Updating a Deep Dive

by Josh Rolnick

We are living in an era of unprecedented change that is empowering individuals and radically resculpting the media landscape. The market is forcing newspapers, magazines and other traditional publications to embrace radical changes to remain viable. At Sh’ma, an independent Jewish journal with a 44-year history, we’re thinking in bold terms about how Jewish ideas can enrich readers’ lives in this connected era.

For decades, we have published 10 issues per year, with each issue focused on a single theme from multiple perspectives through a Jewish lens. (Recent themes have included topics as varied as “unsettledness,” “the Yom Kippur liturgy,” and “consumerism.”) This monthly discussion is echoed and amplified online, digitally, and through social media. We think of this core approach as a “deep dive.”

We know this approach may be out of synch with the drastic changes in how people consume media. Many people today are drawn not to a multiplicity of perspectives that challenge their beliefs, but to those media outlets that confirm and reinforce previously held views. (From The Daily Show and Fox News to Tikkun and Commentary.) And at a time when people have become accustomed to 140 characters, what is the place of a 20-page print journal that turns a single theme over and over?

Yet we also know from recent surveys that our unique approach still resonates, even for those readers who say they don’t always read every issue. And so, with the help of a planning grant from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah – the journal’s primary funding partner at this time – we are launching a collaborative process to challenge our long-held assumptions and reimagine Sh’ma for our current age.

The Foundation, which promotes Judaism as a living, evolving wellspring of wisdom and sensibilities that enriches people’s lives, sees Sh’ma with its commitment to pluralism and depth through a Jewish lens as a unique vehicle with the potential to nurture Jewish sensibilities. And, yet, the Foundation also recognizes that if Sh’ma is going to effectively compete for philanthropic support, it must have a broader reach and more meaningful and direct impact on many more Jews and fellow travelers.

As we embark on this year of exploration and design, we know three things:

1) To earn attention, media (like Sh’ma) must provide unique value to individuals and communities. In some cases this may be content, and in others, experiences.

2) We are past the broadcast era – we must be creating platforms for people to engage not only with content but also with each other.

3) We are increasingly working in a networked world, where collaborations and integrated approaches thrive, breaking down silos between organizations and providing higher quality experiences.

At Sh’ma, we are keenly aware of these shifts, and eager to seize the opportunity to reimagine what our editorial approach and product might look like moving forward. We recognize that we need to explore bold and expansive new models to help curious, intellectually inclined Jews both connect socially with others and find meaningful ways to connect Judaism to their lives.

In short, our rich legacy needs to adapt to better achieve our mission and serve the evolving community.

What does this mean? To be honest, we’re not sure yet. That’s why the journal has set out on a one-year journey of discovery, enlisting creative thinkers in this space (including Lisa Colton of See3 Communications and Michael Gold of West Gold Editorial) to help us ask important questions, clarify our audience, and shape our future.

Inspired by win-win collaborations and examples of integrating content and experiences, we are exploring new models, synergies and modes of impact. We’ve been amazed by the energy of ROI Community gatherings around the world, including one recently held at the SXSW conference in Austin, as well as the vibrancy of the learning community at Limmud. We’re intrigued by the potential of a platform like TEDx to convene and engage local communities, and inspired by the new organizing models being tested at Moishe House Without Walls. Everything is on the table.

What we do know is that new models will embody our values. We also know we cannot walk this path alone. And so we will collaborate with organizations already working with the audiences we believe can find value in Sh’ma. Our vision is to develop both content and platforms that will support their work, as well as engage readers to think about and grapple with Jewish sensibilities in community with others who want to do the same.

Our commitment to transparency and collaboration throughout this journey is serious. You can expect to see additional articles here sharing what we are learning, and we invite you to challenge us, support us, and create with us. Comments are always welcome on these posts, and you’re further invited to reach out to me directly (jrolnick@shma.com).

Josh Rolnick is the publisher of “Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas,” and a founding director of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. He is the author of the short story collection “Pulp and Paper,” which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. He can be reached at jrolnick@shma.com.