What’s the Difference Between a Business and a Sacred Community?
by Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
Temple Judea, Coral Gables, FL
Especially with the Jewish High Holy Days coming soon, it is appropriate to stop and consider the challenges confronting mainstream religious institutions. Looking at the present, it is not a surprise that American religious institutions are going through a crisis of identity. The old rules no longer apply. People do not grow up with a sense of obligation to support their church, mosque or synagogue. For such institutions to thrive, let alone survive, they need to address serious questions about who they are (their core values) and what they are willing to change to meet the new world.
I know of synagogues trying new “business plans” perhaps learned from airlines. For instance, I read of a synagogue (not in Miami) that now offers a “base” price for membership and then offers “a la carte” items such as paying extra for hospital visits from the clergy, etc.
While I appreciate the challenges of raising money in these lean times, I would hope that religious institutions would not follow airlines in commoditizing everything.
Before such places jump on this bandwagon I think it’s important to learn the following lesson offered by Clay Shirky in his recent book, Cognitive Surplus. It deals with a series of daycare centers in Israel that started charging late fees of a few shekels (Israeli currency) when parents were late picking up their children. What the parents did not know was that the charge was part of a sociological test. The fees were raised to see if the change would have an effect on the tardiness of the parents. The results were fascinating: many more parents were late far more of the time. Why? Because an unwritten rule of community (I will try to be on time and you will not charge me) was now overturned and commoditized. Even when the shekel fee was dropped and the experiment ended, the parental attitude was altered forever.
As religious institutions address the changes in our culture, I often think back to this story. The moral for me is not to have the synagogue commoditize everything (presenting Judaism a la carte, if you will) despite the trend in our society towards this end, but rather to have the synagogue remember it is still a real (and not virtual) community where we ask for general membership support, and sometimes a lot more from our members (at least from some of them). But we do not treat congregants as customers, per se. There is something more: an unspoken but palpable bond of holy community, wherein we take care of each other and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When the member on the phone calls, I do not discriminate in addressing their needs based on who they are (or what “plan” they have). Simply put, if you want to be a sacred community, “premium” or “a la carte” membership is a little too much like the business world for me. Let people give to support the community, its programs, and good works, as much as possible. And let them be recognized for their work. But let’s not start seeing “Admirals Clubs” in holy places. I don’t think holiness is found in “ecclesiastical country clubs”.
Although religious communities can and do learn tactics from the marketplace, it is important that we keep the perspective of holiness.
Incentive programs for membership often seem crass, and disguising the identity of the synagogue in order to “trick” the assimilated into attending programs borders on unethical. In general, no matter what a religious institution does to emulate the more commercial practices of the for profit world, the more such places risk being seen by those who have a higher standard as, well, vulgar. And let’s be honest: no one wants their place of worship to be vulgar.
Like the lesson learned in Israel, once we commoditize our sacred communities, it will not be possible to go back to genuine community. It is true that religious institutions can and should employ social media like Facebook and Twitter. Technology can be a blessing. At Temple Judea we now offer live streaming of our Sabbath services, available to all, and of course we have a presence on the Internet.
Nevertheless, what makes us special, even sacred, is the organic feeling of communal warmth that our members feel at worship services and when they know, as we like to say, “with us it’s personal”. We care about each other. We are genuinely warm, and we never forget that we are first and foremost an authentic community.
There is an old play by Eugene Ionesco called Rhinoceros. In the course of the play each of the characters gradually turns into a rhinoceros. At one point, as a character is slowly transforming, another character asks why this is happening. The response: “We must all change with the times.”
I would only add, “Yes, up to a point.” Sacred communities will change but their essence cannot change. We don’t fly airplanes; we don’t sell coffee. We don’t fix watches. But we do help transport people to a different reality and give them a renewed appreciation for the beauty and fragility of life as well as the expectations and ever-flowing love of God.