The Rebranding of Judaism



by Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

Let’s talk about branding.

There’s Apple, of course. Anything with an Apple logo on it is golden! You could take a regular computer, stick an Apple logo on it, and sell it for twice the price.

How about Starbucks? When traveling Europe, my wife craved the familiar brand, where she could get an American cup of coffee – eight or 12 ounces of coffee instead of the typical five-ounce European.

What about Mercedes-Benz? I can’t tell you if it’s really the best, as I’ve only owned a Ford, but the way most people associate the brand Mercedes-Benz, I can assume they believe it to be superior.

But how is Judaism branded? What is it that people really think about Judaism – and what is it that we Jews think about Judaism?

When many people think about Judaism, they imagine a bearded Orthodox Jew in a black coat and hat. Recently, I walked into a hospital room to visit a congregant and introduced myself to the pulmonary therapist. She said, “You don’t look like a rabbi! You don’t have that black, curly hair.” And other association are worse: Despite many positive images, from the “People of the Book” to many Nobel Prize winners –  and despite the fact that our faith gave to the world the belief in one God – there are many negative images of Judaism. From Shakespeare’s Shylock to incidents of anti-Semitism, from the tragedy of the Holocaust to Israel being constantly under assault, none of this is positive branding for the future of Judaism.

What do you do if you’re branded in a way that doesn’t represent your product? That is among Judaism’s greatest challenges. How can you get people excited about a religion whose brand is, in the popular imagination, falsely represented by an image that’s 300 years outdated?

Our challenge is to rebrand Judaism. That’s something Apple was able to do when, only 10 years ago, it seemed the company was going down the tubes. Through dramatically improved computers and the invention of iPhones and iPads, Apple took on a whole new persona.

In fact, all religion faces challenges to re-imagine itself. I recently visited St. Petersburg, Russia, where 60% of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox Christians – though few attend church. Throughout northern Europe, religion faces a dramatic decline, and in the United States, statistics are beginning to follow. Within the last decade, average Sunday attendance has dropped 23% in the Episcopal Church, one of the most progressive mainline Christian denominations. Not a single Episcopal diocese in the United States saw churchgoing increase.

The path for Judaism, I’m convinced, must be transformative. Can Judaism be rebranded as an innovative spiritual path to ethical monotheism? One without a problematic trinity, believing science and religion compatible, filled with love and acceptance without exclusion, sophistication without arrogance, and a true caring community? That’s a tall order! But that is, in essence, what Reform Judaism is all about. The challenge is for us to convey it to the world.

In the lawsuit between Apple and Samsung over their respective tablets, the media revealed one tidbit Apple wished to keep secret: It spent a tremendous amount of money in marketing (more than $1 billion) to convince the world that the iPhone was better than apple pie, and that the iPad was the ice cream on top. And people came to believe the value of their product – just look at the sales of the new iPhone!

Judaism needs to rebrand itself similarly – through public relations. I neither attended business school nor studied marketing, but I see clearly the effect and potential. For years, I’ve been able to reach a small but significant part of our community through advertising Taste of Judaism classes; just a few ads bring in 40-50 people every year to learn about Judaism. The difficult part is that rebranding Judaism properly will cost a lot of time, money, and skill, but imagine what would happen if the larger Jewish community orchestrated a campaign to inspire and excite people about the beauty of Judaism! If we want Judaism to flourish and grow, we need to hear positive, good, and welcoming messages coming out of our ancient religion. It’s that simple.

Now comes the easier – but much more involved – part. Each of us, by every action we take, is part of the branding of Judaism. Do we choose to conduct our lives like Bernie Madoff, whose  unscrupulous actions might have set Judaism back as much as Apple’s vast advertising campaign set that company forward? Or do we choose to live our lives as our prophets have taught us?

Consider:

Every time we stand up for justice, we brand Judaism.

Every time we reach out to those who are wronged and lift them up, we brand Judaism.

Every time we help the sick, the orphan, the widow, and the poor, we brand Judaism.

What will you do to live that eternal message? Will you help rebrand Judaism, or will you be part of our dilemma? I ask you consider your actions and the motivations in your heart – and join me in bringing honor to God and our ancient faith.

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt serves as the rabbi of the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile,  AL, a position which he has held since 1987. This piece was originally given as a Yom Kippur sermon and posted at Finding Meaning , where you can read the unabridged version.

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6 Responses to “The Rebranding of Judaism”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Rabbi Kunstadt challenges us with imagine what would happen if the larger Jewish community orchestrated a campaign to inspire and excite people about the beauty of Judaism.

