The Vendor Trap: Why Selling Spirituality Doesn’t Work

What would a more fundamental restructuring of the synagogue look like?

by Michael Wasserman

Michael Sandel, in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, argues that the two decades since the end of the Cold War have been an era of market triumphalism. As winners often do, we have over-learned the lesson of our victory. The vindication of free markets has led us to assume that markets ought to govern practically everything.

“The reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time. Consider the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors … the reach of commercial advertising into public schools; the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the outsourcing of pregnancy to surrogate mothers in the developing world. … These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard of thirty years ago. Today we take them largely for granted.”[1]

Many argue that there is no cause for concern in all of this. We can take advantage of market efficiencies without suffering any downside. Sandel notes the widely-held belief among economists that markets are inert – i.e. that they do not change the nature of the goods that they distribute. Markets are just more efficient pipelines. The metal of the pipes does not leach into their contents.

But Sandel challenges that claim. He argues that markets are not in fact inert. They do change the nature of the goods that they distribute, specifically goods whose value is symbolic and intangible. Markets transform those goods by crowding out the other values that were previously associated with them, values such as friendship, loyalty, civic solidarity and environmental responsibility.

Sandel offers the example of a bought apology. A company in China advertised that, for a fee, it would prepare and deliver an apology in the buyer’s name to a friend or colleague. Clearly an apology that is paid for is not the same as an apology that one gives on one’s own. Harnessing the market to deliver an apology changes the nature of the good. Putting a price on it transforms what it is.[2]

The same process, writ large, has a profound impact on contemporary culture as a whole. Selling the right to advertise in public-school classrooms changes the character of public education. Selling naming rights to public stadiums and other public facilities changes the character of civic space.

The hegemony of market norms goes largely unchallenged today. It is for the most part taken as a given, and generates little protest. The argument of Sandel’s book is that we ought to be more conscious of its downside, and, as a society, more actively debate what should and should not be for sale.

One might expect religious institutions to be especially wary of market hegemony, because their goods are particularly vulnerable to debasement by market norms. Putting a price on spiritual goods devalues them to a profound degree. But the American synagogue has been strikingly complacent in this area. Instead of pushing back against the notion that belonging to a spiritual community can be bought, it has largely conceded the point.

One could argue that this is nothing new. After all, synagogues have in effect been selling membership for generations. The dues-for-membership model, in which belonging is a function of an annual payment, is a longstanding one.

But there is an increasing tendency to take that model literally today. The payment of synagogue dues is widely understood now as an actual payment. Synagogue members – at least a critical mass of them – have come to think of membership literally as a purchase.

This is not to say that no one ever thought that way before. There have always been some who took the dues-for-membership model literally. Moreover, there are still many today who do not take it literally, who view their dues as an obligation of membership, not the price of membership. But on balance, the mentality of synagogue membership has shifted in recent years toward the notion that membership is something that one buys. When paying dues, synagogue members are more likely to think in terms of what they are getting in exchange, and whether it is worth the price.

Synagogues themselves have actively abetted this shift. They commonly market membership by highlighting what prospective members can expect to get for their money, and by offering discounts to new members or early payers, just as commercial vendors do. To survive in a competitive marketplace, synagogues struggle to make membership more attractive to discerning shoppers. From boardroom to website, the vocabulary of the American synagogue is increasingly market based. It is not uncommon to hear synagogue leaders speak of their services and programs as their “product,” and all but explicitly define their members as their customers.

Spirituality itself is now a marketable item. Meaning and connectedness are selling points.

Some would say that there is no harm in this. In adopting the vocabulary of the market, synagogues are just translating what they have always stood for into the prevailing language of the culture in which we live. They are just keeping themselves up to date.

