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