Judaism as a Consumer Good?


Writing for eJewish Philanthropy, I react to two Forward articles this summer by David Bryfman and Noam Neusner. Excerpt:

Bryfman argues that giving away major Jewish experiences for free devalues those experiences. “Why would people want to pay for a Jewish experience,” he writes, “if… they can get Jewish products for free? And for a community that prides itself on wanting people to become more responsible, invested and committed, the very notion that we are prepared to give away things sends a mixed message…"

But what is it, exactly, that we want Jews to value? Is it specific “Jewish experiences”, or the Jewish experience, writ large? If the latter, then we shouldn’t fear devaluing individual programs; they’re the means, not the end...

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, whom Bryfman quotes regarding the strange things people will do when something is free, also writes about a different problem which perfectly describes the trouble with Bryfman’s approach. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely writes: “we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms… are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required… The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different… The exchanges are sharp-edged … When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.” Ariely illustrates the absurdity of confusing these worlds with the example of paying your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryfman’s article makes this mistake, consigning Judaism to the world of market norms, when social norms are better-suited to meaningful Jewish commitment. Social norms do not preclude financial contribution, but Jewish communal contributions should be more like a married couple pooling their salaries for groceries, and less like a crowd of strangers ordering their own lunches. If this vision seems naïve, that’s because too many Jews lack a familial commitment to the Jewish people. Trying to change that by charging more fees is like trying to get kids to appreciate family dinners by having grandma collect admission at the door.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

 The question of whether or not it's a good idea to treat Judaism as a market commodity is (naturally) not new. Here are some other publications of interest on this topic:

Understanding the Jewish Community Center Marketplace: A Celebration of Volunteerism and the Voluntary Process (1982) David Esekenazi:

Our agencies are heading into a very difficult period, largely because there are (and will almost certainly continue to be) fewer Jews. We will be going after a shrinking and a changing market. We will increasingly compete with other vendors who (in the minds of many of our potential customers) offer similar products.

Esekenazi changed his mind somewhat six years later, in Revisiting the Jewish Community Center Marketplace:

Some years ago in this Journal I argued for the need to redirect our normal noncompetitive perspective and move more in the direction of competing with "other vendors . . . [who], in the minds of many of our potential customers, offer similar products." In that article, I embraced the field of marketing as one of the most promising means of helping JCCs to better compete in the increasingly competitive and open marketplace. While I have not shut my eyes to the marketplace reality, I now wonder about the wisdom with which input from the field of marketing is being incorporated by many not-for-profit agencies. With hindsight, I would counsel more caution today in terms of how marketing ought to be used in a JCC. Unfortunately, I did not adequately consider at that time the effects of marketing upon basic institutional purpose, nor did I adequately distinguish in my own mind the fundamental differences between what I refer to in this article as "method" and "purpose."

Markets and More? (2001). Shari Cohen:

Surely any discussion of religion in public life needs to address the inexorable reach of commercialization into every aspect of human existence. We need to consider whether shopping and working are replacing social activism, civic duty or religious ritual as the boundaries between the roles of the customer, citizen, congregant and employee shift... By looking at five main areas – the market’s monopolization of our time and attention, its increasing role in creating our loyalties and identifications, its shaping of our modes of thinking about individual choice, work’s place in our lives, and the ways in which business might involve itself in critical aspects of social change – we can begin to sketch the crucial implications of these trends for independent thought, ethical sensibilities, collective action and human expression.

The Jewish Marketplace (2004). Chava Weissler

As we know, American Jewry is struggling with the decline of traditional loyalties to congregation and community. Like other Americans, Jews live in a commodity culture, in which consumption is the main means of self-expression. There is a realization that Judaism resembles other leisure commodities offered to consumers in the marketplace, and is judged by similar criteria...

Missing: the Vision and the Values (2004). Andrew Silow-Carroll:

[D]espite experience with marketing, Jewish communal institutions don’t seem very good at it. While some individual advertisements and campaigns have been clever or appealing, they always seem to address short-term goals: How do we get you to come to this service? How can we entice you into enrolling in this course, or give to this campaign? This exemplifies a “product-driven” model of Jewish life, as if our institutions offer only discrete services to consumers. What is often missing from Jewish communal marketing is a reflection of the bedrock vision of the institution behind the ad — the core values and purposes that the institution hopes to share with its members.

