Hill Havurah produces podcast for the pandemic

Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah (bottom), interviews congregant Catherine Sherman, a high school senior who’s been attending the recent protests. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Hannah Spiro)

Like congregations everywhere, Hill Havurah in Washington has relocated to Zoom. But Rabbi Hannah Spiro wanted to do something more.

“We really felt bad that as a Jewish community that all we had to offer was more looking at a screen,” Spiro said. “And people were already spending a lot of time looking at screens for work, for school, for socializing. And now that people were doing it on Shabbat, and for any other chavurah engagements, just felt a little bit sad.”

So the Capitol Hill neighborhood-based chavurah challenged itself to invent a way to connect to its congregants — away from screens. And as Spiro happens to be a fan of podcasts, she decided to create one for this purpose.

But while passionate, the rabbi lacked experience. Enter Jessica Smith, a chavurah member with more than 13 years of work at NPR under her belt. She had the knowledge and know-how to make Spiro’s podcast a reality.


“At NPR, you’re always part of a bigger team. So you always have small slices,” Smith said. “But here I get to be editor and producer. So it’s really great.”

The Hill Havurahdcast premiered in late March with each of the nearly dozen episodes featuring highlights from a Zoom interview between Spiro and a congregant. Episodes are released weekly and run between 17 and 30 minutes in length. Conversation topics include social life, work, and spirituality amid the pandemic.

Smith described Spiro as a “wonderful conversationalist” who has the ability to connect with others. She’s enjoyed her time editing each hour-long interview down to the heart of each conversation. Interviews are conducted two weeks before release on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn. Separately, Spiro records the episode’s intro and outro, which feature music created by Spiro herself.

One of the joys of interviewing for Spiro is getting to learn more about the lives of her congregants and connecting to them personally and intimately. Her goal with each subject is to make them feel honored, respected and part of the community.

“I feel like I’ve been getting to know people who I already knew, but just in different ways,” Spiro said. “I think it’s a little bit less creepy than Googling someone.”

Interviewees so far have included medical personnel, an airline flight attendant and a Washington Examiner political correspondent. For Havurahdcast #10, Spiro interviewed Hill Havurah founder Sig Cohen and Brenda Richardson. The two are members of Cross River Dialogue, a group consisting of members of the local African American and Jewish communities who meet regularly to share experiences and support one another. The conversation centered on the pandemic, police brutality and social inequity.

“And that was a really cool episode,” Spiro said.

While the quarantine will eventually pass, it appears the podcast will be here to stay, at least for the near future. Spiro said she doesn’t see herself taking a break from the project anytime soon, and neither does Smith.

“My goal is just to keep doing it,” Smith said. “And hopefully keep doing it even when the shutdown is over, just have more people listen, and get more feedback and to improve it. And also to find ways to be more creative as well.”

Spiro shared similar thoughts on her hopes for the podcast moving forward.

“I want [the community] to feel like that there is something special coming to them every Tuesday. I feel like people deserve as many special moments as possible these days when times like just blend together, and it’s really hard.”

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