The leadership team of Blockbuster was in the throes of a principled disagreement. Some believed that the wave of the future was to promote streaming and subscription-based DVD rentals. Others believed that the company needed to double down on what it had always been, a video rental company where a customer picked up the video from a store and paid laid fees if the video were returned late. The side that said double down on videos, stores and late fees won that battle but lost the war. Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2013. Netflix, which saw the promise of streaming and subscription-based services when others did not, today has a value of $117 billion. The story of the demise of Blockbuster and the ascent of Netflix is told in a museum in Sweden called the Museum of Failure.
How can American synagogues today not be like Blockbuster? Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute observed that American synagogues founded after World War II were beset with an intractable tension. They are religious institutions. They sell religion. But their members are not religious. Their members don’t want religion. That’s why our pews are so often empty. That’s why last week’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah family is not back this week.
The fundamental disconnect between non-religious people and religious institutions is captured perfectly in a vignette from Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It is the end of Yom Kippur. The rabbi and the cantor are leading the congregation in beating their breasts as they recite the vidui. The Jews in the pews are bored silly. The service is wooden, mechanical, not relevant, the opposite of inspiring. The minute the service is over, they flee the synagogue like bats out of hell, not to return for another year.
To the extent that synagogues double down on tweaking our worship services, we are like Blockbuster doubling down on video rentals. We are focused on yesterday, on a product or service – being in synagogue praying, and that is not where the vast majority of our people live.
But here is the good news. As Israeli thought leader and writer Micah Goodman observed, Judaism has wisdom that is helpful and urgently needed for our broken western world. Our members are not religious and they do not like coming to prayer services. That is true. But they are lonely and in need of community. They are distracted and in need of Shabbat. They are depleted and in need of renewal. They are searching and in need of meaning. They are anxious and depressed and in need of the message: You are enough. Our synagogues have what our members need. But a tragic disconnect prevents them from realizing it.
What new delivery system can our synagogues come up with that will provide a Jewish balm for the modern soul?
In Work Inspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work (2018), Aron Ain, CEO of Kronos, writes an extremely evocative chapter entitled “Put Yourself Out of Business,” which should be required reading for Jewish professionals. He points out that smart phones put flip phones out of business by doing everything flip phones could do, plus a whole lot more. He describes investing in a group within his company and charging them: “put Kronos out of business.” This group did so. The disruptive technology this group created (everything their old technology did plus a whole lot more) allows the company to thrive in newer and deeper ways.
Synagogues need to put ourselves out of business. We will always have (under-attended) services. In addition to that, how can we meet our people where they are (not in synagogue) and lift them up in new ways?
Blockbuster was stuck in yesterday and is now an exhibit in the Museum of Failure.
If we can figure out how to meet our modern, secular members with uplifting wisdom, warm community, deep meaning and loving relationships in a way that answers their life problems, if our Blockbuster synagogues can become Netflix synagogues, we will thrive again.
Wexner Graduate Alum Wesley Gardenswartz (Class 6) is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre, MA. He is married to Shira Goodman and the father of Nat (29), Sam (27) and Jordana (23).