Should shuls be more like startups?

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Jewish organizations are struggling to maintain relevance in a changing world. Learning from today’s market success stories might help them fine tune their efforts.

Rabbi Avi Finegold

Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Finegold: This week, I renewed my membership in another networking lunch series for the year, my third year doing so as a rabbi/entrepreneur with my startup, the Jewish Learning Lab. Nevertheless, I still receive a fair share of quizzical remarks whenever I show up to networking events. People assume that I have a non-rabbinic product or service on the side, and I have to explain to them that I am selling a service just like they are – mine just happens to be Jewish learning.

Whether it is finding potential clients at Jewish networking events or attending events geared toward the startup culture, I have found all of them to be of great value. Marketing strategies, developing a brand identity, discovering the value of focus groups – I have learned much and have been offered many tools that have developed the Jewish Learning Lab beyond what I could have done myself, and at a fraction of the cost that many congregations have needed to employ professionals in similar fields to teach them similar strategies.

Why is there such reticence to treat Jewish non-profits as the startups that they really are? Wouldn’t emerging and even established organizations and congregations benefit from recognizing that they are no different than a mobile app developer?

Everyone has an idea or product to sell, and spirituality is no different than Google or Apple when it comes to brand loyalty.

Rabbi Scheim: I think you are on to something. Maybe I will think twice next time before trashing and not responding to the emails that I receive regularly from an entrepreneurial startup network inviting me to join.

It is no secret that established Jewish organizations are struggling to maintain relevance, and, in many cases, are barely surviving in a rapidly changing environment. Like other congregations, my synagogue has come to the realization that what worked in the 1960s, ’70s and even more recently needs significant tweaking and resetting if we are to remain significant in today’s and tomorrow’s Jewish world.

Similarly, the Rabbinical Assembly, which I currently lead, is presently engaged in a revisioning process, so that the rabbinate will be better able to meet the needs of our communities ba’asher hem sham – where they find themselves today.

Learning from successes in today’s marketplace, as you have done, is a great place to begin.

Rabbi Finegold: So here’s something to ponder: one of the big principles of startup culture is the embracing of failure as a step in the right direction. There are several iterations of this principle, but essentially, if you fail quickly and use the opportunity to grow instead of just dying on the vine, your organization will be better for it, because less time is spent on a venture that is clearly not wanted or needed.

Why is this concept virtually ignored in today’s Jewish non-profit universe? I find that too many non-profits are given too much rope to hang themselves, often at the expense of other better ideas that could use the limited resources available.

Or why do so many congregations insist on remaining in business way past their expiry date? Is there value to remaining open when attracting a minyan on Shabbat is a struggle and the only thing sustaining the congregation is the collective memory that sits on wall plaques and cemetery plots?

Rabbi Scheim: I wouldn’t discount the power of collective memory, even when it may lead a synagogue community to resist closing its doors when all signs point to diminished viability.

The recent closure of a local synagogue here in Toronto called Shaar Shalom has been very painful for its many now-displaced congregants. Should the signs of financial crisis have led the synagogue to close its doors a few years earlier, when one likely could have foreseen the end of its economic viability? Or were they better off to remain a functioning congregation as long as possible, to continue building the legacy of memories that so many cherished?

Perhaps this is the place where startup culture and Jewish community life take somewhat of a different path.

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