Join our email list

A Jew Walks Into a Bar

The following is a transcript of Episode 118 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on November 17th, 2022. 

When I first came to Hartman, a dozen or so years ago, and as I started to sort out what we might do here in North America, I started to feel that at the heart of this project was finishing someone else’s unfinished business. I wrote about him inelegantly in the first opinion piece I ever published in this role. Franz Rosenzweig was an amazing and unusual character, a philosopher and a theologian, who was born in Kassel, Germany, and died about three hours south from there in Frankfurt. 

A man on a spiritual quest who nearly converted to Christianity before ducking back from the brink, and committing himself to try to teach a new Judaism. A man who is kind of chastening to think about, accomplished an immense amount in a life cut short by ALS. Rosenzweig died at age 42 in 1929, and maybe it’s a small consolation to consider what would’ve happened to him had he lived and stayed in Germany throughout the next decade. 

The piece that Rosenzweig wrote that has always captivated me the most was his letter to one of his associates, Rudolf Hallo, outlining the need and plan for a new kind of institution of Jewish learning. What would become a short-lived salon called the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, a free Jewish study house. And it’s a letter that now appears in some collections of modern Jewish thought under the title “Towards a renaissance of Jewish learning.”

Given the ubiquity now of that very phrase, Jewish learning, in organizations like ours and Hadar and Pardes Svara and Torah in motion and many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and daf yomi and more and more, you can see why the title and the argument are so suggestive of a critical moment in our past that might have contributed to giving rise to our present.

When it comes to study, some Jews believe then, and some still do now, that our facility and knowledge of this stuff of our past, whether we call it history, Jewish literature, or even Torah, is about accumulating knowledge or maybe about being the custodian of the past. But Rosenzweig had a different ambition, that we see in it the ways to become whole and confident as Jews and as human beings in the present, in his locution “Jewish human beings.” Rosenzweig railed against the movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism. He thought it was spiritually bereft and interested only in producing books of scholarship for their own sake.

He equally criticized the powerful denominational infrastructure that divided Jews in what he considered to be caricatures and automatons to ways of being Jewish that froze them in time. Most importantly, he emphasized that since the dawn of modernity, Jews had become interested and organized almost entirely by the project of emancipation, political liberty, and autonomy and freedom. And even if they were successful, who would we as Jews become?

I think Rosenzweig was a prophet interrupted. He was incapacitated a few years into the Lehrhaus project and he had died within a decade. Hallo took over the Lehrhaus, and for obvious reasons, it was out of business by the mid-1930s. I feel haunted by Rosenzweig’s vision, not just for institution, but for this mandate of Jewish learning as the indispensable mechanism through which we as modern Jews could retrieve our own dignity, our own confidence, our sense of agency in the midst of this modernity that sometimes overwhelms us.

I’d go so far as to say that his vision is what wakes me up every morning to go to work. It turns out that I’m not alone in this, and in fact, there are some folks out there, genius entrepreneurs, who want to inherit Rosenzweig’s legacy into the present far more literally. 

Earlier this year, Josh Foer and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, entered into a lease to take over a restaurant at the Cambridge Sommerville border near Boston. A venue formerly and hilariously named the Kirkland Tap and Trotter. They are now finalizing plans to open the warehouse, a Jewish tavern and House of Learning. I doubt Rosenzweig spent a lot of time collaborating with mixologists or building out a kosher commercial kitchen. But the Lehrhaus in Boston is a wildly ambitious play to rethink the venues that we envision as Jews in building and imagining community.

And in an attempt, I think, to try to bridge between different modes of Jewishness in filling out Rosenzweig’s ambitious hopes for Jewish community and identity. I’ve had the joy of seeing the Lehrhaus come together. I even got a behind-the-scenes tour from Josh and Charlie and I’m really excited for it to open.

I should disclose that Hartman is a content partner to Lehrhaus already, proudly so, and we’re really excited to see what might happen when our Torah finds this kind of brick-and-mortar home here in America. Both Josh and Charlie have been on our show before, and I’m delighted they’re back here today to talk about their vision and what it might mean, not just for the locals in Boston, but for all of us.

All right. What is this idea? You’re opening a restaurant, it’s also a non-profit. Fill out the vision for the idea of Lehrhaus, uh, why it’s coming into existence and and what’s it solving for? Charlie, maybe you’ll start us off cause you’re actually in Lehrhaus right now. 

Charlie: I’m in the basement. Uh, yeah, we’re opening Lehrhaus, which is gonna be a Jewish tavern and house of learning. So a space where people can gather and have great food and great drinks and find easy entry points into Jewish learning. Uh, the kind of driving force behind this is one, creating just like a space where people can gather, where Jews can gather, and non-Jews. And two, we really want to popularize Jewish learning at large and specifically chavruta in the larger Jewish community.

