Will We Automate Religion in 2016?


Marjorie PrimeI just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.

Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.

So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.

Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.

There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.

So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?

Do Today’s Women Understand What/Who Came Before Us?

Anita Hill and Letty Pogrebin

Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

The first week of September I was privileged to introduce a discussion at Brandeis University between Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin about faith, feminism and race. The discussion was framed by Pogrebin’s new book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.

Without ruining the book for those who haven’t picked it up yet, the main character, Zach, early on in the book promises his mother, a Holocaust survivor that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children (you can read more about it here). This promise is made at a young age, before the randomness and magnitude of life has the chance to impact Zach, and he tries to make his choices based on this promise. As you might imagine, it proves difficult and has a long lasting impact on his integrity and morality as the book continues. While the book is heavy with interfaith decision-making, interracial and intercultural issues and a variety of incarnations of feminism, the conversation between these two prolific authors was one devoted largely to generational division.

The question arose, “What do we really owe our parents?”

Pogrebin and Hill spoke not of interfaith or racial concerns when thinking through this question but rather of feminism. Do the women coming of age today understand what and who came before them that enables them to make the choices they make today? What sort of reverence or respect do second wave feminists deserve even if third or even fourth wave feminists make different—or  even opposite—decisions about their lives, their bodies or their politics. The questions are easier to ask than answer. While I am no feminist scholar I understand the motivation behind these questions and the concerns, especially in the context of the complex and diverse interfaith population.

Rabbi Jillian

Jillian (left) waiting to introduce the speakers. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

We do owe our parents and those who came before us respect, not merely for existing, and perhaps in having a hand in our existence, but also because they want to make the world better for us. We benefit from their hand in the evolution of the world. We benefit from what was bestowed upon us: the values, the cultural and/or religious ideology taught, the opportunities provided whether big or small, the love given.

Now I am not too cockeyed optimistic to understand that far too many people don’t have good parents and the evolution of our world has had long reaching negative consequences. But I am not willing to give up and I don’t think you are either. So we can respect and revere those on whose shoulders we stand and take up our own mantle of evolution, perhaps righting some wrongs not yet accomplished. For an inspiring look at this topic, see Dr. Ruth Nemzoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post advising the next generation about how to promote feminism.

Zach’s life was ruled by what he felt he owed his mother and each of us live with expectations from those who raised us, deserved or not, realistic or not, achieved or not. I spend a fair amount of time counseling parents/grandparents/family members about the expectations they have carried with them for their children, whether it is something they could never accomplish themselves, or a life a bit better than theirs, a higher paying job, security, loving and marrying someone of the same faith background, raising children of that faith, etc. Sometimes children grow up aware of these hopes and dreams, sometimes they aren’t verbalized, but all parents have expectations for their children. It’s natural, it’s expected, and it’s what should happen. Inevitably though, each person turns out to want, care about, excel at or love different things. The trick is: How do we mourn the loss of our expectations without asking our children to bear the weight of that loss?

For some it comes easier than others; some expectations are easier to let to go; while others linger like heartbreak. Maybe the question becomes: What do we owe our children?

The world is not perfect and neither are we, but I think we owe our children a chance. A chance to make their own decisions, to trust in their capabilities and the opportunities we provided—the values and heritage we taught. We owe our children the love they need from us, to right past wrongs, to continue that evolution, to find fulfillment in ways we never could have imagined, let alone expected.

And together, we owe ourselves a little bit of hope and faith. Hope that each generation can and will achieve more and faith that this achievement reflects the best of humanity. Hope that each of our rich histories and sense of heritage and culture will endure and faith that we will continue to seek and create relevance in them. Hope that we get what we want and faith that we get what we need.

Please join in this conversation with me, there is so much we learn from one another.

A New CEO: What’s Next For IFF

Jodi headshot

Jodi Bromberg, CEO

As you may know from Ed Case’s blog post last week, this is a very exciting time in the history of InterfaithFamily. Three years ago, Ed and the Board of Directors began thinking about and creating a transition plan—a plan that included Ed’s desire to remain involved in the organization, but not, as he would put it, “in charge.”

So about two years ago, IFF began looking for a president—someone who could work with Ed, learn about the organization from the inside, and when the time was right, become the CEO. At the time, I was a disenchanted lawyer looking for an opportunity to have a more meaningful impact on the world, and when I saw the job announcement, I thought, “Well, that’d be a dream job.”

You see, I’ve been a fan of InterfaithFamily’s work for a long time—in my personal inbox, I have IFF’s email newsletters dating back to 2005, when my now-spouse and I started dating, and I started thinking, “Well, I really ought to figure out whether I can build a life with someone who’s not Jewish.” Like many of you, I found solace in the stories of the people I read about on InterfaithFamily’s website, and inspiration from its resources: The only reason my kids say the Shema before bed every night is because I took IFF/Philadelphia’s “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class with Tami Astorino, and it seemed like a good idea.

I was thrilled when, after seven rounds of interviews spanning the East Coast, I became the president of InterfaithFamily. My family and I packed up our home in Philadelphia and headed north to Boston, and the day the Pew Report came out, I began working at InterfaithFamily.

Tomorrow, 16 months later, we take the next step forward in that plan, as I become the CEO and Ed transitions to the new position of Founder.

The conventional wisdom is that founders should depart when successor CEOs take over. But that’s not the right model for us. For us, the “mutual success” strategy is what makes sense—the one where Ed will remain on as the Founder of IFF, focused on what he does best—advocacy and key funding relationships. As IFF Board Chair Lynda Schwartz said to me once, “Don’t be afraid to do what makes sense.” And for us, this transition makes sense.

One of the key reasons it makes sense is Ed. We have logged a lot of hours and miles together on planes, trains and automobiles. We’ve eaten in some of the best and worst restaurants around the country. Ed has been a mentor, a guide, a source of humor and wisdom. He is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met—with his time, with his resources, with himself. And it is his drive and get-it-done-now attitude that have been the force behind IFF’s growth. I am so very glad he’s staying on in his new role, because I count him as a trusted advisor, and will continue to do so—and he’s got important work still to do. We will all have an opportunity to thank him on October 22 at a special day of learning and appreciation that we’re planning in Boston.

We are a very different organization than we were when I joined in October 2013. We have more than doubled the size of our staff to 24 (and soon to 29) and launched communities in Boston and Los Angeles, an affiliate in Cleveland—with Atlanta and a community for another major city to come later this year. We’ve added capacity to our national staff to better support what’s going on in local communities, and to increase our advocacy and training efforts.

I often say that the hardest part of our work is finding the right people to join our team—and it is a remarkable team, without exception. We work hard with too-few resources, and the only reason we get as much accomplished as we do is because we have a smart, savvy accomplished staff, and a board that’s got our back every step of the way. I am grateful for their collective know-how, smarts and commitment to the hard work we do. I am especially thankful for COO Heather Martin, who has been a friend from the beginning and has clarity of purpose, the ability to make things happen—and a way of making it look easy.

We are, of course, not done. I am humbled by both the responsibility and opportunity to continue to play a role in helping shape a world where interfaith families see the value, relevance and joy in making Jewish choices—and are accepted by the Jewish community in doing so. My promise to you is that we will do everything we can to support interfaith families, and those who want to work with them. Together with your input and collaboration, we will continue this important work.

Over the next months, I hope to meet many more of you than I already have, and deepen the relationships I’ve begun with many others of you, to thank you for your commitment and to share how we will continue to expand our work. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts, your family story and your hopes for the Jewish future. My door is always open.

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Jodi Bromberg can be reached at jodib at interfaithfamily dot com