Our Challenge: The Under-Demand for Jewish Life

To “win” in the Jewish community of tomorrow we must continuously imagine what people will need, or what will make a difference in their lives.

by Marc N. Blattner

At the May 2007 national Jewish Federation Leadership Summit, I presented a paper about lessons the Jewish community should take from Target (the department store). I discussed then the consumer nature of the Jewish community and outlined what I believe are the four greatest challenges facing Jewish communal life: cost, convenience, value and meaning. Today, I read more and more from others about “Jewish consumerism.” The problem is many still do not want to accept it.

I agree that the Jewish people are more than just a group paying for goods and services. We have a history, culture, religion, tradition, teachings and far more. But let’s be honest. So much of Jewish life has become a “fee for service” model that we have created our own consumer mentality. Examples include synagogue dues (and add more for funerals, simchas, supplementary school), camp fees, JCC membership, day school tuition, senior care – and the list goes on.

Our challenge today is that we have entered a period of too much “Jewish supply” and far too little “Jewish demand.”

The American Jewish community was initially built on insular neighborhoods and the inability of Jews to gain access to a full range of programs and services in the general community (community centers, country clubs, teaching hospitals, etc). In response, we developed our own parallel “service system” with Jewish-specific social service, cultural, educational and communal organizations. Today, however, outside of Jewish ritual practice, Jewish (formal and informal) education, and free Israel travel, almost everything the Jewish community has to offer can be found elsewhere. And, in fact, people are increasingly going outside our network for what they perceive as higher quality and more convenient programs and services. Therefore, as Jewish communities struggle to engage more people with a full complement of choices, how do we compete? And should we?

We live in a world where one’s neighborhood is as much virtual as physical, and in a time when friends and other key influencers are no longer just our Jewish neighbors. For these realities, the traditional Jewish supply-centric “we have all of this to offer you” model has few answers. We are in an era of oversupply – significantly more Jewish activities, services and organizations exist than there is demand. This supply continues to grow with numerous innovative Jewish projects.

It’s time to align our strategies to understand who and where the markets are, what causes them to make their involvement decisions, and whether there is real interest in what is being offered.

Market research – not old assumptions and anecdotes (the plural of anecdote is not data) – must be used to identify trends and patterns forming in our communities. Market knowledge and quantifiable data will enable the Jewish community to align and change current strategies, resource allocations and services. We still base much of our Jewish communal structure on history and nostalgia. In fact, how different does the current Jewish landscape look than it did in 1985, even with the creation of many new programs?

One of my greatest struggles as a Jewish communal professional is to balance the historic missions of Jewish organizations with the realities of today. I certainly believe we have an obligation to provide “Jewish values based services” in our communities. However, what percentage of clients at “our” social service agencies (who often proclaim they are overwhelmed with clients) are Jewish? The same holds true for Jewish community centers, pre-schools, and nursing homes. Even Jewish day schools are looking at actively recruiting non-Jews to increase enrollment. I am not against serving non-Jews, yet, when you take them out of the “case load,” how much demand is actually coming from the Jewish community?

We learn that today’s most successful companies (i.e. Amazon, Apple, Google) are based on what customers want, rather than what suppliers offer. Demand - not our kishkes - drives success!

I learned in school that Value = Benefits/Price. From the customer’s perspective, value has two components – benefits delivered and the price paid to obtain them. Two “valued” ventures in Jewish life today are PJ Library and Birthright Israel. One continues to grow due to the demand of young parents across the continent, while the other’s success has, unfortunately, created long waiting lists. What is the common denominator of these programs – THEY ARE FREE to participants. I understand that the Jewish community cannot provide everything at no cost (the issue of “free” is currently being debated), but price matters … word of mouth matters … and “what is in it for me” matters.

