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My latest (Gothamist): ‘Ira Glass Tries His Hand At Improv Comedy’


I went to see Ira Glass do improv comedy. I wrote about it for Gothamist. It begins thusly:

Ira Glass has been taking an intro to improv comedy course. It sounds like a pitch for an episode of “This American Life,” but last night Glass and his Level One: The Principles of Improv classmates took to the stage at the Magnet Theater’s studio training space for their class performance.

Apparently, improv has been on his mind for a little while. Back in September, he told The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson: “I’m thinking of moving on to improv comedy” and “I’ve never said these words out loud. It’s been a secret thought for like a month and a half.”

You can read the whole thing over here.

There used to be a few videos of it too, but there were some complaints, and my editors opted to take the videos back down. So now the videos are just mine to hold and cherish forever and ever *evil laugh* …

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My latest (The Forward): ‘Can Digital Badges Save Hebrew School?’

The Forward’s new special education section is out, which means my new article on the growing use of digital badges in Jewish education is out. The first I heard of digital badges was when my editor contacted me about this story — but, once I got started, I found the whole thing fascinating. Here’s what I learned (or, at least, the beginning of it):

While purveyors of childhood Jewish education as a whole struggle with enrollment and relevance, a small number have become pioneering practitioners of “digital badging,” a new pedagogical model in which learners in a wide variety of learning environments earn digital badges that indicate their accomplishments, skills or knowledge.

With help from associations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and, in the Jewish arena, the Covenant Foundation, digital badges are booming. Open Badges, an open-source standard created by Mozilla, allows badges earned in one venue to be collected in a “digital backpack” and displayed in different places online, such as on one’s Facebook or LinkedIn profile.

“There are now international conferences looking at how to use badging in education, but Jewish education has serendipitously become a real leader in this field,” said Sam Abramovich, a professor of education informatics at Buffalo University. “It’s amazing how Jewish education has managed to grab hold of something that clearly has an enormously transformational pedagogical potential.”

Read the rest of it over here.

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My latest: “Open Hillel confab takes on BDS, intellectual freedom” (

"Unpacking BDS" panel at the Open Hillel conference (from left): Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian post-doc at Brown University; and student moderator Holly Bicerano | Copyright: David A.M. Wilensky

“Unpacking BDS” panel at the Open Hillel conference (from left): Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian post-doc at Brown University; and student moderator Holly Bicerano | Copyright: David A.M. Wilensky

As noted, I was at the Open Hillel conference at Harvard over the weekend. I was there doing a story on Bay Area folks for And now it’s live.

Here’s a bit of it:

The prominent pro-BDS contingent was hard to miss. Many displayed their views proudly, sporting black T-shirts with the Jewish Voice for Peace logo on the front and the words “Another Jew Supporting Divestment” on the back.

But the conference was not about BDS itself. It was about whether there is room in the Jewish student community for those who support it to even be part of the conversation. There was a sense among many at the conference that the tide is beginning to turn in their favor.

“I’m one of the most right-wing people here. I’m a Zionist, I don’t support BDS, but this is an important conversation and it’s important to open it up,” said Sarah Beller, a Stanford University senior who grew up in San Jose and currently serves on the boards of Hillel at Stanford and Stanford’s J Street U chapter.

“Judaism is all about intellectual discussion, and about debate and questioning,” Beller said, “and especially Hillels, which are Jewish institutions aimed at cultivating Jewish life in college, where there should be academic freedom. To say that we won’t discuss certain things to protect people is deeply problematic because it ties how Jewish you are to your politics.”

Now go read the rest of it.

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The Open Hillel conference

Jewish Voice for Peace t-shirts reading "ANOTHER JEW SUPPORTING DIVESTMENT" were thick in the ground at the Open Hillel conference

Jewish Voice for Peace t-shirts reading “ANOTHER JEW SUPPORTING DIVESTMENT” were thick on the ground at the Open Hillel conference | Copyright: David A.M. Wilensky

I have returned from what turned out to be a very interesting weekend at the Open Hillel conference. Some reporting on the conference from yours truly is coming soon.

Derek Kwait, my successor as head honcho of New Voices Magazine, was there as well. In a blog post about the conference, Derek mentions some ideas that came up in an interesting chat he and I had the other day:

After the plenary, the previous New Voices Rebbe, David A.M. Wilensky, and I were discussing what the applauses at the plenary said about the student make-up of the conference, and he raised several excellent points: Though [Jewish Voice for Peace-affiliated] students are loud and proud at the conference (and significantly overrepresented among the organizers), the majority of students here probably fall somewhere in that murky area between J Street and JVP, nominally represented in the wider world by organizations such as Americans for Peace Now and Partners for Progressive Israel, that have next to no serious presence on campus, making students who might align with them choose an organization that is not really a perfect fit for them. Other Leftist Jewish organizations should note this and get on that.

You may also notice Derek has promoted me to rebbe. Thanks, bro!

He also makes this bold prediction:

Hillel International had no official presence at the conference, and while this says a lot about Hillel, it doesn’t mean much as far as the overall success of the conference goes: The point here was for the organizers… to create an Open Hillel-like atmosphere for students who don’t have one. These students will leave inspired by this model and empowered by the things they learned here to work seriously towards creating Open Hillels back home…. Whether these students can actually go home and make their home Hillels Open or not, I’m quite sure this will be the last Open Hillel conference without any presence from Hillel International.

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Column: Some of my answers to ‘Why be Jewish?’

