You can build it, but they won’t come

I travel a lot.

I speak on college campuses and in Jewish communities – Jewish organizations usually sponsor my trip – and many of these organizations meet in massive, beautiful buildings. Buildings that were paid for by the Jewish community.

A lot of these buildings are new, too. They were built in the last few years. They are huge and modern. They have lots of space. Great lights. Climate control. Art. Some of these buildings are very funky places.

A lot of these buildings are empty, too.

They aren’t always empty – big programs and events are hosted in them – but they are empty a lot. And even during a programming lull, the lights and electricity stay on. The heat or the air conditioning stays on, too.

And those things are expensive. They can be.

Many of these buildings opened with a lot of fanfare. It was exciting. Big donors came for the ground breaking and grand opening. A lot of friends from the community came, too. It was a big deal.

But nothing is ever simple.

Buildings are expensive. Many of these buildings started in debt. The executive director couldn’t raise everything – he still had to make payroll – and he took out a mortgage to cover the remaining expenses. But not a problem, he had many dedication opportunities available. Donors would step forward. He was optimistic.

But then the building opened. And he still needed to make payroll. And he still needed to finish paying for the building. But now he needed to cover the building’s operating expenses, too.

And the operating expenses were considerable.

Vendors, garbage, cleaning services, electricity – lights and climate control cost a lot of money – basic maintenance and upkeep. Those things are expensive.

The honeymoon was over. The building was a burden – an expensive burden – and no one wanted to dedicate a classroom, bookcase, vestibule, or water fountain in the memory of a loved one.

Part time staff was let go. Non-essential staff was let go, too. The program director didn’t last much longer. Eventually, the only people left were the executive director, his assistant, and a few volunteers.

And they were stuck.

People didn’t use the building. Not masses of people. Not the masses of people they predicted would use it. And the program director is gone – not that it matters – they can’t afford to run programs or recruit or experiment. But the bills keep coming. And the executive director has to fundraise – fundraise – except that he is drowning and frustrated and depressed.

But he can’t leave.

No new guy wants his job. No one wants a new job that starts with debt, massive overhead, and no possibility to run programs.

It isn’t pretty.

But it is common. You see it in city after city – in communities and on campus – and it didn’t have to happen. It happened because people make a mistake.

People think that buildings solve problems. They think, “Our numbers are weak, but our numbers would improve if we had a building. We need a building. People will come once we get a building. Our building will be spacious. It will be inviting. It will have free internet. It will have big couches.”

But it doesn’t work that way. People aren’t interested in buildings. People are interested in programs and services. People are interested in other people. And most people don’t care where those programs take place or where those other people meet. A new building is nice. But a dumpy space doesn’t keep them away. Most people aren’t that superficial.

People want programing that is relevant. They want programs that speak to them; in their world and on their terms. If the programing is Jewish, it has to meet those same criteria. It has to be relevant. If it isn’t, they aren’t interested. And they won’t become interested just because it is being offered in a new building with free internet and nice couches.

Starbuck’s has free internet and nice couches, too.

In a previous post, I mentioned that 60% of the people eligible for Birthright – a free 10-day trip to Israel – don’t sign up. Not interested. Not even for free.

Well guess what? They don’t participate in local programing either. They don’t attend social events, mixers, concerts, religious services, classes, or lectures. Never.

Or rarely.

Not interested. Not relevant.

And that is in spite of the millions and millions of dollars spent on massive, wonderful, beautiful new buildings.

If you care about Jewish continuity, don’t waste your money or time or effort on buildings. Spend it on new ideas. Experiment. Innovate. Ask questions. Partner with others. Embrace new technologies. Speak to your audience in their world and on their terms and in their language.

Demonstrate that being Jewish is relevant. That being Jewish means something.

And at some point – if you are successful – if you are so popular and your events are so packed, your lay leaders will get frustrated. They will be embarrassed. They will take it upon themselves to launch a campaign, raise money, and build a new building.

And if you are lucky, they’ll build a nice office for the executive director, too.

About the Author
Tzvi Gluckin is an author and musician. He currently serves as the director of Vechulai, an innovative Jewish think tank located in Boston.