Archive for September, 2009

Bringing Conversations about Israel into the Life of American Congregations

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Authors Alex Sinclair and Esti Moskovitz-Kalman discuss the new conversation needed in American synagogues regarding Israel. "Israel engagement" has meant lending political and philanthropic support to the beleaguered Jewish State. Today it must in mean something different, something more personal. Add you voice to the conversation!

See the full report at

Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Rabbi Michael Wasserman
The New Shul, Scottsdale, AZ

Perhaps the most important message to come out of Synagogue 3000 is its call for synagogues to break with the consumer paradigm. As Lawrence Hoffman has put it, “Whatever authentic Jewish spirituality is, it can find its way into synagogues only if synagogues cease being communities that people join as consumers, buying services with dues” (Rethinking Synagogues, p. 131).

When we put a price tag on synagogue membership, we in effect define membership as a purchase, which turns members into customers. Having made that equation, we cannot blame members for expecting synagogues to organize themselves around the “sovereign self.” When we “buy” something, we value it according to how well it meets our personal needs. The customer is always right. We should not be surprised that members apply that logic to the synagogue, if the synagogue itself frames its work in market terms.

The vocabulary of consumerism is so deeply ingrained in American synagogue life that we often take it for granted. How often do synagogue leaders speak, without irony, of their programs and services as their “product,” and their outreach as “marketing?” But that vocabulary undermines attempts to make the synagogue a place of deeper meaning.  To the extent that synagogues embrace the language of the marketplace – i.e. of private benefit – they find it difficult to speak with credibility of mitzvah. If we wish to revitalize the synagogue, to cultivate a sense of meaning and belonging deeper than a vendor/customer relationship, we must use a different vocabulary.

The call by S3K to move beyond the consumer paradigm resonates very deeply with me, as co-founder (with my wife Rabbi Elana Kanter) of a synagogue that has done that at a very literal level, by eliminating membership dues. When we launched The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona in 2002, one of our core principles was that membership would not be for sale, and hence all giving would be voluntary. The New Shul’s message on membership was, and is, that financial support is not the price of belonging, but an expression of belonging, part of a broader sense of shared commitment that defines participation in a spiritual community. Our alternative – and we believe the only real alternative – to spiritual consumerism is a culture of mutual responsibility, or, in a word, community. For the past seven years, our members have supported the shul (complete with payroll and building mortgage) entirely on voluntary pledges. Because membership is not a purchase, no one asks  “What am I getting for my money?”

We have found that moving beyond the vocabulary of the market is tremendously validating to those who have the greatest potential to revitalize non-orthodox Judaism, those who are searching for religious meaning in commitments that transcend the self – or, to put it another way, who understand that their deepest need is to be needed. Their sensibility can be called “post-liberal” in that they take their personal autonomy for granted, and hence feel no need to hoard their freedom, to resist commitment. Their autonomy has evolved from freedom from to freedom for. This post-liberalsensibility, in which voluntary obligation is not an oxymoron, is at the heart of the neo-traditionalism that informs many of the new emergent communities that Synagogue 3000 has studied (see Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants, Steven M. Cohen et al, 2007). 

To be sure, post-liberal Jews inhabit mainstream synagogues as well. Often, they are the heart and soul of those institutions. But ironically, even as they strengthen mainstream synagogues with their energies, they often find themselves out of sync with those institutions’ public vocabulary. The language of the market, which their synagogues rely on so heavily, does not describe their own involvement.  They pay their dues like everyone else, but they do not think – or at least do not wish to think – of the money as payment for services rendered. They hunger for a language that can give voice to a deeper sense of mitzvah.

Restructuring our synagogues so that they speak the language that those Jews truly wish to speak, that use the vocabulary of shared responsibility, ought to be a priority for us. So I say amen to the call by Synagogue 3000 to transcend the consumer paradigm. 

The picture gets more complicated, however, in that many of the practical prescriptions coming out of SK3 – ostensibly designed to meet that goal – seem to be at odds with that vision. Much of the S3K literature calls for customizing synagogue experiences to individual tastes, and marketing programs to specific interest groups, drawing on the retail and entertainment industries for inspiration.  Lawrence Hoffman, in his model of the non-orthodox “Experience Synagogue,” forgoes any notion of shared commitment (at least as far as worship and/or learning are concerned), and emphasizes personalization instead. He envisions people taking advantage of a wide menu of synagogue offerings according to their individual tastes, much as they shop for clothes (Rethinking Synagogues, pp. 174-175). 

If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers? Aren’t we inviting them, in effect, to “buy” spiritual experiences? How does this differ from the paradigm that we are attempting to break with?