Advertising Judaism (2004). David Nelson:

Why do so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the “commercialization” (by which we mean the selling) of Judaism? Some people feel that “selling” and “advertising” connote cheapness and lack of inherent worth. Should we sell Judaism like potato chips? Wouldn’t that cheapen and commodify our sense of Judaism? People don’t give up their lives, or stake their children’s future, on commodities. But there are also ads for universities and hospitals, ads to discourage drug use, or smoking, or to encourage people to use public libraries. These ads represent institutions and causes that affect our survival and our ultimate welfare. And they advertise because we live in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, images, and products.

Marketing Undermines Judaism (2004). Jay Michaelson:

To “market” Judaism, as Andrew Silow- Carroll and David Nelson suggest, contradicts exactly what makes Judaism worthwhile. Consumption co-opts our loves and energies to enhance our selfish desire (the yetzer hara), but Jewish practice reins in our selfish desire so that we can love and serve better. Marketing asks us to sublimate yearning into consumerism; Judaism asks us to restrain our consumerism and open up to yearning...

I know that some say we have to be “realistic.” We live in a society of constant marketing, they say, and to not participate will make Judaism a religion without adherents. And Judaism has always marketed itself, from the original purpose of the Hanukkah menorah to Chabad’s use of it in American public squares. But we undermine Judaism by dumbing it down, dressing it up as “cool” or oversimplifying what Silow-Carroll calls the Jewish vision of “success.” We can and should invite Jews to learn about and love their tradition. But to treat Judaism as something to be consumed is to start down a spiritual path on the wrong foot. A real religious life is not something that one buys or sells. If Judaism is to transform, it will require full participation, a yearning heart. If you can buy it, it’s not holy.

Most relevant to Neusner's article is this Sh'ma article from just this February: Synagogue Membership: What's the Deal? Sara Moore Litt:

[I]f you are a Jewish consumer looking for value in any traditional cost/benefit sense, don’t join a synagogue. It is expensive and you can get almost all the benefits synagogues purport to offer members either for free or at a much lower cost if you buy them a la carte... But what keeps all of us renewing our memberships despite the complaints is that we have found a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence. When that happens, the synagogue becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience. If you join that kind of synagogue, membership dues are a bargain and not a burden. They become, in consumer language, a value proposition. These intangible benefits of membership are the only ones that make the high dollar cost of being a synagogue member “worth it.” Anything less is a bad deal.

Naming "Nonprofits"

Writing for e-Jewish Philanthropy, Richard Marker makes a solid case against using the terms "non-profit" and "not-for-profit" to describe the sector in question:

After all, if a local boutique loses money, it does not make it a “non-profit.” And conversely, if an organization which is recognized as a US 501C3 by the Internal Revenue Service happens to have an annual surplus, it doesn’t immediately morph into a tax paying “for-profit.” We all know that the bottom line definition has only a little to do with a balance sheet or annual budget...

...The words “non-profit” are suggestive of what a society considers normal. Why call something “non…” if it is the preferred or standard way to do things?... In a very real sense, the words misrepresent the vast scope of this field. In every city, “non-profits” are among the largest employers, the largest landowners, and major contributors to the overall economy...

...There have been no shortage of attempts to more accurately name what this is: “Independent sector”, “third sector,” and “voluntary sector” are two that have resonated with many for a while.

I, though, would like to ascribe to and endorse one of the current formulations which I believe more accurately describe the legal status and gives this essential part of any open society the gravitas it deserves Thus: The distinction should be between two kinds of entities: Those which have historically been called “for profit” are better referred to as “private benefit” entities, and those which have traditionally been called “non-profit” are better referred to as “public benefit” entities...

...Among the benefits of these new formulations is that it would help redress some regrettable baggage which the “non-profit” appellation brings with it. For example, it would remove the association of public benefit organization being viewed only as “charities” existing only for the neediest. That is a worthy and crucial component of the sector, just not the whole thing.

Marker is right that the terms "non-profit" and "not-for-profit" lack substance, defining such organizations solely by what they are not. This problem also applies to "NGO," "Non-Governmental Organization". (If that title were to be taken literally, everything from Coca-Cola to Al Qaeda to a child’s lemonade stand would count as an NGO.)

