While Shorewood native Lex Rofes is not following in his parent’s footsteps, as both are attorneys, his chosen profession does have to do with laws. The promulgations he focuses his life’s work on are those contained in the Torah, not necessarily the Constitution.
A third-year rabbinical student at ALEPH, The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Rofes says he has no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi. Instead, he hopes to teach about Judaism in his own way.
“I want to play my role in channeling the beauty, wisdom and joy of Judaism in the world as best I can,” he said.
To say that Rofes is unconventional is an understatement. For example, when he married his college sweetheart last summer, the couple “hybridized” their last name, he said. His wife’s maiden name is ‘Langberg,’ so the couple combined their surnames to create the new last name of Rofeberg.
Judaism has played a central role in Rofeberg’s life since childhood. For example, he attended religious school at Congregation Sinai in Fox Point from preschool through high school. He was both a camper and staff member at the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in Eagle River. And, as one of the few Jewish students at the University School in Milwaukee, people asked Rofeberg all manner of questions about Judaism.
“From an early age, I was used to being ‘The Jewish Guy.’ I liked that. Having that role made me feel proud of my Judaism in a way that I may not have felt had I gone elsewhere.” he said.
Without a doubt, Rofeberg is a communicator whose life has taken fortuitous turns. He delights in describing how Judaism Unbound, the successful podcast he co-hosts with Dan Libenson, got its start with “some assistance from my Jewish mother.”
Approximately five years ago, Rofeberg and Libenson were both active participants in Hillel; Rofeberg as a college student at Brown University, active in Hillel International, while Libenson was the executive director of the Hillel at the University of Chicago. As it happened, Libenson left that position to start jU Chicago, a new organization aimed at Jewish college students.
“Because I had heard such wonderful things about Dan’s work, and I was looking for jobs in the Jewish world, I sent him a ‘cold email,’ entirely out of the blue,” explained Rofeberg. In that missive, Rofeberg asked if Libenson was seeking staff members for his new startup, but the answer was no. The two fell out of touch for a while, until one day, Rofeberg’s mother was chatting with a friend who also happened to know Libenson. After his mother told him about that chat, Rofeberg tried his luck again. His doggedness led to several Skype discussions and eventually, Libenson offered Rofeberg an employment opportunity.
The men began working together in the fall of 2015. At first, they thought they might co-author a book to “synthesize some of our shared ideas regarding Judaism, the ways in which Judaism changes over time, and the implications of those ideas on the present and future of Judaism,” said Rofeberg. However, after countless discussions, the pair realized they didn’t have enough material for a book but did have plenty of fodder for discussions.
“We had an idea for our intro, parts of our body, and the conclusion, but there were a variety of gaps. So we thought we would ‘think out loud’ with some scholars and practitioners of Judaism whose ideas we deeply respect and admire. And we decided…why not record our ‘thinking out loud’ and share with the world?” he said.
The pair didn’t actually think their podcast would garner many listeners, but the numbers tell a different story. “Before long, we had thousands of folks tuning in all around the country and the world,” said Rofeberg. Another outcome of Judaism Unbound is the pair realized that someday maybe they actually could write a book designed to spur conversations about Judaism.
In addition to garnering a growing audience, Judaism Unbound has attracted some financial support. They’ve seen monetary assistance from the non-profit The Institute for the Next Jewish Future and the podcast is supported by individuals, foundations and organizations including the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California.
While every episode is notable in Rofeberg’s mind, a few stand out above all others. For example, the show’s earliest blocks of episodes focused on American Jewish history. Jonathan Sarna, Anita Diamant and Shaul Magid, whom Rofeberg described as “intellectual giants,” were the guests, an experience he labeled “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
More recently, the podcast has featured Rofeberg’s own “rebbe,” Barbara Thiede, whom he described as also being a fantastic scholar and professor. “She put forth some of the most provocative ideas of our podcast thus far, questioning the extent to which we wrongly treat myths of Jewish history as if they are factual. It was a fantastic experience for me to both learn from her (as I have so frequently), and also help others who have not met her before experience her Torah and scholarship,” he said.
While generally garnering positive reviews, Judaism Unbound has also attracted its share of negativity. “While we receive many emails and messages of support, we have also been sent plenty of notes critiquing elements of what we present,” said Rofeberg.
He takes those negative comments in stride. “I would much rather be provocative, causing folks to wrestle and re-consider their ways of seeing the Jewish world than simply reassure folks that Jewish institutional life is absolutely fine just as it is,” Rofeberg said.
Meanwhile, statistics demonstrate the podcast’s audience is growing. Since launching in early 2016, the podcast has grown from 1,000 downloads a month to the current 40,000 monthly downloads.
According to Rofeberg, 85 percent of the podcast’s listeners are located in the United States, primarily in highly-populated Jewish communities like New York City, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and Atlanta. The remaining 15 percent live in Canada, the UK and Israel. That said, Rofeberg said the pair have been pleasantly surprised at how the podcast is slowly gaining traction with individuals and communities with smaller populations.
“We are among the most frequently downloaded Jewish podcasts out there, which we definitely did not expect upon launching. Our total number of downloads is in the vicinity of 400,000 thus far, and at our current pace of growth, we expect to hit the one million mark in early 2019!” he remarked.
Still, no matter where Rofeberg’s life takes him, Milwaukee is deeply ingrained into his heart and psyche. Although it’s been more than ten years since he lived in the city, his parents still do, and he relishes visits home. When in town, he looks forward to movies at the Oriental and going to Kopp’s for custard.
“Even though I haven’t lived there in a decade, when I go back and experience the sights and sounds, I realize how much I miss them,” he said. He is also a die-hard Marquette University men’s basketball and Green Bay Packers fan.
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Judaism Unbound is a podcast, cohosted by Shorewood native Lex (Rofes) Rofeberg. Here’s a sampling of recent Judaism Unbound podcast episodes:
Episode 106: Interview with Ari Moffic, Founder of Cohere, a Chicago-area organization that brings customized Jewish educational experiences into people’s homes.
Episode 103: The People’s Judiasm: Lex deepens his analogy of “Judaism as a library,” expressed in past episodes, and co-host Dan expresses some of the ways in which he both supports and differs from that model.
Episode 99: Regular Jews: The two co-hosts consider how “regular Jews” are told, directly and indirectly, that their ideas and skills are less valuable to Jewish communities than those of “insiders.”