We like to say that like chavruta is really one of the best ideas that is yet to escape pockets of orthodoxy and in certain areas in, in liberal Judaism. But even like in a lot of spaces that I occupy, when we say chavruta, we usually mean turn to the person next to you and study this text and not have a relationship with a person over time mitigated by text, which we think is really like the core of chavruta.

So we wanna create a new kind of Jewish space, a space that is vibrant and alive, joyous, pleasant to be in, filled with food and drink, and a place where Jewish learning and above all chavruta can thrive and be taught. 

Yehuda: Okay, so that’s super interesting because by starting off by saying this is basically an intervention in the study of Torah, there’s a lot of things that a lot of people might say would be the ways that you broadcast and democratize the study of Torah with chavruta as it’s methodology.

I don’t think a lot of people would intuit that that means a restaurant.

Charlie: Oh, why not? 

Josh: Well,

Charlie: Josh, you wanna jump in or I 

Josh: Sure. I mean, look, I think when we look at the Jewish institutional landscape and ask ourselves what’s missing, there are two things that jump out as missing. One is, it’s shocking, like once you say it out loud, it’s shocking that there is no, in most cities, there’s no space where Jews gather to learn, to discuss, to debate Jewish texts.

The other thing that is missing is a space where Jews gather and commune socially as Jews, and our thought was, let’s mash him up. There is a long, proud tradition of Jewish batei midrash. There’s a long, proud tradition, although probably somewhat in hibernation in this country of Jewish taverns, right? We used to run the taverns in the pale of the settlement. What happens if we put those two together? 

And our hope is that we can define a new kind of Jewish space that could potentially exist in communities all over North America, all over the world. 

Yehuda: Okay, so this is now two different suggestions. One is a kind of revolution in Torah study, which you might suggest actually could be kind of spatially agnostic.

That’s what kind of, Charlie, you said more people should be studying Torah, more people should be engaging in this process of chavruta and not just in like limited parochial forms. And Josh, you’re arguing for a rethinking of kind of Jewish available spaces. Let’s start with the space piece for a second, because there are actually a lot of Jewish spaces.

So one of the most obvious critiques that someone might surface. I, I don’t tend to share this critique is, well, we have a lot of Jewish buildings and many of them are less inhabited than they were designed for. So like if the objective is to get Jews into particular spaces, you’re taking on a real estate project. So how do you engage that question, especially looking at the landscape of all of the spaces that are in theory available to Jews to go?

Josh: Um, so it’s a great question. There’s a, a wonderful exchange in a recent issue of Sapir, in which Rabbi Leon Morris, Pardes, said like, you know, it’s really interesting that when Jews came to America, we decided that we were gonna make the center of our Jewish life the synagogue. And he says, you know, we look at our Christian neighbors, they went to church, we go to synagogue. It makes sense. And yet as an institution, as a Jewish space, like it doesn’t really make sense. 

Most Jews don’t like to go to synagogue. American Jewry tends to be skeptical of dogma, I think is what he said. Like we, the thing that we like to do is debate, argue, talk about ideas, and what would’ve happened if we had decided like, no, no, no. Okay, we’ll have synagogues. But the thing that we’re gonna center Jewish life in America around is the beit midrash. Now we have batei midrash in America. For the most part, most American Jews, I bet 99% of American Jews wouldn’t know where to find the nearest beit midrash. And most those, if they could find it, wouldn’t feel comfortable walking inside. 

And so what happens if we open the doors and say like, hey, this is a space that everybody belongs in and that is warm and inviting and accessible, and where you don’t have to check anything at the door, right? You can bring your best self. And in fact, this demands your best self. 

So much of what passes for outreach in the Jewish world of like, I don’t wanna call it kiruv, but like, is lowest common denominator, right? Like, what happens if we like just dumb it down, just enough that we can like make it palatable to people, which is a bad formula.

And what we’re saying is, no, no, no, no, no. Like what? This stuff is really good and we’re asking you to bring your best self and like, this is highest common denominator Judaism. And our feeling is that that’s like actually a much more appealing offering.

Charlie: I would, I would just add that, um, when thinking through this idea, there’s a psychologist named Robert Sommer who has a book called Personal Space, and in there he has a chapter called Design for Drinking. And he talks about how if a bar is well designed, you walk in and you know roughly what to do and what the rules are. Right. And he actually contrasts that to, to someone’s house. When you walk into someone’s house for the first time, everyone has like kind of their own rules and it’s very different than a classic third space, like a bar or cafe.