“Voluntary sector” is misleading because those of us who work in the sector do expect to be paid, thank you very much. “Third sector” is completely vague (one might as well call it Sector 7G) and only marginally less of a negative definition than “non-profit.” “Independent sector” is laughable – no sector is less independent than the sector that sustains itself mostly by asking for money. (Really, no sector at all is "independent." We have an integrated economy.) “Philanthropy” is a venerable word with a noble meaning: love (philos) of humanity (anthropos). But the phrase “philanthropic organization” is quite a mouthful. One can’t refer to an organization as “a philanthropy” any more than one can call a philosopher a philosophy. (The grammatical analog to the philosopher is the philanthropist, but that refers to a person, not a group.) “Philanthropic organization” could be abbreviated as “PO,” but this acronym must be dismissed for other reasons.

So Marker identifies a legitimate need. But really: "public benefit entities?" This proposed term is precise to be sure – precise to a fault. It's cold and technical, devoid of poetry – nearly robotic. Why, I can hardly wait to write a check to a public benefit entity. Then I shall expose animal and vegetable matter to copious heat in order to aid digestion and enhance culinary appreciation during the process of nutritional intake. And on Tu B'Av, I shall write a card for that special someone reading, "This is to inform you that I have a pronounced romantic affinity for you, finding you both sexually and aesthetically appealing. Our overlapping interests and compatible personalities make me confident that we shall remain in monogamous partnership for the foreseeable future. Figuratively yours, [full legal name].”

Is it unrealistic to hope for a revival of the simple word “charity?” Marker notes (accurately, unfortunately) that this word has come to connote helping the needy exclusively, while the field actually encompasses much more than this (the arts, religion, intellectual discourse, etc.). Still, might it not be worth trying to expand the semantic range of “charity” and assert it as a more general term?

This would be a renaissance for the word, not an innovation. Thomas Aquinas defined caritas, from which the English “charity” derives, as “a friendship of man and God” which “extends not merely to the love of God, but also to the love of neighbor.” So defined, “charity” is as broad and beautiful as “philanthropy,” and it’s much easier to say “a charity” than “a philanthropic organization.”

The only objection I can envision is from fire-breathing secularists, but surely even they can find a way to appreciate Aquinas’s definition by taking it figuratively. If they cannot, it will be another symptom of the same affliction Marker’s preferred term suffers, an affliction spreading rapidly in the modern world: a precise term might be something like “pronounced societal metaphor deficiency syndrome,” but I’d rather just say that we could all use a little more poetry in our lives.

Tragedy as Fundraising Fodder

The Jewish Week reports on an email AIPAC sent following last week's terrorist attack in Jerusalem, treating the bombing as an opportunity to raise funds. Critics were quick to pounce: Matt Duss of ThinkProgress.org called it "crass". “It is disgraceful," he wrote, "that AIPAC’s first response to this tragedy is to try and monetize it.” Within hours, AIPAC sent an apology, saying that "it was wrong of us to mention this terrible tragedy the same day it occurred in the context of this email."

What, in particular, was wrong with this email? As Steve Lear, founder of the Jewish disaster response organization NECHAMA, told the Journal of Jewish Communal Service in a 2009 interview, "When disaster strikes, people want to help, but they need an avenue by which to do so." Furthermore, it surely can't be the timing; as the Jewish Week notes, American Friends of Magen David Adom and ZAKA both created similar emails mentioning the attack, on the very same day. Was there any outcry related to their fundraising pitches?

The Jewish Week quotes Jeffrey Solomon as explaining the difference thus: "there must be a connection between the mission of the charity and the immediate reaction. … The response is usually to help those affected by the tragedy, and that is the disconnect in this situation.” But is there really a disconnect? Those who disagree with AIPAC may believe that AIPAC's lobbying activity does not provide immediate and vital assistance to the victims of this attack, but I imagine AIPAC and its supporters would say otherwise.

In fact, the text of the offending email itself included this sentence:  "This recent upswing in terror attacks reminds us why it is so important that we work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and help keep our ally Israel safe and secure." The assertion seems to be that the political work AIPAC does is just as necessary to help traumatized Israelis as is medical attention. One may agree or disagree with that assertion, but it is disingenuous to claim that AIPAC is not trying "to help those affected by the tragedy". The only matter of real debate is whether the kind of help they provide is really the kind of help that is necessary, and I doubt anyone's opinion on that question really hinges on the timing of an email.

