What Business Are We In?

Posted on March 25, 2015
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.

Synagogues should be asking, “What business are we in?” That may seem obvious, but it isn’t, and most synagogue leaders get it wrong – with disastrous consequences.

The usual answers are things like Jewish education, Shabbat and holiday services, social action, or even all of the above, in the tried and true triad of religion: Torah (study) avodah (prayer) and g’milut chasadim (good deeds).

Religion may be what we do, however; it is not our business. The two are not the same.

The question arises compellingly in Peter Drucker’s 1954 classic, The Practice of Management. Drucker’s 1950s example is Cadillac. What it did was manufacture cars; its business, however, was not automobiles but status. Recognizing its business aright led to the realization that its competitors were not Chevrolet and Ford but high fashion and diamonds.

So what is the synagogue’s business?

During the years following World War II, we were in the continuity business. We had lost 6,000,000 and Israel was beleaguered. Challenged by anti-Semitism without and assimilation within, synagogues implicitly guaranteed Jewish continuity. So too did UJA and Federations, but explicitly, and when they proved better at raising huge sums of money to build up Israel and rescue Jews from the Soviet Union, they surpassed synagogues as the dominant Jewish organization. Wrongly so, synagogues complained, thinking the proper Jewish business was study, prayer and good deeds. Rightly so, said average Jews – whose passion was saving Jewish lives and who belonged to synagogues mostly to educate their children, another sign that what they wanted to invest in was continuity, not religion.

What made continuity our business was the fact that the customers (the rank and file Jews) wanted it enough to “buy” it. The business is not necessarily what the entrepreneurs running the show think it is. It is what the customers want. And from the 1950s to the 1990s, the fear of Jewish discontinuity was enough to galvanize the troops.

It isn’t any more, much as Jewish leaders may wish otherwise. Lots of Jews identify as Jews but not enough to insist on raising Jewish children, paying for Jewish education, supporting Jewish causes, and joining Jewish synagogues. Continuity is no longer a sufficient business to be in – not if we want to stay in business.

But neither is religion – not by itself, that is. Witness the Pew study where people increasingly say they are not religious, even though they may spiritual.

Still, religion deserves a closer look, not for what it is but for what it delivers. In the post War years, it succeeded as long as it delivered continuity. What does it (or can it) deliver now?

Religion was once what sociologist Peter Berger famously called the Sacred Canopy — the overarching reality that drove everything people did. To abandon your religion was to trade in the very essence of who you were. Not any more, however. A moment’s observation reveals that religion has become discretionary – what we do (if we wish) with our discretionary time, money and attention. I attend Sabbath services; you play golf; she gardens. I drop $3,000 as synagogue dues; you join the country club; he buys season tickets at the Met. I go to Torah study, you attend lectures on art; others take classes in American history.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.

But not all discretionary activity is of the same consequence to consumers. Movie-going on the odd Saturday night ranks lower than what we can call “committed pursuits,” the discretionary choices we make about matters of commitment. In the good old days when religion was a sacred canopy we knew who we were: we were Jewish or Lutheran, or Catholic or Episcopalian. Without a sacred canopy, it is not clear just what counts as our identity.

When the canopy first began to unravel (with the advent of modernity), people thought nationalism would take its place: and for many, it has. We pay taxes to, obey the laws of, and are most dependent on our countries. But the wars of the twentieth century showed us just how horribly, terribly, wrong nation states can become. “Moral man” is subject to “immoral society,” warned Reinhold Neibuhr way back in 1932. So as much as we may value national citizenship as primary, we hesitate to adopt as the deepest motto of our identity, “My country right or wrong.”

And, in any event, with the religious canopy gone, we have room for multiple identities, not just our nationality: I may be an American, a Jew, a professor, and a serious violinist; you may be an American and Jew, but also a feminist, judge, and artist. Whatever we say we “are” requires the committed allocation of discretionary time, money and attention.

Synagogues compete for these resources, the symbolic tokens of people’s inner identities. We are ultimately in the identity business. The Age of Continuity has become The Age of Fractured Identity.

A great deal follows, most particularly, how synagogues make themselves known to the world. Synagogues in the Age of Continuity advertised programs that would keep Jews Jewish: a better religious school, a guaranteed bar/bat mitzvah, or Sunday afternoon lectures on Israel. In the Age of Fractured Identity, these still matter, but for different reasons. If identity is the issue, we need most to demonstrate that we are a serious candidate for people’s deepest selves, their aspirations to matter, their pursuit for meaning, and their desire not to have lived and died in vain.

As it turns out, religion is profoundly (even uniquely) suited to this venture. That’s why synagogues matter more now than ever.