Today – consumers consume and move on. We do it in our own (Jewish) lives. You offered me a free trip or free books with no strings attached …. thank you. Now, many will continue to participate in Jewish life and expand their involvement, but many “take the money and run.” We are in an era of episodic Judaism – I get what I want when I need it. It is no longer a life-long commitment. Look at JCCs and their annual membership churn of 25% or more. Look at synagogue affiliation of families following bar/bat mitzvah.

There are those who will say Judaism and Jewish identity are about “meaning.” But for too many, Jewish services are just a commodity. Thus, the foundation for any successful pricing strategy is to price to demand, not to markets. Even in those cases where participation fees have been greatly reduced or even made free (i.e. Jewish summer camps, day schools) have we seen the dramatic growth in numbers we expected? Or, are there just a finite number of people interested in Jewish life in the way our communities are currently structured?

At the same time, Jewish communities are more geographically dispersed, while Jewish institutions are often centralized in the “old Jewish” area. Convenience becomes an issue. People are no longer willing to “drive the extra mile(s)” for a Jewish experience, and, instead, just look for the “best” alternative nearby. If communal services are not within a manageable distance from where one lives, people opt out. The demand for what we offer may not be worth the mileage.

The question we must ask ourselves is do we continue to “supply it all” or do we merge and streamline services? “Full” is better than “mostly empty.” This is no different than how the airline industry works. When is the last time you flew on a half-empty flight? Think of the resources our community can save and reinvest into those programs with considerable demand.

Today, almost every significant decision people make begins with online research. People have learned to compare thousands of products online. The same holds true in Jewish communities. I always chuckle when I hear Jewish communal colleagues say their organization needs more members, participants, or clients (which is often less about mission and, instead, code for additional revenue).

Do any of us truly believe that people cannot find those Jewish experiences or organizations if they wanted to? Or, have community members already voted with their wallet and feet to go elsewhere? Maybe 30% (if that high) of people actually enter the doors of our current Jewish communal institutions and organizations.

Jewish “consumers” are talking more than ever before – and in the process, conveying enormous amounts of information about themselves – their desires, tastes, interests, dislikes, needs. They do so in person, over the phone, via email and social media. Is the Jewish community truly listening and learning?

To “win” in the Jewish community of tomorrow we must continuously imagine what people will need, or what will make a difference in their lives. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon recently said, “Amazon innovates by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone of how we invent.” Customer focus is the central cultural issue of today. Identifying trends and recognizing patterns forming in our communities among different customer segments will enable us to gather data about what those customers will want. Look at the success of Amazon and others with predictive analysis and modeling. This is 2013, yet I feel like we operate as if it is 1995.

Jewish communities still try to be all things to all people and, instead, end up being relevant to very few. That was the strategy of the past, and it is a recipe for failure now as demand (and dollars) flattens or declines. Real future success will stem from the combination of understanding demand and then creating the right “product,” package, price, and message.

Our challenge as a Jewish community today is not the amount of offerings – it is the fact we have, unfortunately, limited demand for what is currently being offered.

Marc N. Blattner is President and CEO of  the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

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Comments

  1. says

    Now here’s someone who really gets it! Bravo. There is limited demand among Jews for the kind of Judaism that mainstream institutions have been offering (and not as much demand as we might have hoped for the Jewish offerings of innovation orgs either). As Clay Shirkey put it, abundance is much more disruptive than scarcity, and we have abundance relative to the ever-shrinking demand for what we normally consider Jewish life. Now is the time for radical experiments and big gambles, not a conservative circle-the-wagons passivity.

  2. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Marc,

    Let me second Isaac’s comment about “someone who really gets it,” with my own “kol hakavod” for the courage to spell out clearly and bluntly what few if any others in this forum have done or seem willing to do; i.e., paint the dismal and failing picture of the status quo of non Orthodox Judaism and its institutions and give realistic answers as to why. You wrote:

    “To ‘win’ in the Jewish community of tomorrow…”

    Please help me understand what is meant by “Jewish community” in any meaningful sense of the words Jewish or community. You continued:

    “…we must continuously imagine what people will need, or what will make a difference in their lives.”

