Listening Unbound

By Greg Marcus and Estee Solomon Gray

When it comes to living a meaningful Jewish life, what is the biggest problem, challenge or situation you are facing? 

That’s the Single Most Important Question (SMIQ) we at Judaism Unbound asked our community of listeners last year. As our podcast approached the milestone of its millionth download, we decided to get a bit more direct in our listening, beyond the fervent request to “hit us up with questions and comments” with which we end each episode, and ask people directly. 

You might wonder why we chose to ask this particular question. It’s certainly not drawn from the typical podcast listener survey, which asks for favorite episodes, etc. We chose to use the marketing methodology outlined in the book ASK by Ryan Leveque. Like other marketing experts, Leveque observes that people can’t really tell you what they want. They can only tell you what they don’t like, and what they’ve done in the past. But, he asserts, by opening a survey with a simple, important, open-ended question about a challenge they face, people will open their hearts and tell you what is going on in ways that you would never expect. And boy did they. 

Over 250 people responded to that Single Most Important Question (SMIQ), often writing paragraph after paragraph. Per the ASK methodology, we focused our analysis on the “hyper-responsives,” i.e., the top 20% of answers, calculated by the length of their response. The longest answer: 761 words, which is over a page single spaced, filled with family history, current practice, hopes and aspirations. Each of us spent hours immersed in what these “hypers” had to say, creating labels and categories that we gradually consolidated into five “buckets” intended to cover over 80% of our responses. Whenever possible, we used the vocabulary from the hyper-responsives directly in the description of each bucket.

We offer these buckets now not as a new Jeiwsh demographic scheme but as a window into the challenges of our listeners, which we suspect are shared by many in the Jewish community. 

Here are the buckets we discerned.

1.     Institution not working for me: My Jewish institution has a wall of no change, there are few people my age at events, or I am not taken seriously.

2.      Minority within a minority: I don’t fit the shared criteria of what being Jewish is because of how I look, my gender identity/Queerness, my views on Israel or US Politics, or I just don’t feel Jewish enough.

3.    Isolated: I am feeling isolated geographically, within my family, or as an unpartnered Jewish person.

4.     Entering or reentering: I am Jewish-adjacent, converting, or trying to discover what Judaism is about because I had a poor Jewish education.

5.      Multiple Jewish Spaces: My Jewishness is bigger than any label. I move in multiple Jewish spaces and sometimes feel caught between worlds.  Even if I look and sound connected, I feel like I’m muddling along without community.

These buckets are not mutually exclusive, nor are they exhaustive. Interestingly, many of our respondents are members of synagogues, some happily, others not. We do know that a segment of our listeners are “Jewish professionals,” but because we specifically asked about personal challenges, we know little about their professional situations. Overall, these responses are consistent with a founding premise of the podcast: Judaism is not working for many people today. But, thanks to SMIQ, these responses go far beyond whether or not people are joining or enjoying legacy Jewish institutions or finding meaning in Jewish ritual or tradition. 

Many podcast episodes later, we at Judaism Unbound are still far from personally knowing everyone who listens – or talking about or acting upon the many ideas brought forth (the podcaster’s lament!).  But we do know that as we travel, speak, teach, write, and plan, these buckets have become a very useful framework and set of lenses. And we offer them to you.  

As an example, we are currently in the midst of fundraisingfor what we hope will be the first volume in a series of books called Judaism Unbound: BOUND!  that turn key conversations from the Judaism Unbound podcast into new tools for people who fit each of these buckets to more deeply engage with one another and with the material.  Moreover, industry research shows that only 1 in 3 Americans have listened to a podcast within the last month, which suggests that we are missing ? of the people who could be inspired and empowered by these conversations. 

Finally, these simple bucket descriptions do not capture the deep emotionality of the responses, people who have been rejected, ignored, othered, ashamed, or lonely. And because they took the time to answer our SMIQ, we know they care deeply and want something more from their Jewishness, and from their leaders. It is on us to do better.

Image caption: Sticky notes helped us go from ideas to categories to buckets

Estee Solomon Gray is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future (which produces the Judaism Unbound podcast). Her decades-long long career in Silicon Valley situated her at the intersection of technology, marketing, strategy,  and “sociality” while she accidentally but inexorably built a parallel career creating and recreating local Jewish entities from JCCs to Day Schools to Hillels to Limmud to national networks of Jewish practice like The Mussar Institute and Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction. She recently introduced herself to a gathering of rabbis as a Network Jew and is fitfully at work on a book about multiminding. \

Greg Marcus is passionate about helping his wandering Jewish siblings discover the magic of their heritage. He does this through writing, Mussar facilitation, coaching and as a marketing consultant to Jewish organizations. Greg worked for ten years as a marketer in the Genomics industry in Silicon Valley. Since then, Greg has been a stay-at-home parent, author, coach and workshop facilitator. He founded AmericanMussar.com, a 21st century Jewish spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life, and his latest book The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance Through the Soul Traits of Mussar offers an accessible and modern approach to Jewish wisdom. Today he is a full time Rabbinical student at the Academy of Jewish Religion California, a transdenominational institution.