The four propositions in the Schwarz essay form a solid basis for a purposeful community animated by spiritual values. Wisdom, justice, and community are essential for any society, and the dimension of the transcendent situates their source in God.
At the same time, those values become problematic when Jews are collectively treated as a “market” and each Jew becomes a “consumer.” Spiritual communities are animated by values, while the marketplace thrives on satisfying desires. That’s not just a philosophical difference. It means that their goals, mechanisms, and measures of success are fundamentally incompatible.
The driving force of any religious movement is leadership. A spiritual community is not driven primarily by the desire for gain or gratification, but rather by a vision that is typically found in an inspiring narrative or a trusted leader (or both). By contrast, the marketplace assumes the wisdom of crowds and equates buyer behavior with a sort of truth. As the ancient Romans said, “Vox populi, vox dei” – “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” For a religious person, however, the voice of God does not emanate from the people. Human beings, rather, are the creatures of God, and they are called upon to enact God’s will.
When religious communities take their lead from surveys and trends, rather than from a spiritual source, they effectively mimic the dynamics of the marketplace. They begin to favor short-term success over timeless values, where “success” is defined in terms of standard quantitative metrics. The mission statement may speak of education, justice, and society, but the business plan talks of membership units, donor cultivation, budget growth, event attendance, “open” rates, click-through rates, and approval ratings.
There is nothing inherently wrong with measuring those things, but they aren’t particularly correlated with increased wisdom, greater social justice, stronger communal bonds, or deeper holiness. According to market economics, consumers act in their self-interest – but self-interest is often quite different from the common good. Besides, a lot of people are poor judges of what is good for them. As a practical matter, they make choices which may be gratifying in the short term but are harmful to their health, well-being, or future. That’s why there is an inherent mismatch between standard metrics and spiritual communities with a public-service mission.
What’s more, a successful product or service needs a unique value proposition. For example, if you advertise that you’re opening a store that sells oranges, that won’t distinguish you from other fruit sellers. But if you will deliver mangosteens, pomelos, and mikans that can be ordered online, that may be a unique value proposition.
As with oranges, it’s not hard to find options for pursuing wisdom, social justice, community, and sacred purpose in the United States, inside and outside Jewish life. These values therefore don’t form anything like a unique value proposition, separately or together, which is an enormous competitive disadvantage. That’s not an argument against such ventures, only an argument against “reading the marketplace” as a way to achieve communal goals. Following the conventional wisdom of the day is the opposite of creating something of unique and enduring value.
And that has concrete market consequences. If we offer the same benefits as another ‘product,’ but with a Jewish label, our only competitive advantage will be price. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly how the institutional Jewish community has evolved. Instead of charging a fair price for value received, we pay people to take our products. That’s a failed marketing strategy, and it’s not sustainable in the long term.
Another marketing variable is the target demographic, specifically distinguishing between “tribal” and “covenantal” Jews. The proportion of Jews who are motivated primarily by “covenantal” concerns has always been small. As in most religious groups, the main appeal of synagogues has historically been tribal gatherings—rites of passage, socializing, communal celebrations. Outside the synagogue, as Jewish Megatrends notes, the major reasons for Jewish participation over the past century have all been tribal: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Israel, and Soviet Jewry.
Today, tribalism is widely considered distasteful or even racist by many American Jews, especially younger ones. Nonetheless, tribalism remains one of the most potent forces in the world today, from Ferguson to Quebec to Scotland to Hungary to Kurdistan to India to Tibet. It’s also worth noting that the two U.S. religious groups which most successfully transmit their values to their children are Mormons and Evangelicals. Both maintain the equivalent of a strong tribal identity. They see themselves as distinct from the people around them and their adherents socialize largely within their community – much as Jews did, until the barriers around the Jewish community fell away.
From a strictly pragmatic perspective, to focus marketing on non-tribal, non-religious Jews is to place the greatest hope in the people least likely to commit to a Jewish community. Those people can fulfill their universalist aspirations more completely through non-Jewish pursuits. It’s hard to overcome that immense competitive disadvantage. For that reason, from a marketing standpoint, it makes no sense to expend enormous effort and substantial funds in order to attract the least likely prospects. Yet that’s exactly what the organized Jewish community does.
Compare that to Chabad’s ‘business model.’ It has created hundreds of synagogues that epitomize a “warm and welcoming” environment while holding fast to its core principles. And unlike so many other outreach efforts, it is completely unconcerned with marketing. Avowedly tribal, it models its version of commitment, confidently and unapologetically – and without significant outside subsidy. As a nonprofit ‘business,’ it has achieved great success.
We can learn from Chabad’s self-confidence, its willingness to do what it believes while trusting that it will find its audience. Whatever we may think of their beliefs and practices, they have attracted many unaffiliated Jews to their communities. Like them, we must not allow our purpose to be overshadowed by the temptation to conform to conventional wisdom. We, too, need to be leaders who inspire others with our mission, not our metrics.
Bob Goldfarb is the Men’s Davening Coordinator at Darkhei Noam in New York. He’s also the president of Jewish Creativity International.