WALTHAM – “The reason that there is a sense of apathy toward Judaism is because people are not actually choosing to buy in,” said Chanie Chein, rebbetzin of the Chabad House at Brandeis University.
She was speaking in a recent episode of a podcast that she hosts with her husband, Rabbi Peretz Chein.
“Our podcasts are for listeners who are thinking, and we will be encouraging listeners who are not thinking to start thinking,” she said.
Chanie went on to describe how an active, critical reimagining of one’s Jewish faith and identity can reignite a sense of joy and spirituality that many Jews currently lack. In other words, she says, Jews need a new conversation – with themselves and with each other – if they want to move forward.
“A New Conversation” is the title of the podcast, which aims to discuss and debate Judaism in a new way that will appeal to an anxious, distracted generation.
“There’s been a decrease in conversation in general among college students because the whole concept of conversation, with the invasiveness of technology and social media in peoples’ lives, has transformed the nature of interaction of students between themselves and among their teachers and mentors,” says Peretz, who noted that he and Chanie have witnessed this change among college students firsthand since they arrived at Brandeis in 2001.
“Even the form of conversations that do exist are very often in isolation,” he continued. “People are having big conversations within their own networks, within their own orbits, within their own bubble, and they’re not encountering conversations that are outside of that.”
Chanie and Peretz hope to bring nuanced, insightful, Jewish conversations on everything from charity to bigotry and sexual assault, aiming for a large and diverse audience of young Jews.
As parents who have spent most of their adult lives working with college students, they say that one of the main goals of the podcast – and all their work at Chabad – is to give college students the tools to mature into happy, successful Jewish adults.
“During their four years of college, we’re giving them an opportunity to exercise and practice and immerse and engage certain ideas and experiences,” said Chanie. “We give them the opportunity to develop their own muscle and strengthen their own backbone so they’re able to make informed choices.”
In sage, soothing tones, Chanie and Peretz interview a wide range of guests on topics of interest to young adults, like body image, sexuality and mental health. Exploring these issues through a Jewish lens is in keeping with their philosophy of Torat Chaim, or the Torah of Life, as opposed to the Torah of Text.
“The Torah of Life exists in the experiences of people, and there’s much to be learned in it, both by listening and also engaging,” says Peretz. “You get a much deeper, richer Judaism when you understand that combined with the Torah of Text is the Torah of Life, and the two must be merged together.”
“We’re having faith-based conversations where we learn a lot about each other that wouldn’t be learned in other ways,” said Chanie. “And we’re not looking at life in black and white; we’re not looking at religion in a very ‘do this, don’t do this,’ dry and technical way. Our conversations have more life in them.”
These conversations aren’t just with guests and each other. After each podcast, Chanie and Peretz convene a group of students to reflect on the latest episode.
The conversations extend into thorny political spheres as well, from transgender rights through #MeToo and Zionism to whether or not women should be Orthodox rabbis. Disagreements occasionally arise both in the podcast and during the student debriefing sessions, but Peretz thinks that these are just a jumping-off point for more high-minded debate.
“Disagreement is not a point of conflict; disagreement is a point of engagement, of connection, and it’s more enriching and exciting,” he says. “There’s something to be gleaned from you, and more important than your differing of views is your shared Jewishness, your shared humanity, which is far more significant than the difference of views that you have.”