The East Valley Jewish Community Center launched its “Conversation with the Rabbi” podcast March 30.
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the EVJCC, said the podcast stemmed from a series of in-person conversations that began in September 2019 between local faith leaders and him. The last in-person conversation was on March 1, 2020 and featured Gary Smith, mission president at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The stated goal of the series, and of the podcast, is to expose listeners to different points of view in a nuanced, respectful and educated way.
“The only way that I can continue to be a good rabbi and a teacher and a leader for my community is if I constantly check myself and try to improve how I do things, why I do things, and try to learn new things and new perspectives,” Beyo said.
Beyo partnered with Adrian McIntrye, an anthropologist and general manager and president of PHX.fm, an online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, to produce the podcast.
“I would have never been able to do it on my own,” Beyo said, adding McIntyre “is holding my hand through this” — helping him feel comfortable with audio recording equipment and technical details.
Beyo has never had trouble with public speaking, but having listeners he can’t see and doesn’t necessarily know has been a challenge for him — especially when it comes to difficult conversations.
“From the very beginning, what Michael said to me was, ‘I want to change the understanding of what it means to have a conversation with the rabbi,’” McIntrye recalled. ‘“I want to have conversations that are going to deal with complex subjects, where I might be uncomfortable. And even perhaps sometimes my guests might be uncomfortable. But we are committed to dialogue.’”
In the podcast’s first full episode released April 1, Beyo and McIntrye spoke with Azra Hussain of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona.
Beyo asked Hussain about the mission of Islam.
“Don’t you have in your tradition — and maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t know Islam as well as I know Judaism — that there should be a goal that all of humanity should become Muslim?” he asked.
Hussain explained why his understanding was incorrect.
“It’s not supposed to be my goal to make all of humanity Muslim,” she said. “To me, the goal of Islam was to make sure that human beings exist or co-exist with respect and kindness and love. And that’s what spreads throughout the world.”
However, Muslims do believe that before the end of time, humanity will be majority Muslim, Hussain said. The word Muslim in Arabic literally means one who submits to God.
“I think that’s what will ultimately be the case, that one believes in some creator, regardless of what one calls it,” she said.
Reflecting on that conversation, Beyo said it was interesting to see how different Muslims and scholars of Islam have a different understanding of the religion, “just like we have a multiplicity of ideas of opinions in Judaism.”
Other episodes have featured Jerzy Wójcik, creator of the Auschwitz Virtual Tour; Doran Krakow, with the JCC Association of North America; and Craig Cardon, President of the Queen Creek Arizona West Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than a dozen conversations have been recorded and are being released on a weekly basis.
Since the first podcast was aired, about 130 people have tuned in and the total number of downloads increases each week, McIntyre said. The majority of listeners, more than 76%, are in the U.S. The rest are in Israel, India, Italy, Poland, Canada, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Jane Wabnik used to attend the in-person pre-COVID dialogue series and has been enjoying the podcast version.
“Each podcast leaves much to think about, whether it be questions of faith and action, community activity, education, criminal justice, or politics,” she said. “The format is not confrontational. It is a discussion which allows for differences of opinion and approaches to whatever topic is being discussed.”
Beyo is committed to continuing “Conversation with the Rabbi” in the podcast format for now.
The EVJCC also had a six-month run of a “Words of Wisdom” podcast. It was less formal and ran from late July 2020 to late February 2021.
Pam Morris, the EVJCC’s early childhood education director, began WOW as a way to connect with families as people stayed home during the pandemic last year.
“Some of it is education based, some of it is more associated with Jewish values,” she said. Sometimes Morris spoke about things related to Jewish holidays and other times her episodes would “have nothing to do with Judaism whatsoever.” She drew on her experience as an educator and shared her thoughts on everything from multisensory learning to how to cope with stress.
Mindfulness was a consistent theme. “You don’t have to be perfect. It’s taking one step at a time and just making the best of what you have, and being thankful for the blessings you have in your life,” Morris said.
The podcast is temporarily on hold, but fans are hoping it will return.
“I looked forward to listening to WOW with Pam each week,” said listener Nicole Viceri. “I am continually impressed with the way she acknowledges and addresses tough-to-talk-about topics with grace and understanding.” JN