From Blockbuster to Netflix: Lessons in synagogue innovation

I still keep my membership card in my wallet, although I haven’t used it in years. My wallet is overstuffed and of the “George Constanza” variety. In addition to the essentials like a driver’s license, cash, and credit cards, it is stuffed with pictures, business cards, and of course, my Blockbuster membership card. The laminated card is faded, and really of no use anymore. I ended my Blockbuster membership long before it went out of business. Still the card remains. As a movie fan, my Blockbuster membership card is a reminder of what once was, and is no more.

DISH Network, which bought Blockbuster in 2011, announced in early November 2013 that it was closing Blockbuster’s remaining stores. The introduction of companies like Redbox, which set up DVD Rental Vending Machines in supermarkets, pharmacies, and fast food parking lots, hurt Blockbuster. Blockbuster tried to readjust and do the same, but failed. The introduction of Netflix’s promise to deliver DVD’s right to your mailbox made video stores obsolete. Blockbuster again tried to adapt, but failed. Finally, Netflix hit the jackpot by live-streaming movies and television shows directly to one’s TV.

Blockbuster (and DISH who tried to save the failing company) tried to make changes, but they were reactive instead of proactive. They were too little too late. Without making the necessary changes, Blockbuster failed. Americans never stopped watching movies. In fact, box office numbers are ever increasing and Netflix’s profits continue to grow. Now, Americans just watch movies in a way that is more meaningful to them. The product didn’t change; however the avenue of connecting to the product did. Blockbuster’s bankruptcy is just the latest example of disruptive innovation, a phenomenon in which an innovation in the market disrupts an existing market and displaces earlier technology. In-home live-streaming services like Netflix revolutionized the way individuals watch movies. It also led to Blockbuster’s demise.

In order for synagogues to be relevant, they must meet the needs of all present.  Jewish institutions that once met the needs of the Jewish community a generation or two ago, must recreate themselves. Programs must evolve. Learning opportunities must be different. Avenues towards spiritual engagement and wrestling with God must expand.

As a Conservative rabbi, I am affiliated with a denomination that emphasizes the concept of evolving halakha (Jewish Law). Some suggest that the motto of the Movement, made famous by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, is “tradition and change.” We must evolve. We must be innovative. Otherwise, synagogues will become like Blockbuster Video, empty store fronts with a great product, but a product that others are finding elsewhere. Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen agrees that in order for non-Orthodox synagogues to thrive and still be meaningful access points for community engagement, we must think outside the box. We must turn our Blockbuster synagogues into Netflix congregations.

Here’s how: Netflix is inexpensive. While Blockbuster required a per rental cost (plus late fees that doubled or sometimes tripled the original rental cost), Netflix’s monthly membership allows one to live-stream as many movies and television shows as one would like. Synagogues must also lower the financial barrier to entry.

Netflix allows one to access content anywhere. I can sit on my couch and watch a movie on TV, catch up on a television show while on vacation, or live-stream on my smart phone while on the train. Netflix brought the movies to the viewer through multiple entry points. Synagogues must also bring Judaism to the masses. A synagogue cannot be limited to the four walls of an institution. Synagogues must make Judaism happen where people are, not only where we hope, or expect, them to be.

Additionally, Netflix does not assume that each viewer is the same. The service offers suggested titles and categories based on what the viewer has previously watched and even has a program that recommends titles based on interests and how one rates previously viewed movies. Each individual connects differently. Synagogues must acknowledge that each congregant (and each member of the Jewish community) is different. Programming, education, and spiritual engagement cannot simply target a single population. We must offer different avenues and access points for all.

Finally, due to Netflix’s success, the company launched original programming: television shows, documentaries, and comedy specials exclusive to Netflix and only accessible to Netflix viewers. The beauty of the synagogue is that a Jew can visit a synagogue anywhere in the world and be at home. Yet, synagogues must also embrace the community’s uniqueness. Even those affiliated with the same denomination or movement must differentiate themselves. Each synagogue, based on congregational demographics, geographic area, and mission and vision statements, must offer its own original content to further define itself.

If Judaism evolves, then disruptive innovation in the Jewish community is healthy and normal. I just hope and pray that congregations are courageous enough to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to innovation. The future of the American Jewish community is dependent on it.

About the Author
Rabbi Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. He received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as an MA in Jewish Education from JTS’ William Davidson School of Education. He has been a leader and educator for Jewish youth since for over a decade and is dedicated to getting the Jewish community more heavily involved in issues of social justice.