The second installment of my new column for The Jewish Standard came out on April 17. The March column talked about the importance of the question “Why be Jewish?” So I followed up this month with some of my own personal answers to the question:

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

Although the rest of the column more deeply addressed the Millennials and the reasons to ask the why-be-Jewish question, a couple of readers (who read the piece much more sharply than I apparently had) pointed out that I did not offer my answer to the question.

They were right to point that out. It’s cheap to demand that others answer the question on my behalf. So I’ll offer up some answers here.

Check out the rest of it at The Jewish Standard.

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My new column: Answering ‘Why be Jewish?’

I started writing a monthly column for The Jewish Standard (“the oldest Jewish weekly in New Jersey“) back in March. Many thanks to my friend, Larry Yudelson, for the opportunity.

The first installment, “Ask the right questions,” was published on March 6:

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

Check out the rest of it over here. It was also published, with the very slightest of tweaks, by New Jersey Jewish News.

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New Ushpizin/ot: legendary, if unconventional, biblical heroes visit your sukkah

Ushpizin: It’s not just a movie about crooks and Chareidim in Jerusalem.

Ushpizin (guests in Aramaic) is also a quirky little ritual for metaphysically welcoming heroes from the bible into your sukkah. Much to my delight, modern versions that add women to the list of heroes abound! And now, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI, the organization I work for) has put forth a delightfully subversive new version that includes some heroes of the Jewish spirit of being welcoming of diversity (including – gasp! – intermarried families). More on all of that below the picture….

More on Ushpizin from

In addition to extending personal invitations to the needy (in former times it was customary to have at least one poor person at a Sukkot meal; today donation of funds often is a substitute), we open our homes symbolically.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite one of seven exalted men of Israel to take up residence in the sukkah with us.

All seven traditional guests are men, of course: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Though a number of Ushpizot versions (seven women instead of men) and combined ushpizin/ot versions (seven pairs of women and men) are now in circulation, the ritual has sadly fallen off the radar and out of common use in the left-of-Orthodox community – probably because of its bizarrely woo-woo character and its unabashedly patriarchal content. Though every version I’ve seen includes Sarah, fewer versions include all four matriarchs than you’d think. The lists I’ve seen have included any of the following:

  • Sarah
  • Rebecca
  • Rachel
  • Leah
  • Miriam
  • Deborah
  • Abigail
  • Huldah
  • Hannah
  • Esther
  • Ruth
  • Tamar
  • Dinah

Neohasid has a fascinating piece that puts forth a combined version, which pays close attention to the important role wacky kabbalistic stuff (which characters go well with which sefirot and so forth) plays in Ushpizin. Ritualwell, of course, has like a bajillion ushpizot things. Inevitably, there’s also

But what prompted me to write this post is the new version of Ushpizin/ot created by my boss, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, which you should check out over here. Kerry’s version highlights seven biblical characters we can look to as role models in our efforts to make the Jewish community more actively welcoming toward intermarried families and a diversity of other backgrounds. Since Sukkot, not to mention the whole Ushpizin thing, is all about being welcoming, it makes perfect sense! Here are the seven on Kerry’s list:

  1. Bat Pharaoh
  2. Ezra
  3. Moses’ unnamed second wife
  4. Naomi
  5. Osnat
  6. Ruth
  7. Tzipporah

And you should check out his explanations of each one in full too.


As Kerry was writing, he asked around the office for suggestions. I pointed out how interesting it was that everyone on his list so far, purely by chance, were women! Then, thinking about JOI’s Public Space Judaism model, I suggested he include Ezra, the scribe who began the practice of bringing the Torah to the people and reading it in public.

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John Propper’s Path to Judaism, Part 2

When my wife’s grandfather immigrated to the U.S., he took the name Propper, a shortening of his birth name. He’d escaped the pogroms, and the future was bright. As an American Jew, he was a respected member of his communities, both religious and secular. He made the most of his great potential. His story resonates with me. After years in an isolated community, I escaped, got an education, fell in love, discovered Judaism, and found a place of my own. The future is bright. I wanted to pass on a name to my children, b’ezrat Hashem [God willing], that reflects that potential. I am honored to share it with him.
John's answer to my question about changing his last name

The second half of my two-part interview with my friend, former colleague and all-around interesting dude John Propper is now up at the Jewish Outreach Institute blog. When he started working for me at New Voices he went by John Wofford. I got into the habit of calling him just “Wofford,” which has made adjusting to his new last name particularly difficult for me. But I love his reason for it! Check out the rest of part 2 over here or go back and catch up on part 1.

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A Rabbinate-Bound Convert’s Story

He comes from a Pentecostal family, went to a Catholic college, converted with a Reform rabbi, changed his last name, married into the interfaith family of a nice Jewish girl—and he’ll be a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall. John is a good friend of mine. Until now, I’ve been learning his story in bits and pieces. So, to get a more complete picture—and believing readers of this blog would find his journey as interesting as I do—I interviewed him about his story so far.
Part one of my two-part interview with John Propper for the Jewish Outreach Institute Blog

Check it out. It’s my second blog post for the Jewish Outreach Institute. This one is the first part of a two-parter so stay tuned for second half.

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Patrilineality & My New Job

My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.
My first blog post for the Jewish Outreach Institute

Better late than never, right? I’m finally getting around to pointing y’all toward this now weeks-old blog post, the first of my monthly blog posts for the Jewish Outreach Institute. (As you may recall, I recently started a new job at JOI.) If you’ve read the op-ed I wrote for The Forward about the Conservative conversion I underwent a while back, this post will cover some familiar ground — but from a different perspective and for a different purpose.

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