And I, I would say like that’s very true with many synagogues too. You know, if you’re not a member of the synagogue, you walk in, you, you’re not quite sure what the rules are. And I would also say that’s probably true for a lot of JCCs and a lot of Hillels in a way that’s different for a public space, like a bar or a restaurant. 

And we’ve seen it like already in our counters with just people on the street when we’re going in and out of the space now, is that people know what it is. They know they can access it. They’re excited to access it. So why, you know, why a bar restaurant, I think, why a tavern and a house of learning, not just a house of learning?

There’s like lots of like kind of deep, exciting things that we can do with food and drink, which I’m sure we’ll get to, but it’s also just allows for a different type of interaction for a different type of person to walk in and for a different level of comfort.

Yehuda: Uh, that’s really interesting. There’s a design thinking kind of empathy piece that’s rooted in that, and there’s a lot to say about like, why, by analogy, I don’t want to go off the rabbit hole on this cause you’ve worked in the Hillel world, Charlie, but there may be some analogy to why people sometimes report experiencing more comfort around the Shabbat dinner table at a Chabad house than they do inside a Hillel. Because there’s a lot of work you have to do to accommodate yourself to a neutral environment as opposed to, I know exactly what this is and what I’m supposed to do.

So let’s talk for a minute about the food, because a lot of what you’d characterized as like as a beit midrash could happen without this framework of a good restaurant and a tavern. Or could happen where there is food and drink available, but it’s not designed around the business model of a restaurant.

So talk a little bit about what that looks like and feels like. Cause I, I would also imagine that the overwhelming majority of the work that you’ve had to do until now has been actually building and creating a restaurant, which, and I, I know both of you a long time. And it’s not exactly what you, you know, set into the world to do. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that, Charlie. 

Charlie: Uh, yeah, I mean, we’re, food is text, right? Yehuda, you’ve talked about this in podcasts frequently, food is one way of telling story. It’s one way of telling tradition. It’s one way that Judaism is expressed and manifests in the world. So, you know, there’s a counter argument that say like, how could you have a beit midrash without a deep, high level culinary approach?

Um, you know, if we’re really doing what Rosenzweig set out to do and draw from tradition and push into the future. The idea of combining food and, and text and learning is actually what’s necessary. But to answer your question more directly, we’re pulling together a menu inspired by the food from across the Jewish diaspora, pulling in stories, known and less well known, so that you can enjoy a cravable delicious meal and you can enjoy that meal and, and go level deeper and learn about Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish text.

So for example, we have, we pulled together actually quite an incredible team. Michael Leviton, seven times James Beard Award nominee is our, our chef sage is what I like to call him. He’s kind of guiding the process. Uh, Noah Clickstein, who comes from one of the oldest Sephardic families in America, is our executive chef. We have Naomi Levy who ran the bar Eastern Standard, which was really one of the best bars in Boston for a long time, is pull together a really incredible bar menu. 

And so for example, we’re gonna be serving a delicious fish and chip with amba vinegar and Old-Bay French fries. Fish and chips coming from Sephardic Jewry up through England. Amba being that delicious vinegary, like not too different from malt, but like a little bit more powerful, that comes from Iraqi Jews from their trade in India. And Old Bay, which I want to reclaim as a Jewish food invented by a spice merchant from Frankfurt, Germany, who, uh, immigrated to the United States in 1939 as a refugee and developed the spice mix as a way to spread his spice business.

Uh, similarly, we’re doing something similar with a cocktail side. We’ll have cocktails from across the diaspora, like a Hawaii espresso martini, spicy schug margarita. Like Naomi’s actually going like very deep on this stuff. Like there’s a traditional Sephardic drink for break fast called Pepitadas, which is you take melon seeds and you roast them and you make a milk out of them. So she has a, a pepitadas drink on the, on the menu, which is pepitadas, uh, apple jack, and just a hint of arak, which is, uh, absolutely ddelicious. 

Yehuda: I can definitely vouch for that, having the benefit of being with Josh and Charlie and the mixologist testing these drinks and they, and they’re great. Go ahead Josh. 

Josh: I mean, besides the role that food and drink play in like, broadly speaking in hospitality and in making you feel warm and welcome in a space, one of the things that we want to telegraph with our food and drink is excellence. And so much of what goes on in the Jewish world, sadly, depressingly is just good enough. And what we wanted to say was like, no, this is not just that, like having just good enough drink, just good enough food like. We want this to be excellent, world class. World class food and drink, and world class Torah.

I mean, we’ve got the Shalom Hartman Institute as partners on the, on the text side, and that’s one of the things we wanna convey is like this, this stuff can be really great and we should aspire for greatness. 

Charlie: Yeah, we could totally run a Beit Midrash with like tuna wraps and wine in plastic cups, right? But that’s not doing anything interesting and that’s not gonna push forward the, the Jewish community in, in North America and beyond. 

