Future tense

The value(s) of a cup of coffee

In Short

Institutional leaders within the Jewish community should be asking: Are we simply providing an item and trying to quantify its value so people will purchase it, or are we considering the full experience when we are looking to engage people in Jewish life? More importantly, are we seeking information from those we hope to engage about the experience they are looking for, and not just the end product they want?

In my home, I have a beautiful painting from my colleague and friend Rabbi Me’irah Illinsky. It sits above my espresso machine, and I look at it every morning while I impatiently wait for the machine to heat up. It is the scene of Moses standing in front of the burning bush. What moves me about that story is that it is where Moses learns that Judaism is not about the past or the present. When Moses is seeking his missing animal in the wilderness, he turns aside to notice a bush that is burning but is not being consumed. In that moment, he encounters the Source of All and receives God’s name, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I will be what I will be.” This future-tense phrase means that God’s name belongs to the future tense. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote in his book Future Tense, “God’s call is to that which is not yet. Judaism is a future-seeking civilization.” 

To stick with our coffee theme — there was a meme that floated around the internet recently of cars lined up around a Starbucks all waiting for their morning coffee. As someone who makes my espresso at home most days, I was somewhat surprised that people would wait in line for 20 minutes and pay $5 for a cup of coffee that could just as easily be made at home. It was just another reminder that people are not just purchasing a product. They are purchasing an experience and the atmosphere on top of the item itself. For folks who need that particular experience of Starbucks, the wait and cost are simply worth it, regardless of the price, wait and aggravation. For others, they will drive on by because that is not their point of availability, and the experience of a home-brewed coffee may serve them better. Both individuals are looking for the same product but are trying to figure out how to build the components to their liking.

Mort Mandel (z”l), one of the great visionary leaders of the Jewish community, tells a story in his book It’s All about Who You Hire, How They Lead . . . and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader of starting a business where he sold car parts. When approaching customers, he first began by asking how much they were paying for parts and then tried to undercut the competition by charging a penny less. This race to the bottom worked sometimes, but it wasn’t a productive business model and did not build any loyalty among his customer base. Instead of being a trusted relationship, he was simply a transaction. Eventually, as his business continued on, he shifted his focus away from pricing products more competitively. Instead, he began by asking his customers what products they were having a hard time finding from other suppliers and then worked to supply them. This new approach turned the transaction into a trusted relationship, and no one ever asked about price! 

Institutional leaders within the Jewish community should be asking: Are we simply providing an item and trying to quantify its value so people will purchase it, or are we considering the full experience when we are looking to engage people in Jewish life? More importantly, are we seeking information from those we hope to engage about the experience they are looking for, and not just the end product they want? I would argue that we may be trying, but not actually succeeding, in shifting away from a value-proposition model to a vision-guided model of community development. But if we are able to fully make that turn, we would be able to build a community ecosystem that responds to the needs of this generation and invites them into community rather than just seeking to sell them something of value — religious school, membership, programming, etc. We would be able to curate the atmosphere and experience of the community, rather than just the products we offer.

For too long, we have focused on charging a penny less. This is true in our society in general, but it is also true within the Jewish community. We have built models of engagement that are focused on memberships, built religious education models centered around dues and tuition and years required for b’nai mitzvah, and tracked connectivity through quantitative data that explores “how Jewish” someone is based on whether they light Shabbat candles, keep kosher, or observe a fast day. In doing so, we have become a supplier of transactions. It amazes me that there are leaders in the Jewish community who are then surprised that we are struggling to build relationships with folks looking to connect.

I would propose that we look to Mandel’s story for a fresh approach and instead ask those Jews we seek to engage what they are having a hard time finding in the community. What atmosphere and experience do they want to see within the products of the Jewish ecosystem? To return to our burning bush — what will help them turn aside to notice the holy ground of the Jewish community? In doing so, we might discover that there are core services we are providing that are no longer desired at their same levels (or at all!), and we might also learn that there are desired programs that we currently offer but that are missing the engagement mark for one reason or another. If we do this important work, we will come to understand not just what our community needs, but also how to offer those resources in a way that responds to the relational needs of community members. 

What are the things our community is having a hard time getting their hands on, and how can we provide that in a meaningful way that articulates value and builds trust? My own experience is that people are looking to connect, and not just superficially. People want to connect with one another, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, where many social interactions were quite limited. We need to provide that in ways that are sensitive to the re-entry process to community after the pandemic and to the remaining health and safety concerns. But regardless, we need to begin providing pathways to connect. Parents want Jewish engagement for their children and also for themselves. Families I speak with, particularly those who have struggled to build new relationships for their children during the pandemic, are seeking community that is authentic, rooted and relevant to their Jewish journey. 

However, people want their relationships to be authentic and meaningful. If we seek to provide these programs only for the benefit of synagogue membership or a federation annual report, people will see through that and will simply opt out. We know this is the case because we see Jews making that choice every day, and we hear the groanings of our current leadership wondering why we can’t reclaim the Jewish community of previous decades. If synagogues continue with a transactional approach of letting folks know that their children need to become b’nai mitzvah and requiring membership for years leading up to that moment, some will choose to engage but others will either opt out or create a work-around like personalized b’nai mitzvah experiences.  

These questions don’t have easy answers or responses that translate across the Jewish ecosystem. Each community will navigate their own process and come to their own conclusions about how best to build the stronger relationships needed to sustain the Jewish community into the future. At Camp Laurelwood, Connecticut’s only Jewish overnight camp, our approach to this work has been to deepen our community engagement work with families around our region. We began by listening to families in our circles of connection and asking questions that helped our staff and leadership understand the experience and atmosphere that these folks were seeking. With the support of Foundation for Jewish Camp and our Jewish federation partners, we took the sadness and quiet of summer 2020 and developed a new model of engagement, supported by a strategic vision of building a kinder world and a stronger camp by building a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community in Connecticut. That led us to make strategic investments in new staff to build engagement programs and relationships with local families, new programmatic partnerships with staff from various Jewish agencies, and a variety of new engagement pathways for families. While it is in the early stages, we are seeing the fruits of that labor grow. In the last year, we engaged over 70 new families with our partner institutions, we tracked and nurtured relationships with many families who have not connected with other Jewish community institutions, and we have done it all while growing revenue in other areas that pays for the staffing necessary to continue the engagement work. Our community partners have seen that same benefit as we have exported some of the unique technology of Jewish camp into the community to meet families at their point of availability. It was not just the right programmatic and strategic decision for our community; it was the right business model for this current moment at Camp Laurelwood.

Brinckerhoff, in his book Mission-Based Management, argues that the mission of an organization is not just a reason for being, it is its “most valuable resource.” It is the place where the leadership and staff of the organization notice the world is “burning but not being consumed” — and where we turn aside to look and envision a world that is more whole. For me, the vision I see when I turn aside is one where our community’s focus truly shifts away from the penny-less mentality of transaction and instead moves toward the idea of helping people to gain access to things they are struggling to find on their own while we build meaningful relationships through experience and atmosphere. That is what gets me up in the morning, and that is the future-tense Jewish life I see when I look into that painting of the burning bush as I wait for my espresso each morning. 

Rabbi James Greene is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the current president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. He works as the executive director of Camp Laurelwood in Madison, CT.