    Bingo!!! You later wrote:

    “…the four greatest challenges facing Jewish communal life: cost,”

    Why bother with a synagogue and its dues when what most Jews care about (if they care at all) are life-cycle events (b’nai/b’not mitzvah, weddings, funerals etc.), and an occasional worship service, all of which can be found ala carte and/or on the internet for far less money? Marc continued:

    “…convenience, value and meaning.”

    If value and meaning were present (which aren’t as far as most Jews in North America are concerned), convenience would be less of a barrier. Marc continued:

    “Today, I read more and more from others about ‘Jewish consumerism.’ The problem is many still do not want to accept it.”

    Bingo again!!! Marc continued:

    “I agree that the Jewish people are more than just a group paying for goods and services. We have a history, culture, religion, tradition, teachings and far more.”

    About which most Jews in North America couldn’t care less. Marc later continued:

    “…Our challenge today is that we have entered a period of too much “Jewish supply” and far too little “Jewish demand.”

    That’s because what’s being supplied is irrelevant and meaningless to most North American Jews. Marc later continued:

    “Today, however, outside of Jewish ritual practice, Jewish (formal and informal) education, and free Israel travel,….”

    Once again, irrelevant to meaningless to most Jews of North America beyond (perhaps) that deemed necessary for Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation. Marc continued:

    “…almost everything the Jewish community has to offer can be found elsewhere. And, in fact, people are increasingly going outside our network for what they perceive as higher quality and more convenient programs and services. ….It’s time to align our strategies to understand who and where the markets are, what causes them to make their involvement decisions, and whether there is real interest in what is being offered.”

    Bingo again!!! Marc later continued:

    “We still base much of our Jewish communal structure on history and nostalgia.”

    And the peoplehood stuff of Judaism, like history and nostalgia, is subject to the same inexorable pull of the North American melting pot as are all of the ethno-cultural traditions of every immigrant group that has come to our shores. The further away (generationally) from the immigrant experience the weaker it (peoplehood stuff) gets. Jewish ethno-cultural dimensions are no exception to this trend as many have gone and continue to go the way of the Catskills and more recently the Jewish Deli and of course, affiliation in Jewish organizations including of course non Orthodox synagogues. Nostalgia and history are at best insufficient as a catalyst for Jewish continuity. Marc continued later:

    “I certainly believe we have an obligation to provide ‘Jewish values based services’ in our communities….”

    Other than Shabbat and Kashrut, what specifically “Jewish” values are there that aren’t really Universal values? Giving something a Hebrew name, e.g., tikkun ‘olam does not necessarily confer Jewish status. Marc later continued:

    “…today’s most successful companies (i.e. Amazon, Apple, Google) are based on what customers want, rather than what suppliers offer. Demand – not our kishkes – drives success!”

    Perhaps the following clarification: the contribution of “our kishkes” is very much a part of how we decide what we want and what we need in and from the marketplace. The success of an organization or idea is its reward for meeting and fulfilling those needs and wants with excellence. Marc continued:

    “…Two “valued” ventures in Jewish life today are PJ Library and Birthright Israel….THEY ARE FREE to participants. I understand that the Jewish community cannot provide everything at no cost (the issue of “free” is currently being debated), but price matters…”

    In a world where the internet is the biggest playing field leveler ever, free or close to it, is what is, as well as what will be for the foreseeable future and thus the debate is futile. Marc continued:

    “… word of mouth matters …”

    Still the best marketing there is. Marc continued:

    “and ‘what is in it for me’ matters.”

    Consumerism 101. And a question sorely in need of and answer re non-Orthodox Judaism and its institutions. Marc later continued:

    “We are in an era of episodic Judaism – I get what I want when I need it. It is no longer a life-long commitment.”

