Synagogues and Startups: A Reflection on the New Jewish Year

Imagine driving a car there has brakes but no gas or gas but no brakes. With brakes only, you’ll remain stuck in place. With only a gas pedal, you’ll be in a state of perpetual forward motion and never realize where you’ve been. Brake and gas make it possible for drivers to slow down, speed up, or come to a full stop. They’re able to adjust their destinations with their surrounding conditions. In the media, synagogues are frequently portrayed as cars with only brakes.

In contrast, startups are viewed as companies with only gas pedals. True enough, rabbis favor braking over accelerating and entrepreneurs accelerate more and brake less. But the stereotype of rabbis always slamming on the brakes and entrepreneurs as putting the “pedal to the metal” distorts this truth: rabbis and entrepreneurs know that they’d be dead with the gas and the brakes.

Marathon religious services (better known as Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur) are about one month away. I already hear laypeople complaining that synagogues don’t innovate and I imagine rabbis defending the status quo. That’s why I’m offering a “third way” perspective for rabbis and lay leaders. This third way acknowledges that synagogues must become more entrepreneurial and maintain an authentically Jewish spiritual identity.

Limitations of comparisons with entrepreneurial startups. Entrepreneurs have a “pro-innovation bias.” A “pro-innovation bias” means that adopting an innovation is considered positive and desirable while rejecting it makes you a “Neanderthal.” This bias also makes innovation champions unable to see and anticipate the potential failures of an innovation. Additionally, a pro-innovation bias makes the next entrepreneur who wants to bring a similar product to market swear that this time, it won’t fail! Entrepreneurs and early adopters of an innovation can only see the comparative benefits of the new product but not its relative disadvantages.

Limitations of synagogues. Regardless of rabbinic and post-rabbinic education, rabbis are trained in evolution, adaptation, and transmission. Although the Jewish tradition has never been static, their challenge is to pass on a living legacy; “living,” means that it must resonate with contemporary Jews, and “legacy,” that it must also embody essential Jewish beliefs, values, and practices. Even if rabbis have a high tolerance for experimentation, congregational cultures generally value incremental change over disruption. With rabbis who are more past-oriented leading congregations whose cultures are risk-averse, injecting entrepreneurial thinking and sustainable innovations in congregations is a significant challenge.

Using the past to arrive at the future: gas and brakes. When synagogues succeed in maintaining a past-oriented and future-oriented outlook, they’ll hit the sweet spot of engagement. And that’s achievable! Rosh ha-Shanah teaches us that making a binary assessment of “either/or” (synagogues are past-oriented, startups are future-oriented) is unnecessary. And isn’t richer to cultivate a “both/and” worldview? With its many rituals that emphasize self-reflection, Rosh ha-Shanah invites us to use the past to become today’s energy that drives us into an even more engaging future. Ideally, we do that personally and as a community.

There are few places left that ask questions like, “Just because we can innovate, should we?” “What do we gain and what do we lose by trying something new?” We need places that put the spiritual brakes on the assumption that “new” always means “improved.” At the same time, synagogues need to accelerate their response to the dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and indifference that people feel about them.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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