I am not suggesting that models like the “Experience Synagogue” have no place. To the contrary, there is clearly value in upgrading the existing consumer paradigm, in offering more attractive programs and services to the tentative and uncommitted. Religious consumerism will be with us for a long time, and, as long as it is, we need to do a better job of – yes, marketing what are in essence spiritual products. My point is not that we should reject that work. It is that, even as we support that work, we must recognize that it is very different from the other task that we have set for ourselves, the task of creating communities that move beyond consumerism. Enhancing the consumer model, figuring out how to do it better, is not the same thing as transcending it.

It seems to me that there is a tension in the Synagogue 3000 literature between means and ends, which calls for clarification.


Choice Does Not Always Mean Consumer Choice

Rabbi Alan Brill
Seton Hall University

On Sunday nights, I am glued to my TV watching the hit show Mad Men The show ostensively focuses on an ad agency in 1962 portraying the rise of advertising and consumer culture in America. But the real story is the sense of falling and anxiety that occurred when the certainties of the nineteen fifties gave way to the individualism of the 1960’s. I find that this post “ Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not” confuses the plot with the real story.
In the 1950’s people learned to accept culturally constructed institutions and model ideal attitudes whose expectations might not have been experienced privately. In the 1960’s people started to seek their own individual directions and overcome the split between the institutional and the personal. They moved from dwelling to seeking. By the 1980’s and 1990’s this individualism became the norm.
Jews aspired to a collective idea of peoplehood and accepted institutional attitudes toward Judaism, family life, and society. Mordechai Kaplan’s important re-evaluation of Judaism was based on the descriptive ideas of Durkheim in which individuals express themselves in collectives. But what comes after Durkheim, and the evident decline in self-definition through Jewish institutions?
Charles Taylor in his recent work A Secular Age points out that Durkheim’s approach — in which individuals expressed themselves in collectives and institutions — no longer holds true in its original meaning. Religion today, Taylor argues, can be found in “the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals seize on in order to make sense of their lives.” Taylor stresses the complex ways in which religion is now even more a part of our daily lives, and the importance of a multiplicity of practices and interpretations to deal with this variety.
In the post –Durkheim reality described by Taylor, we need to reframe the issue away from peoplehood to individual meanings and smaller social units, in short, religion in the human life.  We need to think in terms of changes based on the small changes of meanings and moral orders.
Take, for example, the variety of religious experiences and moral orders that could be found among the pews in a single congregation on Yom Kippur 2009. We will find people from whom Judaism is of varying importance in their daily lives, but for whom the content of that Judaism is different and varying. There will be those who adhere to old-time theology, those for whom Judaism is about being a politically conservative ADL supporter, those who are progressive, another who stresses social action, another who understands reality using 12-step language, and another who eclectically combines Chabad, feng shui, and Buddhist spirituality, those who are uplifted through art, and even moral majority Jews who embrace Judaism for its strong “family values.” There are dozens of other Jewish moral orders, no congregation has even half of them. People choose to obligate themselves to these diverse meanings because they help make sense of their lives.
Recently, many analysts of the Jewish community have picked up the phrase “spiritual marketplace” (first used a generation ago) and proceed to compare the Jewish choices made by today’s Jew to the choice of a “grande soy latte” in Starbucks – a simile implying a degree of pampering and meaningless luxuries. Viewing Jews making life decisions as Starbucks customers, their policy proposals emphasize the need to reach younger Jews through better marketing. However, religious choices, as Robert Wuthnow has stressed, reflect an attempt to create meaningful lives and a structure of moral orders. Multiple choices do not lead to the banal market pluralism, but to a variety of constructed finite religious identities. 
When entering the contemporary spiritual landscape, the contemporary Jew experiences not three or four denominations, but dozens of flavors. Synagogues and Jewish organization become specialized into single products for specialized audiences. So of course, people enjoy the Synaplex model because it gives them a possibility, a chance, to experience what they find meaningful. If they are lucky, they can find their personal vision validated.
To return to the original issue of equating choice with consumer choice, we need to look at moral orders and meanings created.
Seekers, as Wuthnow categorized them, are not a single category but are many approaches and many moral orders. While some still seek naturalism, other seekers embrace traditional concepts of God. The literature in the field of spirituality divides spirituality into anywhere between four to ten different types. Many of the books from Alban Institute place the number at four.
Rabbis need to know that these different types of spirituality are not interchangeable and that congregants are not choosing them just for consumerist variety. Some congregants seeking certain forms of spirituality are actually repelled by some of the others. No one congregation can attempt all of the current varieties of spirituality. No Rabbi can offer all of them. But there is shopping because there in fact several different unique types of spirituality, each with their own sense of meaning, not because they have internalized the marketplace values.
The blog post asked “If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers?”
The answer is no!  Judaism is capacious and has the possibility of many meanings constructed and many moral orders formed. That is, unless, the vision is to return the community to the 1950’s. We watch Mad Men to remind ourselves how much we have changed.

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