When Judaism Becomes a “Brand”

“Jewish culture is in the mainstream, it’s popular, and that’s something any brand would want to jump on,” says the founder of a startup profiled in the new issue of Bloomberg Business Week. It “seeks to sell [an] accessible version of Jewish traditions,” explains Danya Shults, whose for-profit company, Arq, offers workshops, retreats, and meals in addition to items like seder plates.

The organized Jewish community supports a number of nonprofits that take a similar approach. Aliza Kline, executive director of the social dining app One Table, observes, “Not that long ago, it would have felt dirty to talk about branding Jewish culture.” One Table supports Shabbat dinners for Jews and non-Jews with the help of grants from several prestigious Jewish foundations and federations.

Jewish funders increasingly support immersive experiences as a way to keep Jews “in the tent,” but the content of those activities typically has little Jewish substance beyond the “brand.” For all the talk of Jewish culture, there’s little Jewish literature or music in these new initiatives. There aren’t many excursions to Jewish theater, or meetups to discuss Jewish history or artists or folklore. Instead, there are meals and athletics and travel whose connection to Jewish life is tenuous at best.

What does this trend say about communal values? For one thing, it embodies the understandable hope that “enlarging the tent” will create new options for intermarried Jews. When Danya Shults thinks about what Arq might sell, her “ultimate test case” is whether her Presbyterian husband would be interested. OneTable’s community is 10-15% non-Jewish.

At the same time, it suggests that our communal organizations don’t have much confidence in the things that make Jews distinctive. Judaism as a religion, Jewish thought, and Jewish customs are treated as liabilities that will alienate millennial Jews and non-Jews alike. Communal leaders are tacitly treating those who care about Jewish ideas, culture, and practice as a low priority. They prefer to focus on the least committed in the hope of not losing them.

As it happens, that approach is the opposite of best practices in marketing. Breweries, for instance, know that 80% of the beer is consumed by 20% of the beer drinkers. That 20% – the frequent drinkers – are the core consumers, so that’s where brewers spend most of their marketing budget. That’s where they get the most cost-effective results.

The Jewish community takes the opposite tack. For the last 25 years, many funders, institutions, and startups have taken greater interest in the “fringe market,” the 80% of Jews who have the weakest connection to Jewish life. With that strategy, it’s no surprise that the indicators of involvement have continued their long decline. Yet communal leaders still act as if these new efforts are making a significant difference.

Why not invest more communal resources in those who are interested in the distinctive qualities of Jewish life? That would actively strengthen Jewish identity. It could spur newly formed groups to explore Jewish ideas, creativity, and history. Most importantly, it would treat our variegated heritage not as a marketing liability, but as a source of pride and inspiration.

This article previously appeared online in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Bob Goldfarb, former marketing director at The Forward, has an MBA from Harvard Business School. He is president of Jewish Creativity International.