Judaism in the Marketplace of Ideas

marketplace of ideasBy Zohar Rotem

What is the value of Judaism in a “marketplace of ideas?” Just like a market exists for material goods and services, one can imagine a marketplace of ideas – symbols, values, traditions, ethical norms. In a free society, the marketplace of ideas is necessarily diverse, active, and fluid. Ideas come and go; what is in vogue today may be obsolete tomorrow. Who contributes to the marketplace of ideas? All of us, all the time. And who consumes these ideas? You guessed it – we all do, constantly. And just like in the market for goods and services, the value of an idea is determined by the consumer as much as by the producer.

In this free and fluid marketplace, Judaism is already playing a role. Think, for example, of the popularity of kosher food in many parts of the country, of Hebrew-language charter schools in Northeast Washington, DC, or of the ongoing success of Kabbalah centers. Kabbalah, in this example, is an “idea” that has successfully competed in the marketplace of ideas in areas far removed from the Jewish community. Evidently, there is something about Kabbalah that makes sense on its own right, even when dissociated from its Jewish religious origins. Is it its purported applicability? A promise of immediate betterment of one’s life? Is it Kabbalah’s perceived similarity with spiritual practices such as yoga or Zen Buddhism, which have also become popular? I don’t know. The point is that, whatever your personal opinion of the mushrooming of Kabbalah centers across the country, they are successful in providing accessible Jewish content to a wide array of consumers – both within and outside of the Jewish community.

If we believe that Jewish ideas have an innate value – if, for instance, we think that a Jewish viewpoint on matters of ethics is unique and significant – why not share it widely? Why not put our best foot out there in the marketplace of ideas and let the market forces have their say? For an organized Jewish community struggling with declining rates of affiliation, there seems to be little to lose. On the other hand, if Kabbalah centers are any indication, then the Jewish community has much to gain from purposefully competing in the free marketplace of ideas.

How do you do that? My colleagues and I at Big Tent Judaism (formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute) have several ideas up our sleeves, but here is one that we’ve already piloted and tested. LifeHacks From My Grandparents was born out of a collaboration between Big Tent Judaism and Torah Topics for Today. The program, a series of shareable emails containing a modern interpretation of weekly Torah portions and holidays, is aimed at providing accessible Jewish content to a wide audience. Illustrated with humorous animated GIF images in the vein of Buzzfeed, each weekly email suggests a practical way to immediately apply Jewish values and wisdom to the betterment of one’s life (known as a “life hack”). Take parashat tazria-metzora, for example. Using entertaining snippets and animated images from such familiar movies as Mean Girls and The Hunger Games, that week’s email took on the issue of gossip (referring to the Torah story about Miriam speaking ill of her brother Moses). It then suggested a readily applicable thought exercise that can help subscribers reduce gossip in their lives. It suggested that:

When you learn something new about another person, it is tempting to spread it right away. Before you repeat gossip, ask yourself three things:

  1. Is the information I’m spreading substantiated?
  2. Will this information hurt the other person?
  3. Why am I sharing this information?

In this way, subscribers not only learn something new about the relevance of the Torah to modern life, they also are left with something they can put to practice right away.

Such a program should be deemed successful if it meets two conditions: a) it succeeds in reaching a wide audience, and b) it impacts consumers in a significant way. Our recently-completed evaluation study of LifeHacks From My Grandparents proves that this program indeed meets both conditions. By our most conservative estimate, the LifeHacks emails have reached an audience of at least 5,000 (primarily through sharing on social media) and we expect it to grow considerably in coming months. While most subscribers (57%) are 50 years old or older (the services is primarily targeted at grandparents who will share the emails with their grandchildren), more than one in three subscribers (37%) are in their twenties and thirties. And every other LifeHacks subscriber (46%) has told us that they have shared the emails with at least one other person.

Many subscribers find the LifeHacks messages relevant and applicable. About eight in ten say that the emails have made them realize the relevance of Jewish wisdom to modern life’s challenges (83%) and to their own lives in particular (80%); almost two-thirds have tried to apply at least one of the lessons suggested by the LifeHacks emails (63%), and have come think of their life challenges in a new way (59%); about half (48%) say the service made them want to learn more about Jewish wisdom, and almost a third (30%) have already take active steps to seek out more information about the topics raised by LifeHacks From My Grandparents.

LifeHacks From My Grandparents is but one example of the way that Judaism can purposefully compete in the marketplace of ideas. My hope is that our experiment with LifeHacks can spur more creative thinking around the Jewish community about ways to take the best we have to offer and serve it fresh in ways and media that are accessible to all.

Zohar Rotem is Manager of Research and Evaluation at Big Tent Judaism (formerly known as Jewish Outreach Institute).