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excited about a religion whose brand is, in the popular imagination, falsely represented by an image that’s 300 years outdated?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?
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.