Can Synagogues Develop a Playbook to Survive Disruption?

disruptive-innovationBy Rabbi Joshua Rabin

The North American Synagogue exists in a dynamic tension. On the one hand, any conversation about what is wrong about North American Judaism somehow loops back to a conversation about synagogue “failure,” whether that alleged failure stems from sterile prayer experiences, uninspiring education, or cloistered community cultures. At the same time, in spite of precipitous decline in synagogue membership, the synagogue remains the most-affiliated Jewish institution in the United States by a sizable margin. In the Pew Research Forum’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 31% of the NET Jewish population and 39% of those who identify as Jewish by religion affiliate with a synagogue. By comparison, only 18% of the NET Jewish population and 22% of those who identify as Jewish by religion affiliate with another kind of Jewish organization. Moreover, in spite of the numerous analyses of the Pew Forum’s study since 2013, little, if any, evidence has been presented suggesting that unaffiliated Jews are participating in a different Jewish institution that will eventually usurp the synagogue. As such, developing a playbook to cultivate greater vitality in the North American Jewish community requires a coherent understanding of synagogue change.

I propose that we pause and consider the possibility that the problems facing the synagogue are not linked to anything about the synagogue’s content per se, but about the synagogue as a product in a particular marketplace. While it remains fashionable to criticize the synagogues themselves as the culprits for the decline in Jewish participation, the reality is that the synagogue model is being disrupted in ways that dramatically affect what synagogues might look like in the future. By extension, thinking about synagogue change through the lens of disruptive innovation provides a framework to understand how other institutions facing similar challenges attained newfound vitality. I am far from the first person to write about disruptive innovation in synagogues, as interesting works have been published on this topic by Daniel Libenson, Barak Richman, Robert Evans, Kerry and Avi Olitzky, Michael Uram, and many others. My article aims to provide a detailed primer to how the theory of disruptive innovation aligns with challenges facing synagogues, while also describing the seeds of a playbook to thrive in a disruptive reality.

1. Clayton Christensen’s Theory of Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School coined the term “disruptive innovation” with his publication of The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997, a book that outlines Christensen’s theory of how previously dominant businesses planted the seeds of their own destruction. Rather than assert that these businesses declined because of poor management, Christensen argues that there is something “about the way in which decisions get made in successful organizations that sows the seeds of eventual failure” (page xv). While Christensen’s theory is not without critics, most notably Jill Lepore of The New Yorker, the consensus remains that the theory of disruptive innovation provides clarity to help understand the dramatic fall of iconic corporations such as Sears, Kodak, and Blockbuster Video.

Christensen argues that two types of technology affect business, sustaining technology and disruptive technology. A sustaining technology improves “the performance of established products, along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued” (xviii). Sustaining technologies include anything that improves the performance, quality, or functionality of a product people already use, such as increasing the mileage-per-gallon of a car or the network capabilities of a cell phone. In synagogue life, allowing a person to fill out membership forms online with a credit card or PayPal, or changing the title of a staff position from “Director of Education” to “Director of Lifelong Learning,” are each sustaining technologies, tweaking the organization’s existing model, while keeping the model’s skeleton intact.

In contrast, a disruptive technology initially provides worse product performance to an existing product, but ultimately brings to a market “a very different value proposition than had been available previously” (xviii). For example, Christensen argues that when hydraulic-powered shovels entered the construction industry in the 1950’s, the traditional manufacturers did not invest in the new technology because the early hydraulic models were less efficient than traditional steam shovels, requiring more power to do less work (80). However, by the late 1960’s, the upstart companies advanced their technology to the point where they could meet the needs of previously uninterested customers, at which point the makers of hydraulic shovels tore into the market share of the previously dominant companies. Christensen concludes that the established companies did not fail in this instance because of poor management, but rather because “hydraulics didn’t make sense – until it was too late” (82).

But if companies know that a disruptive technology will eventually overtake their core business, why do so many of them fail to adapt? Christensen argues that businesses only invest in new innovation when that innovation fits into the business’s value network, which is “the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures input, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit” (36). In order to determine whether or not to invest in a particular technology, a business first determines whether or not investment creates value for the current customer base. Furthermore, in a value network, “each firm’s competitive strategy … determines its perceptions of the economic value of a new technology.” Because well-established institutions tend to make strategic decisions based on how they understand their current marketplace, Christensen argues that this approach makes institutions susceptible to upstarts whose disruptive technologies are not within the institution’s present value network, yet can ultimately become dominant in the marketplace if unaddressed over time.

2. Chabad: A Paradigm of Disruptive Innovation

While a number of factors currently affect the decline in synagogue participation, ignoring the impact of disruptive innovation on synagogues obscures our ability to understand how organizational structure affects the fulfillment of a synagogue’s mission. Consider Chabad. Seven years after he became the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson gave a speech on June 30, 1958 that outlined his policy of Uforatzto, a campaign to build a movement of Chabad emissaries, otherwise known as shlichim, people “willing to forgo his or her conveniences and reach out to light even those forsaken lamps” and increase Jewish practice around the world. Although the precise numbers of shlichim remains difficult to count, Jonathan Sarna estimates in American Judaism that the Lubavitch movement boasts 3,800 couples in 45 states and 65 countries as of 2002 (300), and Jack Wertheimer writes in a 2013 article in Commentary that Chabad shlichim may number over 5,000 individuals. By any measure, Rabbi Schneerson and his followers succeeded in making Chabad one of the most ubiquitous actors in world Jewry.

