Jewish Learners As Consumers; The Conversation Continues

by David Behrman

Sam Glassenberg says we need to treat Jewish learners as consumers, and create a Jewish experience good enough that they want to buy it. And he’s right.

Why? Because “every Jew is a Jew by choice.” We all make choices about how we spend our time. There is a “global marketplace of ideas and commitments” as Joshua Avedon, Shawn Landres, and Felicia Herman observe in The Jewish Innovation Economy. And they are wise to include commitments. The things that pull on our time can pull us away from Jewish practice and from Judaism.

The pull of the majority culture on Jews has long been recognized, by rabbis, in works of fiction, and recently in Wikinoah. The pull is even stronger today, as the array of secular opportunities grows and grows. Jews act Jewishly by choice. When Judaism engages them on their terms, they will choose it.

To promote engagement we must consider three questions:

1. How do we reach people?

We need to be good at finding our people, at understanding their needs, and at cutting through the noise in their lives. Then we need to get their attention.

One way is to start with the school. Willie Sutton, asked why he robbed banks, replied “that’s where the money is.” Schools are where our children are. Let’s begin with religious and day schools, where children and families already vote with their time and money to tell us that participation in Jewish life is important to them.

2. What tools can we provide?

Once we find families, we need to offer engaging, meaningful opportunities – in Glassenberg’s words, something “excellent and appealing.” It’s no longer enough merely to push knowledge. We must create the pull of demand: rewarding experiences that help solve problems and fill needs, even if one of those needs is simply to have some fun. And Sam is right – entertainment and gaming are excellent places to start. The online world offers unique opportunities, because games can become social and social experiences build community.

Yet we must ensure that we do more than simply entertain. We must address issues that children care about: Friendship, relationships, the blessings (and curses) of popularity, what to do about the “cool kids” in class. Our culture, our history, our stories are filled with heroes, princes and princesses, role models (good and bad) that we can use to captivating effect.

3. What do we need to make this happen?

This will be a new undertaking. Our congregations, our religious schools, our communal service organizations were not built to compete in the global marketplace of ideas and commitments.

But we are a talented community. We can use our skills to identify consumer demand, as Sam rightly calls it, and meet it in a way that also builds community, taps into real needs of students, adult learners, and other “customers,” helping them understand how Judaism can enrich their lives, bring additional meaning to their relationships, help them celebrate times of joy, and guide them through times of risk and loss.

We need an enterprise skilled at transmitting the riches of our Jewish heritage and practices in a digital era. We need an enterprise that is self-determining, and practical; one that avoids grand experiments taking years to yield results and myriad micro-projects that won’t scale. We need an enterprise that is independent and self-sustaining; one that is not forced to live hand-to-mouth or to devote important resources to soliciting funds. We need an enterprise able to create a series of marketable products or services – can we call them adventures? – that its “customers” find appealing enough to pay for, and then deploy the resulting revenues to fund the development of the next round of ideas, and the one after that.

There is a big challenge here: the initial development costs of top-shelf gaming and software initiatives that have the appeal Glassenberg describes are very high, yet the Jewish ‘marketplace’ is limited. Tackling this challenge will require a new model that partners the experimental focus and engagement return emphasis of the Jewish nonprofit sector with the customer-oriented, product emphasis of the for-profit sector. An entity built on this model would serve as a development incubator that focuses on nurturing the best ideas into market-ready products, then setting them up to both sustain themselves and support further development.

An entity built on this model will help us address the “Digital Divide” between the technology (educational, entertainment and other) that our community experiences in the secular world vs. what we have developed for ourselves. We’ve actually begun work on this already. It’s an “innovation and incubation” enterprise, devoted to just that. You can find out more about it on a modest website called jLearningLabs. And there’s more to come.

Join us.

Reminder: Join us March 20th for an online conversation where we’ll hear more about Sam’s ideas, and you’ll have an opportunity to ask him your OWN questions.

David Behrman is President of Behrman House, a publisher of textbooks, software, and other educational materials for Jewish religious schools throughout North America. Before joining Behrman House, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Co, in New York, where he served clients in the service, transportation, and not-for-profit sectors. A graduate of Haverford College and Stanford Law School, he also practiced corporate and securities law with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York.