This season is a time of reflection, self-assessment, and new beginnings for Jews the world over. To synagogues it can mean something much more practical: an unmatched opportunity for attracting new members and new revenue. That’s why synagogues fill pages of Jewish newspapers with advertisements at this time of year as they compete for worshippers and their dollars.
A fight in Boca Raton, Florida, shows just how high the stakes can be. For the first time the Levis Jewish Community Center is offering High Holiday services this year, and synagogue rabbis are reportedly “enraged.” One calls the JCC’s move “a usurpation and invasion of the synagogues here.” He protests, “This is what we do. They have stepped over the line and are acting as a synagogue.” In other words, he objects to the fact that the JCC has become a direct competitor of the synagogues.
What he didn’t say is that his synagogue is at severe competitive disadvantage. The JCC’s strategy amounts to “skimming the cream” – furnishing the product most in demand at a lower price, without the less popular and less remunerative activities. It’s like bookstores that stock only the best-selling titles and sell them at a discount. They make a much higher return than if their shelves held a comprehensive selection that would appeal to a much smaller public. In Boca Raton the JCC’s High Holiday services cost $200 for a family, while a synagogue membership can cost well over $1000.
Oddly these rabbis did not invoke the halakhic doctrine of Hasagat Gevul, which addresses unfair competition. The pre-eminent Orthodox decisor of the last generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, specifically ruled (Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:38) that a breakaway minyan was prohibited if it destroyed the livelihood (parnassah) of the rabbi of the original congregation, following opinions in the Talmud and more recent commentators. On other words, there are limits to fair competition based on the effects of that competition on the unsuccessful competitor.
The rabbis in Boca Raton relied instead on claims that the JCC is changing the rules by stepping outside its proper role. One rabbi cited the JCC’s focus on “cultural activities” and fears a “duplication of effort” if the Community Center offers religious services. (He did not say whether cultural activities at synagogues are similarly inappropriate because they duplicate the cultural efforts of the JCC.) Yet even if there were no services at the JCC, there are other low-cost options available for people who find synagogue membership to be overpriced and unappealing. They can still go to services in leased storefronts, or within gated communities of retirees, or at Chabad.
It’s also now easier than ever to see and hear High Holiday services through the media. JLTV, the Los Angeles-based 24/7 cable channel, will broadcast Rosh Hashana services from L.A.’s Stephen S. Wise Temple, and Yom Kippur services from the Temple of the Arts. A new venture, OneShul (a project of PunkTorah), has launched live interactive services during the year on a limited basis. If it becomes a success, perhaps it could lead to a participatory High Holiday experience with a community linked by the Internet. These, too, are alternatives for people who do not want or need what a synagogue has to offer.
The real problem for the synagogues in Boca Raton is not their competitors. It’s their own value proposition, and the growing rejection of that proposition by the public. Synagogues want congregants to pay a full year’s dues in order to come to services a few days a year, and that makes less and less sense to would-be members. Trying to force Jews to accept their terms by eliminating competition is hardly consistent with claims of being “warm and welcoming.”
Nor is the competition going away. If anything, it will only become more intense as rabbis and laypeople increasingly form ad-hoc prayer groups for bar and bat mitzvahs as well as the High Holidays. Synagogue leaders, like the rest of us, may want to reflect and look inward at this time of year and try to find a better way forward.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, is a long-time consultant and a graduate of Harvard Business School. His Twitter feed about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture can be found at Twitter.com/bobgoldfarb. Bob lives in Jerusalem.