Sh’ma Now: Sense and Sensibility, for our Jewish Moment

Sh'maBy Josh Rolnick

We had a challenge.

The journal Sh’ma, an important voice of pluralism in the Jewish world since its founding in 1970, faced a shrinking circulation base as it wrestled with the same dramatic changes confronting all media today.

Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Sh’ma’s chief funder since 2009, was concerned that one of its largest annual grants was supporting a project with dwindling reach and impact.

After a learning journey of more than two years, during which we tested several formats to understand how Sh’ma could better engage readers with Jewish content they found meaningful and relevant, we believe we’ve found a solution.

We’re calling it Sh’ma Now, a new publication launching in April as a monthly four-page insert in the print edition of the Forward – one of America’s most revered Jewish publications, and one which went through its own print and digital redesign last year, increasing its audience and reach. Sh’ma Now will also appear as a new feature on the Forward’s web site and digital applications.

Sh’ma Now will remain an independent publication of the Sh’ma Institute, and its commitment to publishing multiple and diverse perspectives that bear on Jewish themes and issues will remain ironclad. But instead of being thematically open-ended (past issues have tackled topics as wide-ranging as gun control, the Jewish connection to China, and the book of Jonah.), Sh’ma Now will focus each issue on a specific Jewish sensibility – approaches to living that stem from Jewish wisdom – aligning it more closely with the Foundation’s philanthropic purpose.

Sh’ma Now will still feature our signature Talmud page, NiSh’ma, updated with improved interactivity for the web, as well as a curated collection of essays. The “old” Sh’ma, a 16-plus page “deep dive,” ceased publication early last year.

By focusing on Jewish sensibilities, we believe we are responding to the current Jewish moment – a hunger for meaning reflected in the proliferation of organizations like Kevah, a nonprofit that helps individuals create intimate Jewish learning communities, or OneTable, which helps millennial Jews connect over Shabbat dinner. We see ourselves as another tool in this Jewish toolbox, one that can be used individually or in small groups to spark Jewish conversations.

In a word, we believe the time for Sh’ma Now is, well … now.

So what, exactly, is a “Jewish sensibility”? It’s a rubric adopted by the Foundation that, interestingly, was first coined by Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia Charlottesville, in a [2003 Sh’ma article.]

These are particularly Jewish ways of thinking about what it means to be human, Ochs wrote, ways that guide and orient a person’s actions and choices. Knowing [the sensibilities] can help us anticipate how we’ll lead our lives and make decisions.

Each month, Sh’ma Now will ask writers across the broad spectrum of Jewish life to comment on a specific sensibility, selected by Sh’ma’s editor in consultation with a newly constituted advisory board. The April issue, for example, will focus on the sensibility lech lecha (take yourself and go), which was God’s instruction to Abraham in the book of Breishit (Genesis 12: 1) to leave his father’s house for the land that God would show him. The guiding lesson: Sometimes, we need to take action and move forward toward a new place, even if we can’t possibly know what we’ll find there. Applied, this sensibility might give courage to someone trying to decide whether to get married, or have a child, or take a new job.

In subsequent months, Sh’ma Now will explore other sensibilities, including simcha (joy), a look at how we find joy in a complex world, and shevirah (brokenness), our take on embracing imperfection.

Sh’ma Now will be distributed to tens of thousands of new readers by the Forward, through its print and digital products; at the same time, the Foundation will promote and distribute Sh’ma Now through its own channels, including www.jewishsensibilities.org.

Long-time editor in chief Susan Berrin will continue in that role, and Robert J. Saferstein, who has led this journey as market development director since it began, will transition to become a member of the advisory board.

Over the course of the last two years, we experimented with the “fail fast, fail cheap” methodology of prototyping new products, including TableTalk – a thoughtful, salon-style discussion during Hanukkah. At each step, we sought direct feedback from readers and users and iterated to create and test new formats, even as we sought to transparently and publicly document our process [See Updating a Deep Dive and Possibility Knocks: Designing a Tool for Engagement)]. Along the way, we’ve started conversations with many potential partners, discussions we plan to continue.

In the end, we see in Sh’ma Now not a departure but continuity, a next step we hope our founder, the liberal theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (z”l, of blessed memory) would recognize and be pleased with.

In the very first issue of Sh’ma 46 years ago, after all, Rabbi Borowitz wrote of the importance of “creating a dialogue in difference” and at the same time “fostering Jewish wisdom.”

As Sh’ma Now takes action to move forward to a new place, we recognize that we are not fully certain what we’ll find, and the words of our founder ring in our ears.

“I do not know whether it can succeed,” Rabbi Borowitz wrote. “I know it has to be tried.”

Josh Rolnick is the president of Sh’ma Institute, and a member of the board of trustees of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.