But, as Sandel demonstrates, markets are not inert. They are not just a more efficient way to deliver the same ancient goods. They transform those goods by crowding out the non-market values that previously defined them. If synagogues are marketing spirituality, and members are asking themselves if what they get is worth the price, then we are dealing with a radically different notion of what spiritual community means. We are no longer speaking of community as a web of relationships held together by a sense of shared responsibility and mutual commitment. We are speaking of a vendor-customer relationship, in which consumer satisfaction is the guiding value. Vendor-synagogues may – and do – still use the word “community,” but only in a drastically diminished sense.

Again, this is not to say that every member of a vendor-synagogue thinks of membership as a purchase. Committed Jews build true community within the walls of vendor-synagogues. But they do so in spite of the larger institutional structure, not because of it. They do so even as the institution as a whole defines itself as something very different. Thanks to those who swim against the tide, most vendor-synagogues are not defined entirely by the consumer model, but they are still defined by it to a profound degree.

The consequences of that redefinition are far-reaching, and not merely in the realm of principle. They are practical as well. The synagogue-as-vendor model is ultimately self- defeating, even at the most pragmatic level. That is because the kind of spiritual experiences that can be bought will never, in the long term, be worth what it costs to provide them. For those who come to the synagogue with the mentality of customers, even the most positive experiences can have only a limited impact. The nature of the vendor-customer relationship, in which the customer is always right, limits how transformative any synagogue experience can be for them. Due to the entitlement inherent in their role, they can be challenged to grow only so much. Synagogue membership will always feel expensive to those buyers because their own mindset as consumers limits how deeply membership can impact them, and hence how much it can be worth to them.

On the other hand, the kind of spirituality that can motivate financial sacrifice – the kind that is deep and lasting – cannot be bought. It emerges out of an engagement very different from the vendor-customer relationship. It grows out of the choice to search for meaning by investing authority in a structure larger than the self, by rooting oneself in a tradition and community. The kind of loyalty that generates real meaning is deeper than brand loyalty. It is not a matter of self- interest but of self-transcendence. At the most practical level, the problem with the vendor model is that spiritual goods that are for sale are rarely worth the cost, while those that are worth sacrificing for are not for sale.

In other words, the vendor model puts the synagogue in a no-win position. To the extent that synagogues internalize the norms of the consumer marketplace, they position themselves on terrain where they cannot succeed, and abandon the terrain where they could make a difference. They implicitly accept the premise that they are competing with other consumer industries – a competition that they cannot hope to win – and in the process limit their ability to do the work that they are uniquely capable of doing, that of challenging and helping Jews to grow in their religious lives. Vendor-synagogues fail in the consumer marketplace because they ask too much, and fail as spiritual communities because they ask too little.

Criticism of the synagogue-as-vendor model is not new. But the most common critiques miss the central issue. Often, critics focus on the problem of affordability. They argue that, if people are not willing or able to pay the price of synagogue membership, then synagogues must become more creative at repackaging membership in forms that people can afford and are willing to buy.

But that critique misses the deeper problem that vendor-synagogues, by their very nature, have a hard time justifying the cost of membership. Belonging to a synagogue will always feel expensive as long as one is judging its value by market norms. To the extent that people see themselves as spiritual consumers, they will resist paying what it actually costs to support the institution, and they will not be wrong to do so. From a purely market-based perspective, it will not be worth it. The value of belonging – like that of a bought apology – is degraded when we turn it into a purchase. Moreover, synagogues exacerbate that deeper problem when they struggle with the issue of affordability. To focus on the price of membership re-enforces the idea that it has a price, which perpetuates the mindset that puts downward pressure on that price.

Other critics challenge the vendor model at a more fundamental level, but fail to follow their logic where it leads. A number of leading advocates of synagogue transformation argue that the American synagogue in its current form cannot address the needs of contemporary Jews. But the solutions that they offer generally amount to a repackaging of the status quo. They suggest, for instance, that synagogues should be marketing experiences or relationships instead of programs.[3] But they do not seriously challenge the assumption that the synagogue exists to market something. They disagree only about what that thing should be.