However, when the historical growth of Chabad is analyzed through the lens of disruptive innovation, it becomes possible to better understand how organizations like Chabad disrupt a synagogue structure. During the boom era of synagogues in North America following World War II, it would have been ludicrous to assume that a Chabad house opening down the street would seriously compete with a growing suburban synagogue. Chabad shlichim significantly diverge in practice, ideology and background from the people they serve, unlike most non-Orthodox rabbis. Furthermore, a nascent Chabad house cannot offer the resources of a synagogue, including a congregational school, preschool, programming for constituent groups, and a large full-time staff, as a new Chabad house is typically “staffed” by a single Chabad rabbi, his wife, and their children. Finally, in the late 1950’s, when sociologist Marshall Sklare wrote that Orthodox Judaism’s role in the United States was “a case study in institutional decay,” it would seem preposterous to assume that sending rabbis from what many considered a dying breed of practice would engage a largely assimilated Jewish population, and certainly not have the tremendous success and growth over the past several decades.

At the same time, while the emergence of Chabad shlichim came at the time of unprecedented growth in synagogues, any student of North American Judaism knows that the strength of the synagogues themselves was not as robust as it appeared. While there was a massive expansion of synagogue membership and building construction in the 1960’s in the United States, Jonathan Sarna notes in American Judaism that synagogue attendance amongst Jews always lagged behind Catholics and Protestants, and growth in synagogue membership and construction actually coincided with a decrease in Jewish practice (277-278). Furthermore, the Chabad model itself provides two structural features that disrupt the traditional synagogue model. First, Chabad shlichim raise their own funds to keep a Chabad house functional, which means they are not only raising their own operating budget, but they also must raise money for food to feed their family, and as Detroit shliach Rabbi Levi Shemtov told Sue Fishkoff in The Rebbe’s Army, ”You learn [fundraising] fast when you don’t have food on the table” (162). Second, Chabad shlichim provide many, and sometimes all, of their services for free. Chris Anderson writes in Free: The Future of a Radical Price that offering a service for free is “the most disruptive way to enter a market,” because charging nothing for something that “the incumbents depend upon for their profits” turns the entire marketplace upside-down (43). Because the majority of synagogues operate in a membership or fee-for-service model, each of the elements of Chabad’s structure disrupts the method by which synagogues remains financially viable.

3. A Playbook to Survive Disruption

Disruption is not a trend or fad; on the contrary, ignoring disruptive technology slowly and inexorably destroys established models unless institutions explore the new marketplace using new technologies. Furthermore, Chabad is not the only disruptive technology affecting synagogues, as I could provide a similar analysis to the role of independent minyanim, community Hebrew Schools, and private Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. However, it is neither helpful nor insightful to analyze a disruptive innovator unless one is able to develop a playbook to meet the emerging needs of the marketplace. While Christensen previously argued in The Innovator’s Dilemma that the only way for a business to survive disruption is to create a separate entity designed to function like a disruptive upstart (xxiii-xxiv), Joshua Gans argues in The Disruption Dilemma that institutions can address disruption if they “continually challenge themselves to understand the linkages in their organization and evolve them to meet and assimilate innovations that emerge” (98). In some cases, that might mean that an institution creates a completely new entity to mirror disruptive technology, which Christensen encouraged the United States military to create in order to fight terrorism; in other cases, Gans argues that the institution can develop an “integrated structure that embeds architectural knowledge in the minds of as many people as possible,” so that the institution cultivates processes capable of functioning like disruptive innovators (104). Either strategy is easier said than done, and requires legacy institutions to experiment with models that use different definitions of success, greater latitude for professionals to create new value, and independence to explore the unknown.

This fall, two projects were launched by institutions affiliated with Conservative Judaism that will test whether or not a new ecosystem can be created to provide mutual benefit between synagogues and the disruptive technologies of the present. The first project takes place in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where a group of visionary rabbis, congregations and philanthropists hired Rabbi Rami Schwartzer to engage Jewish young adults outside the walls of their synagogues. The second project takes place in downtown San Francisco, where The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism hired Daniel Novick, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, to build a grassroots community of young adults to expand the reach of progressive Judaism. The leaders of each project must create new metrics of success that can operate independent of a synagogue’s value network, where terms like “membership” and “affiliation” cannot even enter the lexicon, and where defining the outcomes of the process by what worked in the past will doom the upstart projects to failure. Clayton Christensen writes that, “Not only are market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable” (165). To meet the challenges of the present, organizations that help synagogues engage in change management must invest resources in testing disruptive technologies in targeted areas, so that all synagogues might benefit from exploring whether or not they have the bandwidth to change.

Abraham Karp writes in The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed that the synagogue “has been remarkably sensitive to the changing needs of America’s Jews” (35). While extensive attention has been paid to how synagogues must rethink their approach to prayer, education, outreach, and many other areas, unless synagogues address the impact of disruptive innovation, mere technical changes will be for naught. Following World War II, synagogues were the titans of North American Judaism, the dominant force in their marketplace. And while oftentimes disruptive innovation is introduced into the communal conversation to chastise leaders for past mistakes, Christensen’s theory actually teaches us that our current dilemmas are a product of success, not failure, for those institutions made the best possible decisions given the landscape of Judaism at that time. Now we face a different landscape, and the options for Jewish engagement that were effective in the past are not in the present. Developing a coherent and accurate understanding of the problem is the first step to determining whether or not we have the resolve to solve it.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at