    Obviously that can’t happen, both because there are segments of the larger community who won’t sit down with us, and because it is inconceivable that the remainder could ever agree on a brand platform.

    Accordingly, let’s just look at the challenges involved in re-branding Reform Judaism. I write from the perspective of having spent my professional life working with brands, and having been influenced by branding guru Steve Yastrow, whose 2003 Brand Harmony, from the Tom Peters Company Press, reminds us, “Your brand isn’t what you say you are. Your brand is what your customers think you are.”

    Too many of our customers think Reform Judaism is an opportunity to maintain a Jewish ethnic identity without having to do anything Jewish. Many people co-opt our brand in identifying themselves but maintain no affiliation with any Reform institution. The only way we can “drown them out” from misrepresenting our brand is by creating and vigorously promulgating a brand message, not only through advertising, social media, and the other tools of modern communication, but especially by making sure that our “paying customers” know precisely what they are paying for- who we are and what we stand for — and that WE, not the costumed purveyors of Orthopraxy, represent a totally authentic representation of a Judaism that has always offered competing options.

    Our branding message will have to resonate with our people enough to withstand the efforts of other expressions of Judaism, whose own branding includes major efforts to delegitimatize ours.

    Rabbi Kunstadt also comments Every time we stand up for justice, we brand Judaism. But only if we are standing up for justice wearing our Reform Jewish kipot — whether or not as individuals we wear kipot.

    But, despite my re-framing of Rabbi Kunstadt’s challenge, I vigorously applaud him for putting it on the table, re-inforcing Rabbi Jacobs’ campaign to inspire those who have opted out of the system but still claim the brand. Let’s do it!

  2. avatar

    This is a wonderful post! Rabbi Kunstadt asks if Judaism in general, and Reform Judaism in particular, can “be rebranded as an innovative spiritual path to ethical monotheism…one without a problematic trinity, believing science and religion compatible, filled with love and acceptance without exclusion, sophistication without arrogance, and a true caring community”. I would submit that Reform Judaism WAS exactly that from roughly the 1880s to the 1960s. With the exception of “sophistication without arrogance” (there was quite a bit of triumphalism), I think we lived up to that tall order for generations, before losing focus and shifting emphasis. So, such an improvement now would actually be a re-re-branding, since we have already re-branded ourselves AWAY from the beautiful vision that Rabbi Kunstadt has so eloquently expressed.

    I think we have some baggage to get rid of that was originally let go, but taken up anew in response to the Holocaust and other dashed hopes from the Enlightenment Era. A successful re-branding of Judaism in the way suggested would have to be as a primarily spiritual and virtually post-ethnic Judaism, of the same variety advocated by organizations such as the SCRJ.

    I definitely agree that we as a community have some branding and PR issues. I have seen under-informed Jews attempt to “teach” clueless non-Jews about Judaism, and I often cringe at what I overhear. They perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes, and in some cases portray Judaism and Jewishness in a way that will inevitably be negative and unflattering to people socialized in our predominately Christian society. If I were a clueless but neutral party being “educated” by some people in today’s Jewish community, there is a chance I’d actually DEVELOP some anti-Jewish or anti-semitic attitudes! I have seen this happen, and this is unacceptable. We cannot portray ourselves in an unflattering way and then cry antisemitism when others seem to get the wrong idea. We have to make Judaism sound like (and actually BE) a respectable, credible alternative in today’s religious marketplace, and in many cases that means avoiding over-emphasis of the ethno-cultural dimensions of Jewish identity. Sometimes, even often, Judaism is branded as a tribal, ethnic identity of which religion is a small and non-essential part. People think it’s about lox and bagels, halakhic hairsplitting (even if God doesn’t exist to legislate halakha) and mindlessly defending our own “kind” even when they’re wrong. What I don’t hear Jews telling curious non-Jews is that Judaism is about ethics, integrity, honesty, compassion, concern for ALL humanity, and a deeply spiritual encounter with the Divine, or a life-transforming Covenantal relationship with a (gasp!) real, present, personal, living, loving God. I’m tired of Judaism being defined by atheists who keep kosher and secularists who want to keep the vernacular tongue out of the synagogue because they don’t want to wrestle with the meaning of the words of the prayers. Why can’t we, as liberal, non-fundamentalist adherents of an ancient monotheistic tradition, believe and practice the SPIRIT of the tradition without getting bound up in the letter for the sake of a narrow definition of “authenticity”?