Imagine a parallel situation: what if it had been J Street who sent out a fundraising letter that day, arguing that this attack makes it ever more urgent to pursue peace? AIPAC supporters would have gone mad criticizing them for crass opportunism, but one can easily imagine that many dovish Jews may have had precisely this reaction to the terrible news. Is there really any basis for declaring one pitch crass and the other vital, other than the observer's pre-existing political beliefs? And if both sides are thinking these "crass" thoughts anyway, are we just asking them to shut up about it? If so, for how long? One day? Two days? What, precisely, is the half-life of "crass"?

As David M. Pollock noted in 2007, Jews have always treated catastrophes as opportunities to build something of greater, transcendent meaning -- whether spiritual projects for the religious, or more earthly and political projects for Zionists, for example. Does good taste and sensitivity demand that our responses to these tragic events must not be controversial or divisive in any way? And if so, are we willing to extend this principle to our own side of these difficult issues, or only to those crass opportunists on the other side?

As always, these points reflect my own musings; the BJPA itself takes no position. But in addition to the two JJCS articles linked above, you can browse other BJPA publications on the topics of Disaster Management and Fundraising.

Dirty martini on the rocks and a Gemara shiur, please...

Are you paralyzed with indecision when trying to choose between an evening of boozy revelry with your friends or a scholarly night of learning Talmud with your chevruta? Me too!

That's why I was thrilled to read about the first Chabar, a Chabad bar. One part old Hasidic shtiebel, one part modern party scene, this hybrid venue hosts both local musicians and Torah classes, and features both a plasma screen TV and traditional sefarim (religious books).

I write in a jestful tone, but I actually think this is fantastic. In fact, my first thought upon reading about the Chabar was to wonder what synagogue-transform-champion Rabbi Hayim Herring would think about it (see this article, and this one, for a sample of Rabbi Herring's ideas and projects). It seems to me that, for certain communities, the addition of a really nice bar might be a great tool for revitalization, and for figurng more prominently, and in new ways, in congregants' lives. Maybe if more synagogues had full bars, they would attract more young adults. Perhaps shuls could also find success integrating coffee shops too, following the Starbucks "third place" model.

What do you think? What kind of atmospheres do you want your synagogue to include? Is the Chabar brilliant or tacky? Wave of the future or doomed to failure?

What's Your #ish? - Campaigning Through Active Listening

By now, many of you have probably seen the Jewish Federations of North America #ish campaign.

JFNA, with the help of its marketing agencies, is asking you (especially if you're 18-36) to share your #ish - something about what being Jewish means to you - on Twitter, Facebook, or their own microsite.

In return for each #ish shared, Federation promises to donate 25 cents, up to a total of $50,000. But the campaign isn't about fundraising - the total budget of the campaign i about 250k-300k. It's about branding and awareness and reaching out to young adults.

It's an interesting strategy.

Derek Shevel, creative director at Taxi New York, says it is important that the campaign “can’t feel too much like advertising,” because “you’ve got to open up a conversation where” the members of the target audience “feel they’re controlling it.”-New York Times, May 16th, "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love this Campaign"

This approach resonates with research on the Jewish idenitity of young people. In "Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam..." Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices, for example, discusses how the cultural emphasis on choice, even to a consumeristic extent of defining and having things exactly as you like them, has trickled down into the way that young adults approach their conception of themselves as Jews. "What's your #ish?" seems tailored to appeal to that impulse. It's personal, not institutional.

The study also found that, in fact, young Jews have less awareness and feel little connection to even major Jewish institutional organizations - a state that this campaign is meant to address, at least with regard to Jewish Federations.

In some ways, then, this campaign seems to be exactly what is necessary for its time. From a historical perspective, it's an interesting development.

It's been over a hundred years since the federation of Jewish organizations into unified bodies was the gleam in some of our ancestors' eyes.

In 1909, Jacob H. Hollander published "The Unification of Jewish Communal Activities," in which he lauded the new movement of federation of local charities into unified bodies as a brilliant and necessary evolutionary step towards increasing efficiency of fundraising and service delivery and reducing labor redundancy (the piece also contains an interesting discussion about the status of Russian Jewish immigrants in American communities).