    This is primarily because North American non-Orthodox Judaism has failed to show ongoing value for most Jews beyond life-cycle events and an occasional worship service. Marc continued;

    “…are there just a finite number of people interested in Jewish life in the way our communities are currently structured?”

    Yes and that “finite number” continues to dwindle with each passing day. Marc continued:

    “…have community members already voted with their wallet and feet to go elsewhere?”

    You betcha!!! Marc continued:

    “Maybe 30% (if that high) of people actually enter the doors of our current Jewish communal institutions and organizations.”

    And the number of Jews in North America that have given up on non Orthodox Judaism and its institutions is ever increasing and is arguably the largest of demographics. Marc continued:

    “Jewish “consumers” are talking more than ever before –…Is the Jewish community truly listening and learning?”

    Do you mean, “are the professional Jews truly listening?” Marc later continued:

    “Jewish communities still try to be all things to all people and, instead, end up being relevant to very few. That was the strategy of the past, and it is a recipe for failure now as demand (and dollars) flattens or declines.”

    Bingo!!! Everything is nothing (no thing). Marc continued:

    “Real future success will stem from the combination of understanding demand…”

    Since the Beginning, humanity has been driven to search for meaning and connection. This is a given of human nature that remains unchanged and thus an ever present human demand. The Hebrew Bible confirms this with “In the Beginning God created… Gen 1:1″ affirming a meaningful and intentional universe not one of chance and caprice. The human search for connection is validated by the verse, ” It is not good for humans to live alone…Gen 2:18″ Marc continued:

    “…and then creating the right ‘product,’…”

    That “product” would be a relevant, practical, application oriented non Orthodox Judaism that speaks to life as it is lived and experienced by 21rst century folks (Jews among them) in North America. Marc continued:
    “…package,…”

    A state of the art delivery system, using the Arts, Music, Drama Media and Technology, all in the service of the product and its message (see below), is an absolute necessity. Wise consumers demand and expect no less. Marc continued:

    “…message,…”

    The message is that Judaism and Jewish teaching do indeed speak to our lives relevantly and practically to this very day offering a singularly fulfilling, God and community honoring way of life (I’m not necessarily talking about ritual observance here). Marc continued:

    “…and cost.”

    The lessons of measurably successful megachurches such as Willow Creek Comunity Church in South Barrington, IL (a NW suburb of Chicago), Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, GA (near Atlanta), who have no dues nor assessments (nor do they name donors for other fundraising needs) suggest that it’s possible to cover “costs” in another way. When there is a religious community in whose DNA is embedded a God and community honoring vision, mission, and values and led by humble, servant oriented leaders, financial needs are gladly and voluntarily covered by its membership.

    Thanks again Marc for courageously speaking the truth about the reality on the ground of non Orthodox Judaism, its institutions and organizations. I hope that others will embrace these truths as well, as we can’t even think about beginning the process of change without first acknowledging the brutal reality of the status quo.

    If it is to be it is up to us.

    Biv’;racha,

    Jordan Goodman
    Wheeling, IL
    eashtov@aol.com

  3. Charles Lebow says

    The big problem with American Jewry is the following dilemma: The appeal of America, as opposed to Europe (especially Eastern Europe) was the acceptability of the secular. Jews were accepted, not as Jews, but as secular Jews, who would blend in well into the American melting pot. One hundred years later, Jewish organizations are upset because the majority of the Jewish population did what it was supposed to do and melted.

    Fortunately, America has also changed and is now open to accepting Jews, not just as secular Americans but as a legitimate religious group. I can only give one suggestion: the leadership of American Jewry must admit that the American Dream was really a nightmare. The leadership must now make it clear to American Jews that a huge mistake was made and admit that there is no future for American Jewry as a secular movement. The good news is that the option of becoming religious Jews is still available for those who may be interested. This is the only honest message that can be given. Personally I don’t think that it is such a bad one.

    Charles Lebow
    dled@netvision.net.il