Yehuda: So I, I could anticipate, it’s easy for me to understand how someone would come and eat delicious food and drink great drinks, and even learn something from the menu. I love the cultural hybridities that you’re suggesting, we’ll talk about diaspora in a moment. It’s my favorite topic, but what does the experience feel and look like for you as educators? 

Charlie, you come out of the Hillel system. You took this job, like I said, not to run a restaurant. Right. Um, even though you’re getting quite an education in it, but you took the job presumably to engage in the teaching of Torah. So what would happen as you imagine, like for your customer base, who are your learners, for them spiritually and educationally through the experience of spending time at Lehrhaus? 

Charlie: Yeah, well, let’s, let’s first about it. Cause there’ll be folks who come in who don’t identify as Jewish and folks who come in who identify as Jewish, right? So for the folks who come in who don’t identify as Jewish, who I actually see as, as learners as well, I see like a deeper appreciation for Jewish tradition, culture, heritage. There’s a real limitation in terms of what folks know about Jewish food in, in North America, so expanding that as well and through that, what people know about Jewish history and, and tradition.

For the Jewish learners, like first of all, being seen in society and being seen in, in a really public way that they can take pride in. Now, this isn’t like a Jewish light endeavor. We’re not trying to create a kosher restaurant where it’s like, oh, it’s so good, you don’t even know it’s kosher. We’re trying to create a kosher restaurant where its kashrut and the Jewishness of the food is actually what we are pushing, right? So one, like a sense of, of real sense of pride and a real sense of being seen and a real sense at a time when the Jewish community might want to feel like they’re retreating, like, we want to retreat, that this is like a statement that we’re actually here. So I’d say that that’s like the, the first kind of move. 

The second is just like this core essence of what it means to be Jewish, to be engaged in learning as being accessible, desirable, and understanding like what the next step to engage in it is. So whether that’s scheduling a, an appointment with one of our learning guides or someone who’s already there to start learning one on one, to come to, uh, a class that’s gonna be happening in our small library space or to, to come to a large public event, you know, something that the Shalom Hartman Center is collaborating with us on to come in and engage in that level of learning.

Josh: And, and then one other thing I wanna add onto that is nobody goes to a well, except for sad people, nobody goes to bars to drink alone, and you go with a friend. And part of what we are trying to evangelize is the idea that there is a way of being Jewish, authentically, deeply Jewish with a friend.

And this is a ancient tool for deepening a personal relationship, for like exploring ideas in partnership with a friend, and a forming like a real, real profound friendship. And like when you ask young people, anybody today, like what is really missing in your life? People are lonely. People are looking for ways to have deep social ties, like so much in Judaism, it’s like, oh, we thought of that, we’ve got an idea for you and we gotta show you how to do this. 

And our vision is one in which American Jewry sees chavruta, the practice of chavruta, of two people engaging deeply with text and with each other as a normative central piece of their Jewish identity. That in the future, people will say, what makes me Jewish? I’m Jewish because I learn. Uh, not because I go to shul every Saturday. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t, but I’m Jewish because I learn.

And yoga 30 years ago was like a weird, esoteric activity, like vaguely spiritual people like with ponytails and dashikis did it and what happened? Now they’re like yoga studios on every corner. Everybody’s got a yoga practice and like that is a model for how we can take an idea that was esoteric and a little bit weird and hard, by the way, hard, and show people that it can become a part of their lives in a meaningful way. 

Yehuda: So, you know, to channel a different central European Jew from the end of the 19th and early 20th century, I can’t help but feel that there’s something that you guys are toggling with that is both old and new at the same time. And in the channeling of Rosenzweig’s terminology, the rehabilitation of the Lehrhaus. Josh, you’ve indicated like the Jewish Tavern as an old idea, and at the same time you’re trying to speak some language about very specific and pressing needs around American Jews, around loneliness, hyper individuation, and the response to something else.

Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. Why the appeal to Rosenzweig, if that’s, you know, I know it’s intentional. What’s the appeal to that about and what’s the bigger Jewish story that this dance between old-new suggests about who we are as Jews today and what we actually need? 

Charlie: Yeah, so I mean, so two initial responses. One, you know, at the end of Rosenzweig’s essay, the Builders, he talks about his interpretation of Psalm 122. So, “al tikrah banaich elah bonaich.” And so don’t read it as your sons, your children, rather your builders. And he talks about it going in both ways, right? Like you should actually read it both as your children and as builders, right?

So you need to draw from the past and you need to be building the future. So I think in that, in that way, we’re kind of taking that philosophical approach of like we’re drawing from the past and, and rooting this in a time, a place, a tradition that goes before Rosenzweig, even. And we’re thinking about what does that mean to be manifest now, uh, in, in where we are now to build for that future.