  3. avatar

    This essay strikes me as whistling past the graveyard. Reform Judaism doesn’t suffer from a public relations problem; the product has become the problem. Apple didn’t simply rebrand itself 10 years ago, it created products people needed (or didn’t even realize they needed) that transformed the way they interacted with music and how they communicated. The Apple brand has become more valuable as a result of the success of the product.

    Every major religion claims to “stand up for justice, reach out to those who are wrong and lift them up and help the sick, the orphan, the widow and the poor”. This is hardly a differentiator. Reform Judaism shares a common dilemma with our Christian brothers in that we have largely ceded our share of responsibility for these core duties to government. One needs only to peruse the content of the URJ family of websites to understand the degree to which ‘change’ is advocated externally rather than organically through direct action.

    And there are serious consequences for outsourcing virtue. As Reform Judaism increasing envisions social justice as lobbying the government to redistribute resources from one sector of the population to another, grass roots action withers away. Indeed, recent regulations promulgated by HHS have defined a religious organization as “(1) Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.” This narrow definition doesn’t seem to leave much room to ‘love they neighbor as thyself’. As government assumes organized religions’ traditional social justice role, it elevates government to a quasi-religious status. We shouldn’t be surprised that the result is a growing segment of the population who view organized religion as a quaint relic of a bygone age and view themselves as ‘spiritual, not religious’. Unless Reform Judaism aggressively reclaims this space, the best public relations will be for naught and the brand will continue to suffer.

  4. avatar

    I’m not sure how the concept of government-as -religion relates to the rabbi’s challenge to rebrand Judaism but I suspect it has something to do with the upcoming election. Like Mr. Kaufman, I have spent a career working with–and creating–brands. One of the fundamental truths of any sort of marketing (and probably life in general) is that it’s easier to create an impression than to change one. I come to Judaism as a convert, and I had some of the usual misconceptions and pre-conceived notions about it. What I was not misinformed about was Judaism’s ethical foundation. I have friends from the very Orthdox to the atheist Jew, and that is the one thing they share. The rest, as it has been said, is commentary. If Judaism needs to be repackaged, we need to make sure there’s something in the package.

  5. avatar

    Larry and Jordan have, as usual, said almost he exact opposite thing, both under the banner of Reform Judaism. This, I think, hits the nail on the head with respect to the Reform Judaism branding problem. You need to decide on a brand to sell – will it be the traditional worship practices Larry advocates, the Classical non-ethnic Judaism that Jordan is so fond of, or something else entirely? Either way, it’s going to be hard to brand Reform Judaism with such wildly differing opinions from within about what Reform Judaism is.

    • avatar

      I think you have a point, Erin. One possible answer to it is that we should at least try to “sell” a unified “brand” in terms of ideology, but should encourage diversity with regard to outward practices on a congregational level. In many ways, this is already the case. I don’t know of any “non-egalitarian” Reform Temples, and I don’t know of any Reform rabbis who refuse to officiate at same sex marriages or commitment ceremonies (with the possible exception of a few in Canada). Indeed, there are certain values concerning which the Movement is nearly monolithic. That is perhaps the only reason those on the far fringes of the Reform spectrum have not, and do not plan to, break away to form a separate Movement. Otherwise, I think many on the traditional side would have split off or gone Conservative, and many disillusioned Classical Reform Jews would have split off or joined the more conservative wing of Unitarian Universalism (yes, that exists).

      All that being said, some issues are emerging, such as interfaith marriage, attitudes towards the place of Israel in Diasporan Jewish life, and ethno-cultural vs. purely religious conceptions of Jewish identity that threaten to come to a head in the coming decades. I hope that the tension can be resolved well enough to prevent a split. Even today, though we are not in danger of a split, the rather schizophrenic cacophony of competing ideologies is making it appear to outsiders as though we do not have a coherent message, and I think one big challenge for Reform Judaism in the coming years will be AVOIDING going down the path that has made Unitarian Universalism lose so much credibility–we cannot become a religion of “anything goes”.

      One paradox that I see is that in some ways we are indeed becoming too liberal and relativistic, with no firm theological foundation, but at the same time we are being rigid and legalistic. God forbid someone should bring a meat lasagna to a Temple potluck, but we ought to avoid “God-talk” and demur from formulating a theological baseline to be taught in religious school and adult ed. I think that modern Reform Judaism is conservative in areas in which it ought to be more liberal, and too lazy in areas in which it ought to draw more from the spirit of our Tradition.

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