Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations

About the show

Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations features interviews with thought-provoking rabbis, leaders and creators about the urgent issues faced by Jewish people today. As a part of Reconstructing Judaism’s multimedia Evolve project, this podcast models respectful, sacred conversations about challenging topics.

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  • Episode 20: America's First Bat Mitzvah

    May 27th, 2021  |  Season 1  |  33 mins 28 secs

    The first American bat mitzvah took place on March 18, 1922. As its 100th anniversary nears, we’ve got something of a departure for our podcast. We’re running an episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, a podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations co-sponsored this episode. Guest scholars Rabbi Carole Balin, Melissa R. Klapper, and Rabbi Deborah Waxman consider the history of the bat mitzvah and its evolution over time. They also explore how the bat mitzvah helped pave the way for greater inclusion of women in public Jewish ritual and practice and helped shape American Jewish life.

  • Episode 19: Environmental Justice and Race

    April 28th, 2021  |  Season 1  |  43 mins 28 secs

    We talk with Rabbi Rebecca Richman of Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre about environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism, particularly focusing on her adopted hometown of Philadelpha, whose refinery – which recently made national headlines with a massive conflagration – has harmed Black and brown residents' health for decades. She addresses how the Torah can help us conceive of environmental justice and identify environmental racism. And in an emotional segment, we discuss parenthood in a world that seems spinning out of control. “As a parent...if I don’t take care of this place today, then there is no life for my children. And, if I don’t teach my children to take care of this place, then there will be no capacity for them to have children.”

  • Episode 18: Liberating Your Passover Seder

    March 23rd, 2021  |  Season 1  |  56 mins 56 secs

    At 87, Rabbi Arthur Waskow still proudly calls himself a radical. His most revolutionary act may have taken place 52 years ago, when he wrote, published and organized the original Freedom Seder. Celebrated, debated and criticized, the Freedom Seder upended the contemporary seder by incorporating contemporary, non-Jewish liberation struggles. We talk about the origins of the Freedom Seder and what it means today. We explore Waskow’s life of activism, including his personal interactions with Rev. Martin Luther King Junior. And Waskow shares what keeps him turning out books and, at increasing risk to himself, taking to the streets and facing arrest. He also offers some practical advice on how to make a Zoom seder more compelling and how to take first steps as an activist. And we ask the burning question (no pun intended): is civilization as we know it headed for collapse?

  • Episode 17: Human Composting: Good for the Environment, But Is It Kosher?

    February 16th, 2021  |  Season 1  |  1 hr 6 mins

    In this live episode, recorded as part of the 2021 Big Bold Jewish Climate Festival, we speak with Rabbi Seth Goldstein and Rabbi Adina Lewittes, two religious leaders who’ve thought deeply about human composting, the green burial movement, and what each means for Jewish communities.

  • Episode 16: Silver and Gold: Reparations and Judaism

    January 14th, 2021  |  Season 1  |  43 mins 55 secs

    Since Ta-Nehisi Coates published his influential Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, a number of thinkers have made explicitly Jewish arguments for (and against) reparations for American slavery. Educator and activist Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein argues in an article on Evolve that the case for reparations is presented clearly in the Torah itself. In this episode, Bernstein explores this claim, and what he thinks it means for present-day policies and politics.

  • Episode 15: Jews and Money: A Frank Conversation 

    December 15th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  45 mins 52 secs

    Endowments and donor-advised funds: They may sound like boring financial terms, but they're actually part of a fascinating history of philanthropy in the Jewish community. They reflect the ways in which individuals and organizations use financial resources to impact the Jewish community and democratic society writ large.  For half a decade, Lila Corwin Berman has been raising eyebrows, and sparking conversation, with her writings about wealth and charitable giving, Jewish communities, and democracy. In this interview with Berman, we explore the origins of both endowments and donor-advised funds, and examine how they have shaped communal decision-making.  

  • Episode 14: Fixing Broken Policing: What Does Judaism Say?

    November 19th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  48 mins 41 secs

    Does the Talmud offer a perspective on police reform, and whether it makes sense to, as the slogan says, defund the police? Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a Talmudic scholar and an advocate for redirecting police funding, explains what ancient Judaism does and doesn’t have to say about policing. After a quick post-election debrief, Cohen lays out the case for a new approach to policing, one in which far fewer officers would carry arms. He addresses questions about armed guards protecting Jewish institutions during a time of rising antisemitism and touches on how his experience as a soldier in the first Lebanon War shaped his anti-violence worldview.

  • Episode 13: COVID-19 and Jewish Ethics

    October 22nd, 2020  |  Season 1  |  39 mins 49 secs

    How can Jewish ethics shape how people make decisions about daily life during a pandemic? Rabbi Mira Wasserman, who directs the Center for Jewish Ethics, explains how ethical considerations have shaped her own decisions — such as whether to drive her child to school or send him on the school bus — and how they should operate on a communal level. She also addresses the narrowness of questions of medical ethics such as best use of limited hospital resources, arguing that a true ethical response to crisis goes beyond the mechanics of triage to address the structural inequities in our health care system that lead to scarcity in good times as well as crises. She and Bryan also cover how Hollywood action movies' model of heroism reflect a warped model of heroic individualism that neglects less flashy, but vital and sustaining contributions. Is it time to rethink the actions and behaviors celebrated by American society?