I would say like also, rooting it in a past iteration of Jewish, you know, learning, if not specifically Jewish space, taps into like a generational need for story and authenticity and connection. So it enables us to that move faster because we’re, one of the ways we pitch this to people who aren’t necessarily in the Jewish communities, we say, it’s like an Irish pub, but a Jewish tavern, and then all of a sudden they get it, even though there’s no such thing as a Jewish tavern, right? It’s like it doesn’t exist in the, in the American landscape. So the idea of like rooting it in the past makes this new idea understandable, palatable, and transformable.

Yehuda: I can’t help but shake at the same time that there’s something about Israel diaspora that’s like eating at me a little bit here. So let me push this. There’s something about what you’re doing that feels like it makes more sense because of Zionism, like a restaurant that does kibbutz galiyot, the ingathering of the exiles, that actually imagines the production of a new cuisine based on all of these different Jewishness. I could totally see this in Israel. In fact, it exists in Israel. Israel’s the site of global Jewish cuisine that integrates from all these places. 

It also is a kind of performance of Jewish identity proudly in a public square that is most recognizable right now because of Israel and at the same time, like Rosenzweig, I wouldn’t say he was a hostile anti-Zionist, but wasn’t a big fan. So can you talk a little bit about like how this emerges right now in a Jewish community where tensions around Israel and diaspora feel so acute? 

Charlie: I mean, I would go a step farther there. I said, this project only happens because of the state of Israel. Right. Uh, for, for the reasons that you said. The only reason I as a North American Jew have, like, I would say, like a moderately deep knowledge of, of other Jewish cultures and flavors and experiences is because of time I spend in Israel, is because that ingathering of exiles that you described.

One of the reasons that I feel proud and comfortable being exuberantly Jewish in, at a time when that, you know, isn’t always the popular move is, I would say is, is largely because of, of my time spent in Israel and, and seeing what that looks like modeled in, in different ways. So, you know, I think that there’s like a deep connection to Zionism in what we’re doing.

And as you say, like this is also like a diaspora project and like what does vibrant Jewish life look like in the diaspora and what are ways that we can model vibrant Jewish life in the diaspora? So I think this only happens because of the state of Israel. Like this is only possible in a lot of ways and it’s not Zionist project, right? We’re building vibrant Jewish life in diaspora. 

Josh: And I actually think it’s worth just saying a sentence more about that, which is so many of the core stories that we have told about ourselves as American Jews feel like they don’t work quite as well today as they maybe once did. Whether it’s like, I am Jewish because my grandmother survived the Holocaust. Well, like my kids never met my grandmother, you know. Like I am Jewish because I believe in God. This is the word of God. Well, like that hasn’t worked for a lot of people for a long time. Uh, I am Jewish because I am proud of the state of Israel. Like we know that that doesn’t work for some people today.

And I think that we need to figure out how to create an anchor for Jewish identity. We maybe need a, a new story. And that’s kind of part of what is maybe going on here is like saying we want as a anchor of one’s Jewish identity to be the engagement with text and with ancient ideas and the discussion, the debate, the like intellectual and even spiritual excitement that comes from that activity as something that can like ground who I am as a Jew and have it make sense when some of those other pieces of the story are no longer as compelling as they maybe once were.

Yehuda: But I, I think you’re making a more radical claim than that. I would say Josh, that’s too limited. When you say like, those claims are not sufficient and not strong enough. The one you didn’t mention by the way, is I’m Jewish because my immediate family members are Jewish, or I’m in a Jewish family. It’s not, just, not, doesn’t bind American Jews anymore.

Um, but, but it’s not merely, let’s give people a point of access to study Torah. It’s actually,let’s position Jewish engagement and involvement through a set of activities that are Jewish that actually don’t make as their objective the production of an identity. See, the thing that is so deep about a tavern and a restaurant and a beit midrash is that you’ll go in, do something really rich and Jewish and maybe even transformative, although it’s a tricky word, and then you’ll leave and go back to your life.

Which is different than the notion that like your Jewish identity travels always with you and your family and always, and all of your behaviors are shaped by it. There’s something different that I, it’s not just study Torah. It’s you’ll engage with deep ethnic Jewish culture just by drinking a schug margarita, but you don’t actually have to internalize that by then saying the success of that margarita is then I go and marry another Jew.

Do you know what I mean? Like that’s in and of itself a kind of a big shift around thinking about Jewish identity and performance when it comes to Jewish institutes. 

Josh: Well, let me just say this. You know, I bet there’ll be a few, a few Jewish babies that come out of, uh, a communal spot that serves liquor and uh, where a lot of Jews get together.

