Renewing American Judaism: Experimentation and Creativity in a Changing Landscape

By :  The Jewish Theological Seminary Posted On Apr 4, 2019

The 2019 Henry N. and Selma S. Rapaport Memorial Lecture

American Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. What initiatives, in and out of synagogues, are helping to revitalize Jewish religious life? What options are available to Jewish seekers and those not fulfilled by conventional styles of Jewish practice? How are Jewish communities successfully engaging millennials?

Dr. Jack Wertheimer and three of today’s most innovative rabbis discuss creating new initiatives to connect American Jews with religion in the 21st century, inspired by his book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, winner of a National Jewish Book Award. 


  • Dr. Jack Wertheimer, Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History, JTS
  • Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Congregation Agudas Achim, Austin, Texas
  • Rabbi Jessica Minnen, Director of Jewish Learning, OneTable
  • Rabbi Dan Smokler, Chief Innovation Officer, Hillel International

About the Speakers

Dr. Jack Wertheimer is the Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He writes about religious, communal, and educational trends in American Jewish life since World War II. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen volumes, including The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed; The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era; Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and Their Members; and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America, which won a National Jewish Book Award for best study on contemporary Jewish life. His most recent works include The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, which won a 2018 National Jewish Book Award in the American Jewish Studies category, and a report entitled Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy.

Rabbi Neil Blumofe is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, a flourishing community rooted on a 40-acre Jewish community campus which is also at the forefront of meeting people and creating Jewish experiences in diverse, unexpected places. Ordained as a rabbi at JTS, where he also earned the diploma of hazzan (cantor), he is on the faculty at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He has a weekly podcast about the significance of jazz, Liner Notes, airing on Austin’s NPR affiliate radio station and nationally distributed. He produces live music events in Austin, where he speaks and performs with other musicians, creating awareness of the innovative power of tradition and the connections between the Jewish wisdom traditions and the improvisational majesty of jazz.

Rabbi Jessica Minnen is Director of Jewish Learning at OneTable, whose mission is to make Shabbat dinner accessible to tens of thousands of people who otherwise would be absent from Jewish community. She is a sought-after educator who has led workshops for HUC, Hillel, Pardes, Hazon, Jewish Federations of North America, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Limmud, Slingshot, Moishe House, Reboot, Birthright Israel, Honeymoon Israel, Rabbis Without Borders, the JCC in Manhattan, and UJA-Federation of New York, as well as numerous synagogues and smaller communal organizations from Berkeley to the Berkshires. Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, she is an alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Baltimore Hebrew University, and JTS, where she was ordained.

Rabbi Dr. Dan Smokler is the inaugural Chief Innovation Officer at Hillel International. With a major investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation, he founded Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator Initiative in 2008. In 2011, the New York Jewish Week named him one of the 36 under 36 “changemakers” in Jewish life. After college, he worked as a labor union organizer for the Service Employees Union and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union in Connecticut and Los Angeles. Later, he founded Organizational Solutions, a labor consulting firm that helped reorganize the Writer’s Guild of America. He was ordained by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem’s highest rabbinic court and earned a PhD in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU. He has worked for Hillel at Occidental College, UCLA and NYU.

About the Rapaport Memorial Lecture

The annual Henry N. and Selma S. Rapaport Memorial Lecture was established in 1982 by Selma S. Rapaport (1916–2010), who served as president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and as a longtime JTS board member, in memory of her late husband. A distinguished attorney and committed Jew, Henry N. Rapaport (1905–1980) served as president of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, and as president of United Synagogue. He was an active member of the JTS board, and a generous benefactor of JTS’s scholarly programs.