  • Episode 12: Dreams: Judaism's Forgotten Practice

    September 8th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  45 mins 12 secs

    Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, an Orthodox feminist turned “post-denominational, interspiritual rabbi”, says that dreams have long been neglected in mainstream Jewish practice. In this interview, she discusses how dreams offer each of us a tool to better understand ourselves and our world – if only we know how to use it.

  • Episode 11: The Jewish Studio Project

    August 10th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  35 mins 36 secs

    Making art is either for children or acclaimed artists, right? Not if Rabbi Adina Allen has anything to say about it. Allen is the co-founder of the Jewish Studio Project and daughter of a pioneering therapist. In this episode, Allen makes the case that engaging in a creative process is something that adults not only can do, but should do. Art-making, she explains, can be a tool for emotional regulation. It’s also a tool for spiritual exploration, engaging Jewish texts and community, and getting in touch with the place inside oneself that leads an individual to make a better world.

  • Episode 10: Disability Justice

    July 14th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  49 mins 45 secs

    In our conversation with Rabbi Elliot Kukla, we discuss his essay for Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations about the profound and unexpected ways in which trauma can affect a person's health and overall spiritual wellbeing. In the piece and this interview, he shares some of what he's learned about life by being chronically ill. We discuss his heightened appreciation for the interdependence of people, and what that means for the responsibilities of societies and communities to care for their members, even the most vulnerable. We also talk with Rabbi Kukla about his recent New York Times piece, "My Life Is More 'Disposable' During This Pandemic", and about the COVID-19 pandemic more generally; about the newly resurgent racial justice movement; and about the challenge parents face in maintaining hope for our children and the world they're inheriting in this deeply unsettling time.

  • Episode 9: Climate Change, COVID-19 and Racism: A Jewish Response

    June 29th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  54 mins 45 secs

    Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb explains how Jewish values and community have served as the underpinning for his environmentalism, and how many Jewish ideas promote the kind of long-term thinking that is needed right now. Though this interview was recorded before the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests that took place in all 50 states, he discusses racism and how climate change will continue to disproportionately affect poorer communities comprised of people of color – unless changes are made. He also explains how lessons learned during this pandemic might be applied to taking steps to lessen climate change. He offers an empowering and hopeful message about how the actions we take now can positively impact humanity and all life for generations to come.

  • Episode 8: Israel-Palestine: The Possibility of Healing Conversations

    May 12th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  45 mins 11 secs

    In many Jewish communities, Israel-Palestine is the third rail that nobody wants to step on. Yet the Jewish community of Madison, Wis., found a way to have a sustained, facilitated dialogue that brought together participants with vastly different viewpoints. In this episode, professional facilitator and mediator Harry Webne-Behrman explains how they did it, what was why dialogue is so central to a healthy democracy. Acknowledging that the model used in Madison can’t be used during a time of pandemic, Webne-Behrman talks about what communities can do now and in the future to spur the kinds of conversations that transform lives.

  • Episode 7: Confronting Anti-Semitism and Racism

    April 13th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  54 mins 7 secs

    When he confronted demonstrators at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.,hearing the chants of “the Jews will not replace us”, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling came face-to-face with white supremacy and antisemitism. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Liebling has thought about antisemitism his entire life, and as a veteran organizer and activist, he’s worked with a cross-section of groups to combat intolerance in all forms. In this conversation, Liebling describes his experiences in Charlottesville: what brought him there, and what he learned about hate in America. He also reflects on two of his Evolve essays: “Thoughts on Racism and Antisemitism” and “A Brief History and Update on Antisemitism”, paying particular attention to relations between American Jews and African Americans.

  • Episode 6: Scenes from the Q of LGBTQ+

    March 3rd, 2020  |  Season 1  |  49 mins 31 secs

    John Backman wore a dress as a child and had never felt comfortable identifying as a man. And only in the past decade, well into middle-age, John, a writer and spiritual director, began to use the pronouns she and her (and sometimes going by the name Janelle.) Yet, she identifies as gender non-binary, rather than as a woman. What has all this meant for her relationship with her wife of decades? Her adult daughter? Friends and colleagues? In this remarkably candid interview, John describes what it is like to live between society’s definitions of male and female. A Christian and Zen practitioner, John places her lifelong quest for true self — and struggle with mental health — within a spiritual framework.

  • Episode 5: Racism in the Jewish Community

    January 30th, 2020  |  Season 1  |  54 mins 51 secs

    Imagine you’re an African American Jew-by-choice and made the monumental decision to go to rabbinical school. A fellow synagogue board member says, “wow, you’re more Jewish than the Jews.” Throughout rabbinical school, the first thing you’re asked when you enter Jewish space is “how can you be Jewish?” or “when did you convert?” And then after starting your first job as a campus rabbi, a parent asks if you’re really ordained. In this episode, Rabbi Sandra Lawson shares her personal experiences like these. She seeks to push white Jews to face their assumptions and confront racism within themselves, racism that may not be malicious in intent but is inherited from the world around. Her hopes are for the Jewish people to live up to our highest ideals.