2018-12-05 / Home

Young Israel’s Rabbi Bienenfeld and his slam poet brother-in-law launch a unique ‘Portion Podcast’


Young Israel of Cherry Hill’s Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld (right) with his brother-in-law Aaron Roller during their Portion podcast.

Young Israel of Cherry Hill’s Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld (right) with his brother-in-law Aaron Roller during their Portion podcast. In Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld’s bright home office, Aaron Roller, Bienenfeld’s brother-in-law, fiddled with the sound mixer and set up two mikes--one facing him, and the other toward the rabbi--preparing to record their weekly podcast, “The Portion.”

“No offense,” Roller said, “but I sound better than you. You need to speak directly into the mike.”

With a wry smile, Bienenfeld replied, “You say, ‘No offense,’ and yet…”

Roller chuckled.

“I think this is going to be one of those passive-aggressive podcasts,” quipped the rabbi.

This is the quick, breezy banter that characterizes The Portion, a conversation between Bienenfeld, 34, and Roller, 36, about the parsha (Torah Portion). This week is Vayetzei—“And he went out”--which is chock full of juicy topics from Jacob’s dramatic escape from his brother, to his nuanced dream of angels on the ladder. Unlike a Shabbat sermon or a parsha class, The Portion offers a very different take on a familiar story, with diversions into topics as wide as love at first sight, Bob Dylan, and the best kosher croque monsieur in Jerusalem (it’s at Kadosh--go on Sunday morning). The Portion is, essentially, the first podcast of its kind.

“There are plenty of classes online in lecture format,” said Bienenfeld, “but there really was no podcast that did a deep dive into the parsha in a conversational, talk show format. There’s something very pleasant about listening to that sort of thing. You can see yourself in that conversation--how would I have responded to this question? It’s also fun to hang out with your brother-in-law.”

Roller agreed. “I think our conversations are pretty interesting. And I think I know you in a different way because we’re family.”

“And I appreciate that time you edited out when you called me pigheaded. That was really nice of you.”

Bienenfeld and Roller have been residents of Cherry Hill’s west side since 2014. Bienenfeld, a noted educator, lecturer, and public speaker who received his ordination from Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim in Queens, moved from his previous rabbinical post in Toledo, Ohio, to serve as the rabbi of Young Israel of Cherry Hill and to teach at The Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia. So enamored were he and his wife, Sarah, with the community that they called Sarah’s brother, Aaron, who, along with his wife, Shira, were looking to move out of Brooklyn. Within a few months, the Bienenfelds and Rollers were officially neighbors. Roller, a Harvard graduate with a degree in urban planning, also serves as the co-president of Politz Day School and heads slam poetry competitions in Jewish day schools in the metro New York area.

Roller and Bienenfeld make a unique pair, sitting across Bienenfeld’s glass-topped table and bantering (directly) into their microphones about an article from Rolling Stone that relates perfectly with Laban’s relationship to Jacob. Bienenfeld wears black dress pants and a white button-down--the typical garb for many Orthodox rabbis--while Roller sports a wool sweater, corduroys, and converse sneakers. But despite the wardrobe differences, they mesh beautifully, sharing a worldly sensibility, a deep love of Torah learning, and a smart sense of humor. In their five weeks on the air, they’ve already garnered an international following, with listeners from across the United States, Israel, England, Canada, Sweden, Holland, and even Spain. It certainly wasn’t what they expected, but, said Roller, “It’s kinda cool.” Their fans span the religious spectrum, which is what Roller and Bienenfeld want. “The podcast is for anyone who’s interested in what the Torah says. It works for a pretty broad range.”

As of now, the podcast still has a homespun quality, recording at either Roller or Bienenfeld’s home with a mixer purchased on Amazon, and with the faint echo of kids running around upstairs. They’ve hit some technical snags, too.

“There’s a reason we started with Parshas Noach, the portion of Noah,” said Bienenfeld. “We had a whole conversation on Bereishit, and we realized we weren’t actually recording anything.” But just over a month in, Roller and Bienenfeld already see growth. They envision an evolution for the podcast--though what form it will take, they’re not sure yet.

“We want to build a following of people who are listening and talking about the parsha, engaging with us and asking us questions,” said Roller. “The goal is to complete the whole cycle, and we’ll see where we are next summer.”

Subscribe to The Portion on Apple iTunes or on theportionpodcast.com.

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