Yehuda: I understand, but you know what I’m trying to say, like, I’m trying to say like there’s sometimes a habit in Jewish institutional and philanthropic life, which says, here’s the intervention I need to create in order to alter the path that somebody’s on, which is by definition different than this kind of process, which is no, come in and participate, do something thick Jewishly. And I don’t really care about what happens on the other end. 

And I’m not saying you as Jews or as individuals or educators, whatever it is, don’t actually care about how people may be transformed by this experience. But it is a little bit of a different story than the way that Jewish philanthropy has tried to incentivize and invest in Jewish education.

Charlie: Yeah, I, I mean, I, I joke around with Josh that, like my KPI, my, uh, key performance index is yagdil torah v’adir, is the glorification of torah. And that’s, it’s not a great, you know, key performance index. But it is, when we think about like what we’re trying to do here, there is an element of that. 

It’s amazing working with just excellent professionals in the hospitality field. And I actually think that the Jewish world has a lot to learn from how those professionals think about what it means to welcome someone, and that the steps of service and, and the level of detail that goes into the entire process of coming into a restaurant. 

But, you know, a lot of what they talk about is, is from, from Danny Meyer, who’s, you know, the, the guy behind Shake Shack, that what happens in a restaurant is 51% emotional and 49% about the food that’s being put out on the plate. And our, our GM, who’s fantastic, not Jewish, said, you know, I think post pandemic, that’s actually shifted to being really like, really like 60% emotional and 40% that if you can make people feel a certain way, they will have an amazing experience.

And like that’s what hospitality professionals are focused on is like that moment, that experience, that person right there, they know if they can create that experience there, that person will come back and that person will tell their friends to go and that person will write something on, a review that will get other people to come.

But like their focus isn’t about how is that hospitality encounter going to transform their lives. That’s like, how can I make their moment right now the most welcoming, powerful, transformative in that moment experience that they can have. And I, I think like going back to the, you know, how does this impact what we’re thinking, like to do that with Jewish learning and Jewish texts and a beit midrash, I have to imagine that they’re gonna be powerful downstream impacts. And I think by refocusing, reshifting on that initial moment of encounter is actually the secret to what we’re doing. 

Josh: Yeah, I like one of the things that has been very exciting about this project has been that collision of these two worlds of hospitality on the restaurant side and Jewish learning and education, which, to understand really deeply what goes into hospitality, 

You know, just to give you an example that really struck me, our GM, who’s run several really successful restaurants, he would say, you know, after a shift, we get everybody who has been working in the restaurant that night together to have a discussion about all the people who are in the restaurant, where they were from, what their names are, what they ordered, what they didn’t like, like why they came back, how many times they’ve been there, and then a process for like introducing them to other people who work there and like being rigorous and meticulous about making people feel welcome. Boy oh boy, does the Jewish world need more of that. Um, so that’s one of the things I’m personally very excited about. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I, I mean, listen, I identify with this immensely. We think about this in our work all the time. I get made fun of personally, both inside my organization and now across the Jewish world for one time, literally one time on Facebook, I did a rant about the fact that every Jewish conference you go to has tuna wraps, and people have carried that with me forever. But I actually like tuna wraps. It’s not like a grievance about a sandwich. It’s a grievance about predictability. 

And the question of like, does the person who’s holding the catering menu simply just do the same thing every time? Or do they pause and say, what food do I wanna serve at this event? And that pause, or getting together and asking like, who’s showing up, what do they need, how do they get taken care of, is a mindset shift. So now, like again, as every time I go somewhere, I’ll go to a conference and there’ll be somebody serving tuna sandwiches and people are like, ha ha, look. Isn’t that terrible? 

I’m like, no, actually that’s fine. It’s a question of mindset. I’ll say I, I saw it this week actually at the rabbinical assembly conference. I wanna say like a hakarat hatov, after three years of pandemic, what rabbis needed at a conference was exactly what was provided. They said to them, come in casual clothing. They took the pressure off of being rabbis in communities. They had no overarching theme or plenaries, which actually nobody wants. They just created like time for rabbis to study Torah and invited a whole bunch of teachers.

And I said to them, I’m like, you want me to come? Like, what do you want me to teach about? They’re like, whatever you want. Whatever’s gonna be spiritually nourishing to rabbis right now. I was like, oh, this is a shift. This is a really important shift, and it sounds a little bit like you’re dancing in that as well. A kind of empathy for what does this person want and need? And also juxtapose that with a commitment to excellence, whatever they’re gonna want, we’re gonna be able to provide it at a high level.