Joseph Jacobs' 1917 article, The Federation Movement in American Jewish Philanthropy is a good source for an early history of the federation movement. It recaps the earliest federation processes, starting in Boston, and reflects on federation's benefits for communities. Its focus is not only on efficiency, but also, and in contrast to the modern individualistic take, cooperation. It actually uses the word "impersonal" in its praise for the new system

…the whole plane of Jewish philanthropy, it is claimed, is raised by this more dignified method of collecting and distributing the means by which charity lives. Appeals can no longer be made on the ground of personal friendship, but are purely of a spiritual and philanthropic character…A more democratic spirit is also claimed to be evolved by federation. Each institution, however small its income, has its representative on the Central Board, and can feel that it is performing a useful function in the communal organism. When occasions arise on which a general appeal has to be made for charitable purposes, it would perhaps come with more force from a central body representing the consensus of philanthropic activity in the community, than if it emanated from the directors of a single institution. To all these claims is added the signal one, that the whole tone of charitable activity is raised to a higher atmosphere when personal interests and rivalries are eliminated in favor of a more impersonal and altruistic method of collection and disbursement.

The enterprise seems pervaded by a very bureaucratic spirit that seems both out of sync with today's zeitgeist, but also somewhat inspiring. For a more detailed look at the intricacies of bureaucracy involved in the organization of these ventures, there's this 1919 article, Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York City, which tells the story of how Manhattan and the Bronx Jewish agenices confederated (Brooklyn was way ahead of them). It includes the bylaws of the organization, funding and voting rights information ($10k of contributions got an agency one vote), a list of the New York machers involved (including Jacob H. Schiff), and more.

Times change, institutions change with them, and above all else, marketing must keep up. I hope that the #ish campaign will be successful at keeping the Federation system, which was brilliant from its very beginnings, lively and relevant for future generations. I also hope that the beauty of its original spirit of efficient communitarianism can also be remembered and sustained. But of course it makes sense that a BJPA #ish would include bringing historical data and wisdom to present and future Jewish undertakings.

Luntz on Israel Messaging: Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

Last month on this blog I mulled over the question of how Israel advocates should frame pro-Israel messaging. In that post I quoted extensively from a 2003 report by Republican pollster Frank Luntz: Israel in the Age of Eminem - A Creative Brief for Israel Messaging. Last Friday, an interview with Luntz was published in the Jerusalem Post discussing this very topic.

In the interview, Luntz presents many phenomenal communications guidelines he wishes Israel's leaders would follow. Reading them, I wish American Jewish Israel advocates would follow them as well. Some highlights:


And that is what I see missing from so much of the [Israeli] communication: the essence of empathy. If I believe that you have the right intent, then I will believe that you have the right policy. But if I perceive that the intent is wrong, then I will never trust you...


It is the order of communication that matters... What you say in your first sentence determines how everything else flows. The Israeli communications strategy is to declare a conclusion and then provide the evidence. And I’m asking [the Israelis I’m working with] for exactly the opposite approach: to provide all the evidence and then demonstrate the conclusion...

An example of effective communication: Shimon Peres doesn’t speak like a political scientist. He speaks like a humanitarian. And he speaks in parables that are easily understood and appreciated. And he uses stories that make the information compelling, because no one’s ever heard them before...

Another great line for Israel is to say, “We’re not perfect. Every nation makes mistakes and we have our share. The question you need to ask us is, do we learn from them? And when we learn from them, are we a better people? Are we a better country, having learned from those mistakes?” Once again, Hamas will never admit this...

The No. 1 thing that we recommend is the empathy. Every mom mourns for her child, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The loss of any children is the loss of humanity. And so the strongest line there is “Let us work for the day when we will not bury another child.”

I could not agree more with the necessity of demonstrating empathy. One quote in particular, bolded above, is especially interesting to me, and I think it is especially  important. Most people don't pay attention to the fine points of security policy, and I think most people know the limitations of their knowledge about complicated situations. But I think most people also make judgements based on their gut-level readings of who is acting with malicious intent. Too many Israelis, and too many Diaspora Jews, seem to take an emotional stance of defensiveness and hostility towards the world opinion. This only reinforces the image of Israel as a bitter, hostile fringe nation defying world opinion. This may be unfair, but what does that matter? As I said in the June post, it isn't enough to be right.

For more on the importance of the "why" over the "what," see this fascinating speech by Simon Sinek, who opines (at a TED conference) that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."