one in in the United States. And even not necessarily about specifically Donniel and Yehuda, but about having a co-presidency.
Yehuda: You know, the, one of the exciting things about this for me is that there are actually more and more institutions that are recognizing that shared leadership is a better and a healthier model for institutions to run, and which pushes against some of the assumptions of the ways that a single leader alone can account for everything an institution needs to do, and also the burden that is actually borne by one single individual leader. I know more co-rabbi setups now than I did five years ago, which I find really interesting. From a quality of life standpoint, and a sharing of, this is what you’re great at, and this is what I’m great at. That dynamic.
You know, Donniel and I have, I think, a really great head start on this, because for 13 years I’ve been the president of Hartman North America and working for Donniel in that role, but seven thousand miles away. There’s only so much that Donniel running the Institute here and ostensibly responsible for the work in North America with a thousand to 1500 programs a year, can actually look deeply into. So that created, for us, a pretty significant foundation of trust.
And so what is emerging now is a little bit more of like concretizing something that had already been evolving and growing for a number of years, rather than a radical shift. But I am kind of excited for what this means for the Hartman Institute, which I think would have been unimaginable a decade ago, to say no, the co-leadership of the Institute can be not here. That story right now for an American Jewry that’s struggling with a relationship with Israel, is an amazing story. We should have more of those types of things.
I’m excited by the idea that, you know Donniel and I are not the same age, we don’t have the same background, we don’t come from the same families, we have some things that we’re both really good at and other times, different ideas. We rarely, when it comes to issues that matter at the Institute, have dramatically different perspectives on it, and I think that that opens up a lot of different possibilities for maybe other institutions to learn from as well.
You know, we’ve only been doing this for a couple of weeks, it doesn’t feel that different, it doesn’t feel that different, I don’t think our team feels that there’s a significant difference taking place here. If anything, I think this is, maybe both of us will ultimately feel that this was a way in which we could take an institution that we both think is a jewel of the Jewish people, something that really matters, and figure out a way to share the responsibility of leading it rather than for it to fall in one of our shoulders more than the others.
Donniel: I’m going to leave that as, I’ll just add one little bit. When you fully internalize that if you want to be a shaliach tzibur, you have to ask yourselves how you best serve that tzibur. What’s the best service? And I have to tell you, it’s too big. I can’t do it by myself. There’s too many needs that we have to answer. Really, the melachah, you know, atah lo ben chorin libatel mimena, and it’s there and when you really internalize that it’s not about the Hartman Institute, and it’s not about you, it’s about whether you could really help the Jewish people. That you’re not willing, it’s like a celebration. When you could bring a partner, and you realize, and this is what we’ve seen, it wasn’t a theoretical decision, it was when you realize how much better we are at doing what we really care about, when we do it together, how many more things we could achieve, it really is very, very simple. Really, very, very simple.
And that’s why I’m so excited. Because I, like, many of you know me. Like you, like we don’t, we don’t sleep. We don’t have restful sleeps. Because we feel very, very responsible. And to know that we could maybe advance that a little more, beyond what we could have done by ourselves.
that’s a really, really good day. Thank you all very very much.
Lauren: Thanks for listening to our show. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbes at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon, Maital Friedman is our vice president of communication and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled.
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