[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By David Zvi Kalman
Let me explain why SermonSlam, which was conceived in October, 2013 as an open-mic, Jewish-themed performance series with almost no budget and no paid staff, has been taken up by communities in 23 cities in four countries and has been sponsored by rabbis and professionals of every major denomination, by every age group, and by synagogues, Hillels, Moishe Houses, independent minyanim, JCCs, local Federations, rabbinical schools, high schools and summer camps – often at the same time. Let me explain how the SermonSlam concept has so quickly entered Jewish communities across America that we, its coordinators, are now discovering SermonSlams popping up independently, for which we are acting not as coordinators but simply as consultants.
I believe that we are entering an age of massive Jewish inequality, where a tiny fraction of Jews – those who are blessed with excellent Jewish educations and excellent teachers and who live in New York or a handful of other vibrant young Jewish communities – are responsible for the vast majority of new thought, teaching and Torah, while the core Jewish texts and ideas for the vast majority of Jews have been essentially unchanged for more than 50 years. Most new Jewish ideas will never be heard by most Jews, and the majority of the individuals best suited to revolutionize Jewish culture in America, the leaders of the next generation, will largely remain known only to their friends and colleagues, the emerging “1 percent” of the Jewish world.
In the fall of 2013, I co-founded an online Jewish media platform together with six friends, with the stated purpose of popularizing Jewish innovation and encouraging its continued growth by engaging in the difficult process of translating the best ideas (from excellent teachers, from Jewish studies departments, etc.) into accessible and entertaining language and by creating more venues where modern Jewish expression could find a home. We called the platform Jewish Public Media, and SermonSlam is one of our first programs.
SermonSlam began as an attempt to reinvent the dvar torah for the web. The Internet is generally not kind to homiletics – who wants to hear a rabbi read into a microphone for 20 minutes, stripped of even the reverential atmosphere of the synagogue, when there are millions of other things to see and do? A dvar torah podcast recorded before a live audience, we reasoned, would make for a better listening experience, where one could imagine being in the audience.
The podcasts (and now YouTube videos) have proved popular, but the live events have been more popular still. SermonSlams can be recorded in a synagogue or a social venue (bar, cafe?), and feature between 8 and 12 performers. The rules are simple. First, every event has a theme (“Revelation,” “Exodus,” etc.) and all performances must relate to that theme. Second, all performances must be less than five minutes. Third, anyone can perform. That’s it.
Though the event is called SermonSlam, many performances are neither sermons nor poetry slams. Of the 150+ people who have slammed so far, we’ve seen some sermons, but also lots of poetry, prose, music, singing, the use of digital media, and even duets. The character of the event is shaped by the culture of the city, too. In Washington D.C., many performances grapple with politics; in Jerusalem, they interweave Hebrew and English.
Since registration is open to all, people who would have never publicly shared their Torah ideas sign up, too. Many SermonSlams feature performers who no one would have expected to slam – or to win. Content is never pre-screened or censored, but since all events are competitions with prizes, and since all performances are recorded, there is a strong incentive for slammers to bring their A-game when they step up to the mic.
The radically open nature of the SermonSlam stage – within reach of all, more fun than a lecture and more substantive than a mixer – means all varieties of Jewish connection (even deeply skeptical ones!) now have a place where they can be voiced and where they can be applauded (sometimes). And the fact that there are no standards or dogmas about what counts as “good Torah” means that SermonSlams don’t cut along normal denominational, educational or age lines. All that matters is sincere delivery. There is a deeply captivating power in Torah that is shared for the sake of exposing a beautiful and heartfelt relationship to Judaism – even if that relationship is extremely complicated.
SermonSlam’s simplicity also makes it adaptable. Students at the University of Maryland combined their year-end SermonSlam with an art show, pairing beautiful words with beautiful images. After reading about us online, the director of Houston Hillel asked about running an Interfaith SermonSlam – which he did, to a crowd of more than 100. A high-school teacher wanted to adapt the model for his students; the first annual high-school SermonSlam was held in June. Since every place that has run a SermonSlam has expressed interest in running them on regular basis, we expect the model to continue being adapted and adopted for years to come.
Our tremendous and immediate success is a testament not to our ingenuity, but to the vast and varied perspectives on Torah and Judaism trapped within American Jews of all kinds, with few valves for release. SermonSlam is a valve, and there is now a rush towards it. Jewish Public Media seeks to create more such venues for the release of Jewish creative energy of all kinds. There is much work to be done.
David Zvi Kalman is Co-Founder and President of Jewish Public Media. By day a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student specializing in medieval Jewish and Islamic law, he is also the creator of AtoneNet and Adashot. David just finished designing and editing a fully-illustrated “bencher” based entirely on medieval and early-modern manuscripts. Together with his wife and son, he serves as Mechon Hadar’s Campus Scholar at Penn. To find out more about SermonSlam, visit www.jpmedia.co