[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: www.cliforum.org/blog/.]
By Rabbi Adam Lutz
It all started with a simple conversation that would frighten many in the world of Jewish institutional life. In early March 2020, my colleague, Rabbi Dara Frimmer, and I discussed the imminent closure of our synagogues due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We shared how we planned to offer digital worship, online religious school, and distance preschool programming. In our conversation, I posed a seemingly innocuous but somewhat provocative suggestion for Jewish institutions to date: “Why don’t we share resources? Share material? Share online classes? That way, while people are stuck at home, they will have plenty of opportunities to remain connected. And by sharing, we don’t have to shoulder the entire load ourselves.” And thus, JewItAtHome.com was born.
We launched JewItAtHome.com as a spiritual, Jewish farmer’s market of sorts. It is currently a world-wide partnership of over thirty Jewish institutions that share resources to provide high quality spiritual nourishment during this challenging time. But we have discovered a need in the Jewish world that will persist in the post-COVID-19 world. Our users can access a multitude of diverse, cost-free programing 24/7 – from Jewish yoga to text study and Tot Shabbat services to challah baking and more. Similar to a farmer’s market, JewItAtHome’s business model centers around partnership and sharing virtual space for the benefit of everyone, Jews-in-the-pews and Jewish institutions alike. Our model revolves around “free-samples” of Jewish content. Like at a farmer’s market where fromageries offer free cheese samples to entice would-be buyers, JewItAtHome partners offer a high-quality sampling of what their institution offers on a regular basis.
Despite the current success of the platform, our model challenges many preconceived notions and fears surrounding the sharing of synagogue resources. Recently, a potential partner told me that they were afraid of losing members to those with whom they might collaborate. Although I completely understand this fear of losing members and, potentially, dues revenue to other Jewish institutions, this fear is rooted in a scarcity mentality that there is not enough of the pie to go around and we must protect our slice. But, are we really so naïve to think, in the small Jewish institutional world, that if our “product” is not quality then our members won’t leave anyway?
Another potential partner shared concerns about providing content for free, wondering how his institution would support itself if there was no income. I also understand this perspective – of course without a revenue stream Jewish institutional life cannot exist. However, JewItAtHome does not require that institutions offer everything they do for free. Additionally, synagogues have been offering this type of free service forever – it is called Shabbat worship. JewItAtHome makes it possible to offer additional entry points for potential Jewish patrons.
Like farmer’s market shoppers, JewItAtHome users can, of course, satiate themselves by taking samples from here and there. But such sampling makes a wide cross-section of Jews aware of teachers and of approaches to Judaism that were previously, not on the wider radar screen of Jews in the community. For too long, we have only lived within the walls of our own Jewish institutions.
One anecdote: JewItAtHome attracted an active user from Tennessee, who attends our “Hebrew Bootcamp” weekly. During his first class he explained that he has always wanted to learn Hebrew, but there are no synagogues close enough to his home to justify weekly classes. JewItAtHome has finally provided him meaningful Jewish practice through a synagogue affiliate. The hope is that he will join this affiliate as a “remote member” because he loves the “free sample” and wants more.
The key to the success of JewItAtHome has been the willingness of partners to place the needs of Jewish people over the needs of Jewish institutions. We’ve framed our decisions around three core values:
1) Integrity – all the content provided should increase the Jewish community’s trust in our platform;
2) Usefulness – everything that we offer must increase our usefulness to the Jewish world;
3) Freedom of Expression – there is not only one way to express Judaism, therefore our partners provide content for the entire breadth of Jewish expression.
Since our launch in March, over seven thousand unique users have accessed our site and viewed approximately twenty-five thousand pages. Jews from across the world have logged into classes from locations as far away as Israel and Amsterdam. Instead of letting fear drive the decisions made for JewItAtHome, we have embraced the plethora of possibilities that a diverse and dedicated partnership of shared resources provides. Just recently, we engaged all of our partners at JewItAtHome to host a Global Tikkun for Shavuot. We offered eighty classes throughout the evening, saw fifteen-hundred unique users accessing content and over two-hundred households attend our opening plenary.
At this point you might be wondering, “If this is all free, who pays for JewItAtHome?” The entire JewItAtHome enterprise is funded by my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH). TEBH holds to its core mission of always leading the world in Jewish expression, Jewish communal involvement, and Jewish social justice. The synagogue leadership empowered me to continue to grow JewItAtHome from the first few partners into the world-wide partnership that exists today. Of course, as JewItAtHome continues to grow, costs will increase, so we are currently exploring options to offset anticipated expenses.
Just like a farmer’s market forces purveyors to select what offerings are free and exciting enough to entice a customer to make a purchase, JewItAtHome is forcing Jewish institutions to do the same. Partner offerings must be high quality so that users will return again and again with the hope that, at some point, they will make a deeper financial commitment. I recently asked a user of JewItAtHome how her experience with the platform has affected her Jewish identity and impacted her relationship with her home congregation. She told me that she loves having access to so many high-quality Jewish programs, allowing her to better engage and develop her Jewish identity. And it has not lessened her connection to her own congregation. She continues to plug into her own congregation’s programs and worship services, each time bringing her the pleasure of returning to a familiar set of faces, customs and clergy. Most users have similar experiences.
When synagogues collaborate and partner with one another on a common platform like JewItAtHome provides, we can cultivate a more engaged Jewish community. Noted concerns notwithstanding, my experience with JewItAtHome shows that by supporting one another we can create avenues of access for Jews who are disengaged, unaffiliated and otherwise, uninterested. We can help them discover the riches of our tradition known to us, but which are often hidden from the average lay-person. But first, we have to change by letting go of our fears and collaborating.
We live in a world of physical distance, but our work–now more than ever–is to demonstrate that physical distance does not prevent us from joining hearts, minds, and souls.
An aerospace engineer turned rabbi, Adam Lutz works to design meaningful Jewish life for the 21st century. He is the Assistant Rabbi/Director of Education at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the creator of JewItAtHome.com, and a proud first-time parent with his wife, Cantor Emma Lutz, to 5 month old, Ruby Mira.