Shul Shopping – Toronto’s “Best Buy”
By Randy E. Spiegel, FSA, MMHS, MJCS
Our people have now completed the stretch run to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the annual period of self and communal reflection. In this town, the excitement and buzz may have focussed a little more on the Blue Jays playoff run and less on our own personal run towards a meaningful and fulfilling High Holy Day and Sukkot experience. Increasingly or so it seems, many who are renewing or joining a synagogue for the first time, mirror those trolling for “good seats” – tickets to the big event at the cheapest price.
Black Friday Shul Shopping is looking increasingly like the middle-eastern souk or a Let’s Make a Deal event with membership chairs in many congregations being thrust into the role of Wayne Brady.
Competition has been fierce among the established legacy congregations (such as Beth Tzedec) and start-ups looking to become established congregations (like Beth Tzedec). Every denomination is challenged to grab its segment of the young and the restless market, with many offering a pay-as-you-pray alternative to membership and engagement. We who are in the trenches and listen to members and potential members, see people of all ages looking for something more; everything from a second home to a place to plant themselves for a few meaningful hours for 3 days, hoping to catch some inspiration or spiritual relief.
Make no mistake; there is a significant difference between being part of the team and sitting in the bleachers. It takes a lot to be a player but in Jewish life, unlike pro sports, everyone can be part of the action. We all know those who are willing to shell out hundreds of hard earned dollars for a few hours of entertainment, yet seem less likely to spend – proportionately or absolutely – the same or less for a full year of synagogue membership. Synagogue professional and lay leadership is called upon every day to put the best possible product on the field, to dazzle and deliver substance that will touch the soul. Our clergy, teachers, speakers and facilities have to be game ready for the individual and the crowd, 365 days of the year. There is no comparison – nor should there be a competition – between synagogue membership and membership in a golf or tennis club, a winter vacation, or a new car.
In his recent Tablet article, Liel Leibovitz notes that in addition to the online offerings, Best Buy, as a bricks and mortar entity, has been successful and synagogues can learn a lesson from them. Best Buy “… understood precisely what it offered its clients and chose to invest in enhancing that experience.” Frankly, as our Congregation celebrates its 60th Anniversary, I think Best Buy has learned from us and other synagogues like us. We are all about maximizing the user experience. Ours is a full service operation, offering top-of-the-line, feature-filled, real-time educational, social, spiritual and cultural experiences. We help you engage, to be a player and not just a spectator. We give you the chance to meaningfully connect with our clergy, other members and with the broader community, not just sit in the bleachers. Yes, we are a “big box shul” with all the fantastic choices and the options you expect and demand. From daily services, dynamic kid-friendly congregational schools and in our case, more than 200 programs annually targeted to every age and social bracket, from cradle to grave.
Ours is a multi-dimensional venue that can handle the unique demands of a small meeting or a large affair. We are – and we challenge you also to be – a destination for Jewish living.
Part of our mission and vision is to be accessible and inclusive to all who are “hungry” for a meaningful Jewish experience. Our membership contribution rates are competitive and we will never turn away anyone who is looking for a real experience. We don’t put memberships on sale nor do we undercut the competition as a way of bumping our numbers. For the discount shul shopper and the seasoned bargain hunter alike, Beth Tzedec, like many others, is the real deal, the best experience in the market.
The baseball season always ends as do concerts and shows. Venues will empty, leaving the spectator with a ticket stub, a memory and the reality that you are always on the outside. The Synagogue can be lasting and elevating because, as Leibovitz says, “… we still want to go to a place where we can forget about the cheaper and quicker thrills of the world outside.”
On we go!
Randy E. Spiegel, FSA, MMHS, MJCS is Executive Director, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Home of the Toronto Blue Jays, 5776 American League East Division Champions).