What would a more fundamental restructuring of the synagogue look like? What would it mean for synagogues to truly leave the vendor model behind?

First of all, it would mean changing the core vocabulary of the institution. The language of the market would be replaced by a vocabulary of shared responsibility and aspiration. The question would no longer be: “What does this synagogue provide, what do members receive for their dues?” but instead “What do members of this congregation owe to one another? What do they hope to build together? What principles and ideals do they wish to stand for and to work toward? What kinds of religious growth do they wish to cultivate in themselves and in their children?”

Second, breaking with the vendor model would mean changing the financial structure of the institution, such that membership is no longer for sale. The idea of paying dues for membership has become so literal that it is no longer possible to turn it back into a metaphor. That financial structure is now central to the problem. Removing the price-tag from membership and moving to a system of voluntary giving – which a number of synagogues are already doing[4] – is a crucial step toward achieving deeper change. The essential goal is not just to make synagogue membership more accessible – though it would also have that effect – but to make membership literally priceless, to transform it from a product that one buys to an expression of commitment and belonging. A corollary of that redefinition is that membership would bring with it no tangible benefits. It would simply be a statement of support for what the institution stands for.

Third, breaking with the vendor model would mean changing what the synagogue actually does. The essential challenge is not to offer more, but to ask for more. The synagogue must function less as a spiritual provider and more as a place that motivates growth. To take one negative example, synagogues often try to revitalize their prayer services by projecting more energy from the front of the room – e.g. by putting a band on the bimah. But that only re-enforces the assumption that the synagogue is responsible for delivering an experience. The real challenge is to motivate participants to share responsibility for their collective prayer experience by learning, growing, and giving more of themselves to the mitzvah. Only in that way can a congregation generate the kind of spiritual intensity that flows from true community.

Toward that end, synagogues could learn much from the neo-traditionalism of the independent minyanim. The assumption that true participatory prayer, with broadly-based intensity, is only for elite communities is not borne out by my experience. People rise to the challenge – they learn and stretch themselves – if they feel that their community depends on them to do so and if they believe that their efforts will be worth it. To be sure, congregations whose mode of worship is more liberal would have to adapt the traditional model of participatory prayer more creatively. But the outlines of the project would be the same.

The same principle applies to synagogue-based education. The challenge is to restructure synagogue schools such that they shift at least part of the responsibility for children’s learning to their parents. Synagogues that have moved toward family education models, in which parents function more as partners in their children’s learning and less as purchasers of educational services, are already making that shift.

Finally, synagogues that wish to break with the vendor model must rethink their organizational structure. Instead of organizing themselves around the programs and services that they provide to various demographics, segmenting the congregation into consumer interest groups, they would be more successful organizing themselves around the various mitzvot that the community engages in, which all members might aspire to grow into.

The basic tenet of the marketplace is that one succeeds by offering consumers more for less. But the logic of building spiritual community is exactly the opposite. We motivate people and unlock their energies by teaching them that they are needed, that their talents and commitment are essential to a larger enterprise, that they can fulfill themselves as individuals by sacrificing toward a greater goal. Those who have the most potential to revitalize our synagogues are also those who will be most responsive to that message. To harness their energies, we must treat them, not as customers, but as partners in that work.

Michael Wasserman is co-rabbi of The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona.

[1] Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York 2012), pp. 7-8
[2] Ibid., p. 96
[3] Lawrence Hoffman, in Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life (Woodstock VT 2006), argues that the “Program Synagogue” should be replaced by the “Experience Synagogue.” Ron Wolfson, in Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Woodstock VT, 2013), argues that the current emphasis on programming should give way to an emphasis on building relationships.
[4] For two examples, see Dan Judson, “Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A Case Study”, and Michael Wasserman, “From Purchase to Partnership: Removing the Price Tag from Synagogue Membership”. See also Beth Cousens’ discussion of the “Mishkan Model” in Connected Congregations: From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose, UJA-Federation of New York, 2013.