Uh, Josh, when you launched this, or one of the ways that this was launched was in an article you wrote in  eJewish philanthropy, but you positioned it within a larger story about philanthropy, which is the need for big bets and risk taking, which I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that because your project has a revenue stream, but it’s also is now and is going to be dependent on philanthropy. Why is this a good example, do you think of like risk capital in the field of philanthropy? 

Josh: Well, I mean, one of my frustrations with the Jewish funding ecosystem as it exists today is that there’s simply not an address to go to for meaningful risk capital. There are places to go to to get small grants, $30,000 grants, 50 even, you know, even a hundred thousand dollars.

But you can’t start a real enterprise with a hundred thousand dollars, not if you’re expecting a competent, successful entrepreneur to stick their neck out, leave their job as Charlie has done here, to start something new, and I’ll just share an amazing fact with you. If you look at the top, 1% of the most successful for-profit startups in America, the average age of the founder is 45.

Right? You have to have failed at a few things. You have to have started a few things. You have to gotten some real-life experience before you can really hit one outta the park. I would ask you, what is the path today for a 45-year-old from inside the Jewish community or outside the Jewish community who is successful, competent, and has an idea for transforming the Jewish world, what is the path for that person to realize their idea? 

And the answer is, there is no path because you can’t ask somebody to leave their job for a $30,000 grant. The path to raising capital is so labyrinthine in our corner of the world. I would argue that this is the single biggest cause of stasis in the Jewish world right now, and I would love to figure out how to fix it because we need to, we can’t be dependent on all of our big ideas coming from foundations, from people who already have the capital.

We need to open the doors to people who may not have the capital, but may have the ideas and create pathways for them to realize their ideas.

Yehuda: Yeah. The only problem is that, you know, and this is where the whole industry of measurement and KPIs comes from in the Jewish nonprofit space, which I would say the results of which are mixed, feels to me like a lot of fabricated results, a lot of like, let me tell you exactly what you need to hear.

The basic problem is that the thing that justifies risk capital on the VC side of things is the possibility of a blowout return, and nobody knows how to think about blowout returns when it comes to Jewish community, Jewish continuity, Jewish identity. So like we can think about like how many people did we engage, or we can do a longitudinal study over 10 years, did we alter the way necessarily people think? 

But it’s going to involve much greater kind of trust in something that feels abstract on the other end. And very few people want to make investments in the possibility of abstract returned, like what’s the great story, so use your own case here as an example. What’s the great story that in 10 years, the risk capital that this will have brought in, what is the great return that this will have brought to the Jewish people.

Josh: If we have transformed, as we hope to, the Jewish American and hopefully worldwide landscape, and established a new model, first of all, of Jewish identity, but even more tangibly of Jewish space that has been replicated in in a large number of communities. If we have done that, then that’s a philanthropic home run that’s a philanthropic grand slam. Like there’s a path to that and we’ve articulated a path to that. 

Now, there are funders who will say, ah, really neat idea. Come back to me when you’re interested in scaling. Okay. Well, like the only way you can have a big idea is to start with a small idea or to start with an idea and prototype it and try it, which is what we’re doing here. And so I think there needs to be a mind shift in the Jewish philanthropic universe, like we need at least a corner of that universe to think more like venture capitalists and be willing to make risky bets.

Like it’s okay to bet on something and have it fail. Venture capitalists, their model is built on only a few successes and the rest being zeros. There are no corners of the Jewish philanthropic funding landscape right now that think that way. They say like, we’re willing to tolerate failures. Like this, this might not work. You know, like this might not. I think it will cause I think we’re the right people to do this. I think it’s a good idea. But like,I want funders who are willing to say like, I’m gonna take a bet on this because if it works, it could really work in a big way. There just aren’t that many people who think that way in our universe.

Yehuda: Yeah, we have a project that we started here that I can’t really talk about yet, but as I’ve been talking to funders and even participants about it, I said, listen, this is gonna be spectacular one way or the other. Either it’s gonna be spectacularly successful or it’s gonna be a spectacular failure, but it’ll be spectacular.

So there’s something in and of itself that’s actually worth investing in just because it actually is trying to think much bigger than I could get a small grant to do a small project. That’ll be fine, and I could probably guarantee its success. But big deal. 

Charlie, you, you actually have risk capital here, I guess, a little bit more than Josh. Josh comes up with crazy ideas and somehow makes them happen somewhere else in the world. You left a job in Jewish education to come do this. I know that you came in without the guarantee of all the money being raised. You’re sitting in the basement of a restaurant somewhere in Somerville, I think there’s a keg somewhere behind you.

What was the risk? What was the play for you? Like, what’s the big return on the other end that enabled you? Cause Josh, I hear your message loud and clear, and I want more funders to hear it, but I also need, in that ecosystem for more people like Charlie to say, I’m willing to actually jump out on the ledge of something and take that risk, because those two things get tied together. So what made that possible for you, Charlie? 

