What’s the Difference Between a Business and a Sacred Community?

by Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
Temple Judea, Coral Gables, FL

Rabbi Goldberg PR Photo2009.jpg

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.

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5 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between a Business and a Sacred Community?”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Rabbi Goldberg’s excellent article points to a very real problem, without delineating a sure-to-succeed solution. Maybe there is none.
    But I think he may have been too quick to dismiss the analogy with the country club. Country clubs are private institutions, financed by their members and run for the benefit of their members. I used to be an occasional guest at a country club where my hostess could arrange for me to play tennis during the week but not on weekends, when the courts were reserved specifically for members. If that’s not an unreasonable policy, why is it unreasonable to allow open seating in our sanctuaries on Friday night but insist that people pay for their seats on Yom Kippur? We have been too carried away by reading the mantra My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples to mean come on in, the water’s fine, and you don’t have to pay because we have other suckers who will subsidize you.
    Having been recently hospitalized, I appreciated the visit from my rabbi, and the Shabbat dinner that our Caring Committee sent over after my return home. And I made a modest contribution to one of the temple funds in appreciation. But would I have ordered either off an a la carte menu? Doubtful.
    What I read from Rabbi Goldberg’s post is that synagogues need to do a better job of communicating their value proposition while allowing those who seek those values to determine their worth. Maybe our communication needs to stress — Shabbat services included. Hospital visits included. Wedding and funeral officiation included. Access to Judaica library included. Spiritual counseling included. Religious guidance included. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.
    I must take umbrage with Rabbi Goldberg’s description of Rhinoceros as an old play. King Lear is an old play. Uncle Vanya is an old play. I saw Rhinoceros as a new play, so to accept the rabbi’s characterization of the play is to accept a reality about myself that I am not prepared to accept.

  2. avatar

    The difference between a sacred community and a business community is that a sacred community still functions when there is no money.

  3. Larry Kaufman

    I commend to your attention, from Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 3:21, im eyn kemach, eyn Torah; im eyn Torah, eyn kemach. If there is no flour (i.e., material substance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no substance.

  4. avatar

    Both this blog by Rabbi Goldberg and the one by Rob Berkovitz, URJ Congregational Finance Specialist, “A Perfect Formula for Dues,” August 23, 2011 raise the question of how to sustain congregational life and a sacred community, but seem to suggest business as usual, they have no answer.
    Given the current reality of a diminishing base, the status quo won’t work.
    Government agencies and businesses have been slashing expenses and services. Going forward, reducing costs will be one of the keys, at least in the interim. Consolidation may be one of the answers. Where there were three separate approaches, maybe there’s only room for one, with flexibility in that one.
    There also needs to be more conversation about the role of Jewish Community Centers. They are a transactional agency, focused primarily on fitness and wellness programming, yet they have also expanded into education and other services, including camps. For some, who needs a synagogue, if I have the JCC?
    How is it possible that a family can send their child(ren) to a community day school without being a member of a synagogue?
    How is it possible that a community through its Jewish Federation can disproportionately support the Orthodox Jewish community? Is there a belief that they are the true believers and sustainers of the religion?
    Why is it that at a time when a significant portion of Jewish young adults are getting married to someone outside of the Jewish religion, there is still limited willingness for Jewish clergy to officiate? While there is a focus on welcoming interfaith members, the horse has already left the proverbial barn.
    It is not about figuring out better approaches to dues or business vs. sacred community, but about figuring out how we stop perpetuating the joke of 3 Jewish families and 4 synagogues and look at consolidation and cost reduction. It is also about looking at what we have allowed to happen in our communities and asking questions about whether or not that still works. It is also about looking at the current and near future and asking what we will need to become to address the religious affiliation needs of the current generation (generation Y/ Millenials) and future generations.

  5. avatar

    @ Hineni,
    I concede that a person needs a material beating heart.
    But past that, Kemach, flour, material substance, does not inherently imply business or currency.
    If a poor man shares his last slice of bread with his loved ones, would you call that a business transaction? Is that bread money?
    Of course not. Yet the love, duty, and devotion, remains. The family and community still function as a result.

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