Netflix Synagogues (funding the spirit?)

In the latest offering of its kind, Robert Isaacs (the CEO of the Evans Consulting Group) offers Netflix as a business model for synagogues.{ This is the latest in an ongoing effort to corporatize, monetize, and commodify, synagogues, services, and Judaism. The argument is that the synagogue should be more like Netflix than Blockbuster, since the former is succesful while the latter is dead. By succesful, I am assuming that we mean the $1.74 billion in revenue and $74 million in profit announced last month. It is hard to figure out where to start with these last few sentences.

First, unfortunately, many synagogues do conform to the Netflix model, at least in certain areas. While a Senior Software Engineer at Netflix makes on the average $208,830, and a Director makes $258,167, a customer service representative makes $14.75 an hour (which is about $29,500 annually). The average salary for a Reform rabbi of a large congregation is in the $200-300 thousand dollar range while the janitorial staff and the security guards are usually making minimum wage.

Second, the assumption is that synagogues and Netflix have enough in common to import the strategy of one company to the other “company.” Here is where the problem is most acute. There is a fascination in parts of the nonprofit sector with for-profit business models. At a certain moment, for example, the business book From Good to Great, was the bible in many parts of the nonprofit sector. (Nobody mentions now, that many of the companies that were touted as the examples of those that went from good to great are now bankrupt—or that the slogan “get on the bus” originally referred to the bus in Ken Kesey’s acid test where everybody was stoned on acid. But we digress.) What gets ignored in these conversations is that Netflix, or any company for that matter, has as its primary aim to turn a profit, to make money. It actually does not matter what it is that a corporation sells (the main point of From Good to Great) as long as it sells a whole lot of it.

On the other hand, a synagogue is not in the business of selling. It actually is not in business. (Hence the tax exemption.) The purpose of a synagogue is to create a sacred space, to house a community of worshippers, to teach Torah. It is not to sell these things. Yes, synagogues need to keep the lights on. However, using a business model flips the order of priorities. In a succesful business, the first question that is asked is: do I have a product for which there is a market? Or, can I create a need for a product for which there was no prior need? (Capitalism’s main activity, of course, is the creation of desire.)

In a synagogue, the basic question is not about the market. It is about God, tradition, Jewish law, covenant. Teaching Torah, davening, creating a just world, celebrating Shabbat and Holidays ought not be given to fads and fashions. The patina of bling and marketing which are brought to the enterprise by branding companies and focus groups, will eventually roll off the back of Judaism like so much dust. If we are committed to adding substantively to the building that is Judaism, as judged by future generations—we don’t get there through sparkly things and naming opportunities. We get there by doing what we’ve always done—teaching Torah, davening, keeping Shabbes, creating a more just world.

2 thoughts on “Netflix Synagogues (funding the spirit?)

  1. How about taking a few lessons from Good to Great’s supplement monograph specifically aimed at the non-profit world? For example, a focus on a defined mission and aligning staff toward that mission. The lack of organizational discipline undermines whatever sacred pursuits and aspirations a synagogue purports to have. In my opinion, the problem with the Conservative Movement has never been about theology or interpretations of Jewish Law. Rather, it’s been about poor organization and execution. Probably because Rabbis and their teachers too quickly reject important lessons from the “business world” as treif. Day schools, on the other hand, have greatly benefitted from such input. BTW, your list of Synagogue purposes is wonderful. The question is: how serious are synagogues about making them happen?

  2. I partially disagree. Synagogues ARE in a business, the business of religion.
    “…the first question that is asked is: do I have a product for which there is a market? …”
    Is there a market for your branch of Judaism? Is there a market for your particular synagogue and rabbi? Is your synagogue in a good location? (just to name a few.)
    These are not idle questions in an age where Millennials often choose to opt out of existing institutions and when those in the community who do are growing older and becoming fewer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.