Charlie: Yeah, chavruta v’tuta, right? The, the fact that I’m not doing this uh, alone. Like that, that’s one that like, that Josh’s like to have a partner on this. I’d say that’s one and two, like, this is such an incredible opportunity, Yehuda. It’s like, it’s bringing together just such amazing parts of engagement, education, the ways of thinking about the world.

You know, I, I was debating whether or not to quit my job and, and start doing this with my, my twin brother who’s a, he’s a movie producer at Marvel and is a guy with a good amount of experience. I was like, how should I be thinking about this? And his, his advice to me, which I took to heart was, who are the people you want to be around? Who are the people you want to be working with? 

And this opportunity, like yeah, there’s a high risk and it puts me in relationship and in contact and learning with, uh, people who I just find incredibly inspiring around a vision um, that has like a tremendous amount of potential and meaning and purpose and yes, risk, but the upside, just like from a personal spiritual side, is also has, has a potential to be massive.

You know, we, we have the ability here to reach folks who, who’ve never like experienced Judaism before, and to tell stories and teach texts that have never been seen before. And so, yeah. But yeah, there’s a risk and this could fail and it could be a spectacular failure. Um, and like the potential upside from, it’s not a financial upside in any way for me.

But like, the potential upside from like a meaning spiritual connection chavruta perspective is infinite. So it was a hard decision like back then, but now, like, super excited. 

Yehuda: Well, I wanna finish with this. I, I started our podcast today with talking about this unfinished business of the 1920s Rosenzweig’s vision for a Lehrhaus and the way that it feels like it’s coming alive in bricks and mortar at the boundary of Cambridge and Somerville, but also coming alive in the work that we do and many others do in Jewish education, of really making the study of Torah at the center as opposed to an extracurricular activity, that it’s the thing that we do that makes us come alive as Jews in the world. 

Charlie, I want to end with you, um, telling the birth of Pappenheim story.

Charlie: I, I will, I will, I’ll tell it as I, as I know it, and I’ll, I’ll try to do it justice. So, we would like to make Bertha Pappenheim a, a character and someone who is present, whose presence has felt in Lehrhaus

Bertha Pappenheim was one of the greatest Jewish feminists in the inner war period. She lived in, in Frankfurt. She was a, a social worker in an orphanage. She was an activist. She fought against prostitution and white slavery. She traveled all around, wrote dispatches from the land of Israel and beyond. And she was actually an original lecturer at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus.

Uh, she’s a, she’s a direct descendant of Gluckel of Hameln. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Gluckel, that’s like a photograph, that’s actually Bertha Pappenheim in Gluckel of Hameln cosplay. Uh, so this really, like, incredible, incredible person who’s largely been forgotten on the Jewish landscape. I, I’d never heard of her before doing a deep dive into Lehrhaus history, and she’s been forgotten because she was Anna O, she was one of Freud’s kind of cases of hysteria that he wrote about. And so that whole history as a, as an activist was kind of forgotten largely because of her earlier struggles with mental illness. 

Uh, as an aside, Daniel Boyarin has a great essay about her, where he writes about how it’s possible that the origins of like her mental illness and of her activism were the same, which is like kind of pushing against this patriarchal society. And one was a kind of a juvenile version of it, and one when she moved to Frankfurt, it becomes like a more mature version of it. So, uh, we just printed out like a four-and-a-half foot photograph of her that’s gonna go in the classroom space, almost like a chairman of the board type picture. Uh, and we want her to be present in this space in the same way Rosenzweig and Buber and all of the people who are gonna come in will be present in the space.

Josh: And if I can end with a quote from Bertha Pappenheim. She said, you know, your Judaism, I’m gonna paraphrase here. Your Judaism bothers you only to the extent that you don’t take pride in it, and that’s like the message that we really want to come through here. 

Yehuda: All right. The Lehrhaus in Cambridge, Summerville, the Colonial Williamsburg of 1910s, 1920s Germany. Um, no, that’s an incredible story and I, I love the idea of not only rehabilitating these characters because of the ways that they stood for the complexity of Jewish identity in diaspora, but for the unfinished vision, um, that they brought to the Jewish people about what a life and a place of Torah could mean and look like.

Thank you so much, Charlie and Josh. 

Josh: Thank you.

Charlie: Thank you, Yehuda.

Identity Crisis is produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, with music provided by Socalled. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs.

To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. There are not elections every week. So if you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments about this episode, you can write to us at [email protected].

You can rate and review the show on iTunes to help more people find it, and you can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week and thanks for listening.

More on
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics