What makes us Jewish? Podcast series may have the answers

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What makes us Jewish? Podcast series may have the answers

Jon Boyd and Ray Simonson pick up the conversations in must-hear broadcasts

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Putting over statistics and data in a user-friendly way is not an easy task. But two men who have had long experience working in the Jewish community, Dr Jonathan Boyd and Raymond Simonson, together with podcast producer Richard Miron of Earshot Strategies, have surely hit the jackpot with their seven-episode series, Jews Do Count. Boyd is the executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, or JPR, while Simonson is the chief executive of JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London.

Jewish News joined them on the eve of the release of the last episode in the series, Back To The Future, for a candid breakdown of what the podcasts have meant to them — and how the discussions might affect the future of the community.

Each episode — warm, enthusiastic and witty, with some guests off whom to bounce ideas —  touches on a different aspect of the most recent JPR research, which examined what Jews look like today in terms of their beliefs, practices, values and attitudes. But the survey was completed before the Hamas attacks on southern Israel in October 2023, so subsequent data may alter the picture somewhat.

Nevertheless, Jews Do Count has obviously “struck a chord”, says Boyd. “It depends what you compare it to, it’s not The Rest is History or The Rest is Politics. It is somewhat niche. But it was really important to us to put the data out there and have conversations about what it might mean. Our last episode is about the importance of the community leadership having these types of discussions. We hope that — if we get the funding — we can continue to do another series”.

Simonson says that for some time he and Boyd have been doing a “live show” after the latest JPR survey. It has taken place at JW3 and the format is simple: Boyd presents the most recent data, and Simonson — as he says himself — “interrupts to see if the data matches with what we find at JW3. This event is usually attended by policymakers, rabbis, community leaders. That’s what we would expect.

“But when Jon came to me with this idea of a podcast, I was slightly reluctant at first.” He wasn’t sure who the audience would be, he says. Perhaps the listeners would be synagogue chairs, rather than community leaders. “We thought that the conversations we were having would perhaps trigger conversations round their boardroom table. But what has delighted me, personally, is that these conversations are now taking place at Shabbat tables, or at kiddush tables”.

Having the podcast conversations, says Boyd, “has pushed me to think harder and deeper about all of the issues. And it’s all given us ideas for future surveys, what questions we ought to be asking. For example, the first episode was about moral and ethical behaviour. And what has punctuated the series is what it is that defines us as Jews. One of the things which really struck me, looking at the data, was that irrespective of where one is on the denominational spectrum, from the most secular to the most religious — everyone understands that Jewishness comes with a certain moral imperative, even if we don’t all understand that in exactly the same way.”

Many of the podcasts, says Boyd, gave rise to thinking about issues such as antisemitism and its place in defining Jewish identity. Simonson, true to form, leaps in: his mission, he says, is to concentrate on the joy of Judaism, rather than have people define themselves as victims, or allow antisemites to define for us what being Jewish means. A central question, says Boyd, “is how do we manage the issue of antisemitism in terms of our Jewishness, and how do we do that in a hopefully healthy and constructive way, so we can build our Jewish identity in a positive way.”

Simonson adds: “We’re all very passionate about antisemitism at the moment, because it’s there. But when we came to do the episode (entitled We’re Sick of Talking About Antisemitism), we all said— Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust was there, too — that we were exhausted from thinking about it, talking about it, living with it, countering it on our social media, and yet we can’t avoid it. It exists, and I can’t stop the antisemites.

“And we have amazing organisations like CST to deal with aspects of it. But the bit that I can worry about, is what impact that it will have on my, and my family’s, and my generation of Jews’ Jewish identity. Are we going to have a generation of Jews whose identity starts at, and is defined by, antisemitism? For me, the problem is, that means antisemites are defining our identity….I genuinely find that as upsetting and distressing as the antisemitism itself. I quote Seneca: we suffer more from imagination than from reality”.

Not everyone, as Boyd and Simonson freely acknowledge, lives in the London bubble and those in more rural areas sometimes have different ways of expressing their Jewish identity. But the feedback to the podcasts, says Boyd, has indicated that people who do not live in a large Jewish community have enjoyed listening to the podcasts and the issues raised —“it helps them plug in to their Jewish identity”. It’s a different lived experience.

Overall, the pair say, they’d like to continue generating the conversations. “It can be a road map for how best to build Jewish life in the future.”

Jewish News is the media partner for the JPR/JW3 podcasts, Jews Do Count, available to stream on both their websites

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