Alum Spotlight: Barak Malkin '12, Ethan Lane-Miller '16, and Rabbi David Young '06
Hosts of Torah Smash! The Podcast for Nerdy Jews
Please talk about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
Barak Malkin ’12: My Jewish journey started in a youth group, which I did for most of my childhood. When I left for college, I was asked to be my synagogue’s youth group advisor for a new youth program they were piloting. I did that through college and I enjoyed it so much that when I got a full-time job as an accountant with my math degree, I expanded and took on more youth group work within the synagogue until I was running all three of the youth group programs. Then I enjoyed that so much that I eventually had four different part-time Jewish professional positions on top of my full-time accounting job. That’s when somebody said, “HUC’s doing a certificate program in experiential education. You should check it out,” which is how I ended up at HUC-JIR. I don’t think I knew being a Jewish professional was an option as a child. It slowly built as a part-time role and then when I moved across the country, I only applied to Jewish professional positions and shifted my career at that point.
Ethan Lane-Miller ’16: My Jewish journey’s a really interesting one. I did not do a youth group or Jewish camping as a teen, which given where I am now and what my profession is, makes a lot of people stop and do a double-take. But I was always involved at my synagogue. For me, the transformative moment was when I was 19 years old, coming home from my first year of college and needing a summer job, and knowing that the JCC in Dallas has a summer day camp. I thought it could be a really fun summer job. I did it summer after summer throughout college. At the same time, I thought I was going to go into politics for a living. I had the opportunity to intern on two political campaigns. They were both campaigns for incredible women and candidates who I enjoyed working for, but it wasn’t as fulfilling for me as camp was.
I eventually started taking my camp director seriously, who after a couple of years said, “Ethan, you should do this professionally.” I worked part-time for a couple of years, and then really took the jump and became the youth engagement director at a Reform synagogue in New Jersey. I had heard about the certificate program through HUC-JIR and I took the plunge. It was a great experience and helped push me to where I am today.
Rabbi David Young ’06: My mother gave me two summer camp brochures for camps equidistant from my home in Cincinnati. I looked at the brochures and it looked like both camps were pretty much the same except that one had horseback riding, so I went there. Camp made me not only the Jewish professional I am today, but the Jewish person I am today. If it weren’t for camp, I would never be sitting here talking to you all.
My experience professionally was through education. I became involved in informal education through the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles when I moved there to become an actor. I started thinking I could be a Jewish professional and called my rabbi in Cincinnati and said, “What do you think about me being a Jewish educator?” And he said, “What do you think about you being a rabbi?” I was like, “Nah. Not going to happen.” A little back and forth later and I went to apply for HUC-JIR, right around the time I got engaged to a woman who wanted to become a cantor. She was raised as a reconstructionist and was trying to decide which school to go to.
I said, “There’s only one school.” Since I grew up Reform in Cincinnati, there was only one rabbinical school to consider. So we got engaged, then we applied, and then we got married before we started school together.
Please talk about your podcast, Torah Smash! The Podcast for Nerdy Jews, and the impact it’s making. What is a Torah Smash?
Barak Malkin: As the creator of the podcast, I can start this one. I really love when different worlds collide together. One of the best examples is the first Avengers movie when Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all meet in the woods and they’re battling each other. We’ve seen their powers all separately. They come together, and then all of these really wonderful new things are created when they meet. That is what I really love as a Jewish professional. Another good example would be anytime you put Muppets into any movie, it’s always a really wonderful result.
Throughout my Jewish professional career, I’ve always found ways of exploring Jewish texts and culture and history through unique mediums or topics. I was looking for a podcast to listen to and I really wanted something like this but it did not exist. For me, the impact is that it’s filling a gap in what I was looking for. I hope that other people are looking for this too, but if they’re not, at least we’re enjoying it, which is nice. We define a “Torah Smash” to be a beautiful collision of one thing from the world of Judaism with another from nerd culture.
What is your favorite topic or Torah Smash you’ve discussed on the podcast?
Rabbi David Young: My favorite while we were recording was when we did a text study on Weird Al’s Pretty Fly For a Rabbi, partly because it took a left turn and didn’t go where I thought it was going to go, which is a lot of fun. But in listening to it, my favorite is the most recent one where Micol Zimmerman spoke about Jacob and Esau and a little bit about Iron Man.
Ethan Lane-Miller: There are so many that I’ve enjoyed. I had a lot of fun recording Micol’s, but also the one just before Micol’s about Rogue One. I really got into that one. I felt like I talked a lot, which is how I know I really liked it. It was linking Rogue One and Midrash, and discussing Rogue One and the other movies, where they fit into the three books of Lucas, so to speak.
Barak Malkin: Well, if we’re all Jewish professionals giving more than one answer to this question, then I’ll say that I enjoyed the episode on WandaVision. It was connected to the portion of Yitro of how Wanda couldn’t handle everything by herself and needed to delegate her emotions, her responsibility, and connected that to the portion of Moses’s father-in-law.
Another favorite is when we had a guest host, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, who’s a wonderful Jewish comic book artist. He did a deep dive into the history of Moon Knight, who was a full-on Jewish character from the Marvel Universe. That was really exciting. I knew some of it, but I did not know the origins of how the creator had designed Moon Knight after his comic bookshop seller, and then found out that that person in real life was Jewish and so he said, “Oh, looks like I’m going to have to make Moon Knight Jewish now.” And then he just ran with it, which was really fun to discover.
Did your experience at HUC-JIR influence your podcast in any way? If so, how?
Barak Malkin: I did the Certificate in Experiential Education for Adolescent and Emerging Adults and I loved it. All of the instructors taught using creative methods and not just frontal learning, creating a playful dive into text or culture. I think we do that a lot, and I think that’s what the teachers had done – using really exploratory learning as opposed to reading through texts and then asking questions.
Ethan Lane-Miller: My final project in the Certificate program was taking what I did professionally at that point, which was being a youth engagement director in a synagogue, and specifically thinking about the work I did with teens. I was able to combine it with some nerdy aspects of my life and develop something that was inspired by an old dorky reality TV show. I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed the times and the ways in which I’m able to pull other aspects of life into my Jewish work.
I feel like I was on almost a beta version of this podcast with Barak at the start of the pandemic when we did a Four Questions nerdy mashup activity for NFTY. We got a smattering of teens, and one of the parents from my region who saw it said, “Yeah, I want to watch this too.” It was a lot of fun and was a sign of things to come.
Rabbi David Young: Before I wrote my rabbinical thesis, I submitted an essay to the thesis committee proving that my topic was worthy of scholarship. My topic was how biblical characters compare with superheroes in comic books. I was inspired to write this thesis by the book The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. When that book came out I read it as fast as I could, and I had to sit with this book about comic books on one leg and a dictionary on the other. It made me realize that you could do high literature with comic books as your material.
When I submitted my thesis suggestion essay, I had never heard of doing such a thing before, and it got accepted. I realized that I don’t have to hide what a nerd I am. When I became a rabbi and started using comic books to teach, and realizing how much that landed with people, that’s what really did it.
How did you all meet each other?
Barak Malkin: I am the connecting piece. When I was trying to create this podcast, I knew that I am not entertaining on my own and that I do better working with other Jewish professionals. I had met Ethan and RDY in my previous iterations of life, and I had selected each of them for a variety of reasons. But I think Ethan, during the pandemic, had done a Livestream of all of the Marvel movies and all of the Star Wars movies. That’s how he decided to spend his time engaging with his youth in the region in some way. And then RDY, when I had met him and he and I hit it off with Jewish Superhero talk, he handed me an issue of the Fantastic Four, which he keeps numerous copies on his shelf for when such a time arises. It was the issue of the Fantastic Four where the Thing says the sh’ma. If you did not know, Ben Grimm is Jewish. And so in this issue, he goes back to the Lower East Side to return a Jewish necklace that an old friend gave him, and he helps him in a fight and he ends up saying the sh’ma over his hurt friend. Anyway, that was why I chose RDY, because he had a stack of these on his shelves that he gives to people as a reference, as a way of connecting their Jewish side to their nerdy side. There are a lot of Jewish superheroes. We talk about many of them on our podcast. I’m sure we’ll get to all of them eventually, but there’s a lot. So that’s how we met.
Describe HUC-JIR in one word.
Barak Malkin: Personalized. The program for me was very much what I was looking for. The instructors were very attentive to what I needed or was trying to collect for my career.
Ethan Lane-Miller: Linked. I’ve stayed in communication with one of my teachers from the program and I still keep in touch with classmates.
Rabbi David Young: Community. What was important to me were the relationships that we created through the HUC-JIR community, and through that connectedness that we feel when we see the logo or when we get an email, or just know that someone in our circle is a part of the same wonderful alumni network.
How can people find your podcast? What’s coming up next?
Barak Malkin: You can find our podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts. Or you can go to torahsmash.com to connect with us online, find the previous episodes, support the podcast financially, buy some swag, or email us and let us know your thoughts. You can follow us on social media @torahsmash.
We record in two weeks and we’re going to talk about the new Black Panther movie with comedian Myq Kaplan. It’s very exciting to have somebody of that caliber on the podcast. We’ve got some more Star Trek, some more Star Wars. We’ve got two episodes for Passover, one about Moses and one about the Four Questions. We’ve had a number of guests, and our hope is to bring all of our guests back for a one-shot Dungeons & Dragons live episode at some point in the future.
All of us are full-time Jewish professionals during the daytime, and when we put our capes on at night, this is what we do. If people enjoy the podcast, please write and review us or share us with a friend. It helps get the word out. We’re doing this for fun, so we’re not doing a lot of mass marketing efforts, and that’s really what helps people find the podcast.
Follow Rabbi David Young @rabbiyoung
Follow Ethan Lane-Miller @not.alfredyankovic
Follow Barak Malkin @realbarak
Follow Torah Smash @torahsmash