Rabbi, what is your product?
As we head into our second covid era Rosh Hashana, a lot has changed about our lives. Many people have moved to new communities (space, cost, weather), tightened their friend group (social distancing), and altered their synagogue attendance habits (to be determined).
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is: why do we attend synagogue?
Perhaps we go to fulfill ritual prayer requirements or to catch up with friends at the end of each week. Those are the two reasons that often come to mind, at least they do for me.
But, do we ever stop to think about what we are “buying” when we attend synagogue? Put otherwise, do we ever ask, “Rabbi, what is your product?”
On the surface this question appears to be so Millennial. Individualistic. Consumeristic. Maybe even heretical. However, I believe that like so many other aspects of our lives, religion is facing massive competition.
There is an old joke that a Jewish man is found stranded on an island and on the island are two buildings…his rescuers must know, “you are one man on a stranded island, why do you need two buildings?”…to which he famously responds “That is the synagogue I go to, that is the one I would not even step into!”
That used to be the summation of religious competition. I go there, I don’t go there.
Now we have something much more profound to consider, namely more options. It is not too dissimilar to the experience of retail over the last 30 years: mom and pop shops gave way to big box retailers, which in turn folded in the face of e-commerce, which is now facing competition from the return to shopping locally.
We used to go to pray where our grandparents prayed, then massive new neighborhoods popped up and the mega synagogue took over, many responded to that with a craving for individualized and more communal expressions of prayer, namely the ‘backyard minyan’. This process was fast tracked by covid, particularly when it comes to the outdoor services many people attended at home last year for the High Holidays.
There is one more element to this, which I think has been overlooked…the sermon.
There have been a few articles written recently which essentially say that the sermon is dead because people can’t pay attention any more. I think that is a lame excuse.
The sermon is facing the same competition as the core synagogue experience. Options.
It used to be that I could only get my dose of reverie and inspiration from my local preacher or Rabbi. This simply isn’t true anymore due to the proliferation of podcast and social media adoption by religious figures and institutions.
I could listen to a sermon from a rabbi in Florida on a Tuesday and from a preacher from a town in Mississippi on Thursday. I can subscribe to the most brilliant minds of the generation, their thoughts automatically downloading onto my phone each week.
On the flip side, these virtual experiences are missing the fundamental communal necessity of shared experiences. For the sermon this could be the uproarious laugh at a well delivered punchline, or the deafening silence of a powerful story retold for the first time. Or, it could be that friend who pulls you into the hallway to check-in, to ask about an ailing parent or that big deal you closed at work.
So I ask…Rabbi, what is your product? What are you selling? How do you define your value proposition? How do you bottle the good stuff and stock it on your shelves?
This isn’t a new idea. Religious institutions have have picked their flavor since the beginning of time. Are you strict and demanding? Welcoming? Lots of singing or long sermons? Is this a Carlebach Minyan? How do you feel about kiddish club?
More profoundly, the midrash tells us there are 70 faces to the Torah. Recognizing that interpretation and approach will vary from perspective to perspective. From one community to the next, from one backyard to the next.
It is not totally fair to place the full burden on the Rabbi. As a strong believer in lay leadership, I think it is important for community members to speak up. Fill out the feedback form, so to speak. If you aren’t going to attend synagogue anymore because there are no longer play groups for your children, then what will get you to come back? How else can you engage in your community?
This may seem like a doomsday scenario. Even our most sacred institutions can’t survive? However, I think if we figure this out then we will end up in a better place than we started. After all, are we praying to return to a place whose hallmark was the front of the room asking the back of the room to talk a little softer?