The High Holidays are almost upon us, which means that droves of American Jews will soon cover their heads, open their hearts, and partake in the ritual of going to shul. September being to synagogues what July and August are to sleepy beach towns, ‘tis the season not only to ponder the mysteries of existence but also to replenish institutional coffers, which means you’re likely to pay more to hear Kol Nidre than you would for front row seats for Beyoncé.
What else are poor shuls to do? Having once met their budgets in a variety of ways, from auctioning the rights to bless the Torah scroll to attracting superstar cantors, pews today are perennially empty, but the one thing people still seem willing to pay for is the pleasure of huddling with a congregation for two or three days in Tishrei to pray.
You could, of course, shrug your shoulders and point to studies like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which suggest that Americans overall are short on social capital and uninterested in belonging to any organization, particularly ones that, like synagogues, are predicated on frequent attendance. Or you could look up to Best Buy.
Three years ago, the electronics retail giant seemed as moribund as its main competitor, Circuit City. By 2009, all of Circuit City’s 567 stores had shut down, felled by the incomparable convenience and unmatchable prices of Amazon and other online retailers. Best Buy held on for a few more years, but when its former CEO Brian Dunn resigned in 2012 amid allegations of personal misconduct, few observers were willing to bet on the big-box chain’s longevity.
But corporations, as a wise man once said, are people, too, and Best Buy’s new leadership team, helmed by the new CEO, Hubert Joly, did what all frustrated rabbis dream of doing and turned a collection of largely unvisited physical spaces into thriving and exciting destinations. Today, Best Buy is in the midst of a dramatic turnaround, with costs down by more than a billion dollars while profits soar and online sales are up by 17 percent year-over-year.
Joly’s playbook, titled “Renew Blue” after the trademark color of the polo shirts Best Buy employees are required to wear, deserves serious attention from anyone, in any sector, charged with producing miraculous rebirth. It began, naturally, with the trimming of the fat, not much of a stroke of genius as Circuit City and other doomed enterprises tried the very same thing and failed. But instead of trimming blindly, Joly trimmed smartly, forcing his team into rethinking which parts of the organization were truly indispensable. Their conclusion was inspired: Middle management was put to the sword, while anyone who truly helped enhance the customer’s experience was not only untouched but rewarded with more intricate and intensive training.
Which, if you think about it, may sound strange: Why would a bricks-and-mortar retailer struggling to survive sink funds into something as time-consuming as the professional development of its employees? Herein lies the secret to Best Buy’s success: More than any measure of effective streamlining or reorganizing, the company is thriving because it understood precisely what it offered its clients and chose to invest in enhancing that experience.
Joly et al., knew that they would never match the ease of sitting on the couch in your underwear, clicking a button, and receiving the cheerful Amazon box the very next—or maybe even that very same—day. They improved online inventory and cut prices as much as they could but were still shadowed by the Colossus of Seattle. But Best Buy, they realized, offered consumers something they desperately craved, the ability to walk into a store, hold that camera and see just how much it weighs, play around with that phone and see how snugly it fits in your pocket, or test drive that laptop and check out its display. That desire for tactility is engrained in us, and it’s the one thing no Internet retailer could ever provide. Joly, then, wanted to make sure his sales associates made each customer’s visit to each store as pleasurable and informative as possible. He realized that what was traditionally considered a liability—the need to maintain enormous display rooms stocked with goods—could be turned into an advantage. He had internalized the first principle of fighting Goliath, coined by my friend, the non-violent movement guru Srdja Popovic: If you have to compete against Alex Rodriguez, play chess instead of baseball. Joly challenged Amazon in the single arena in which the giant could never prevail, that of touch and feel and see and smile, and, for now at least, he’s winning handily.
Synagogues would do well to adopt the same logic. Exceptions, thankfully, abound, but, for the most part, American shuls have been trying to regain relevance by offering the very same services and attractions that competitors were providing far more attractively. Why come to yoga in the shul’s musty basement when the studio across the street is well-appointed and slicker? Or why invest in musicians to grace services when their betters are playing the concert hall down the block? And who goes to a singles event at the local synagogue when JDate and JSwipe, not to mention Tinder and so many others, are a flick away?
To be fair, many of the aforementioned efforts, unsuccessful though they may be, were launched with the purest of intentions by men and women genuinely dedicated to the well-being of their communities. They should visit their local Best Buy and ask themselves the same question that fueled the wounded retailer’s resurgence, namely, what, specifically, is it that we do here? And the answer might surprise them in its stark simplicity: What we do in synagogues is good, old-fashioned religion.
Rather than abandon the traditional mantle for other, lighter ones that feel more colorful and cool and contemporary, synagogues should reiterate that their predominant commitment is, as it has always been, to the collective practice of religious ritual. Instead of expecting their staff to look and sound like that cool RA you secretly crushed on in college, they should invest in training members of the clergy to speak confidently and knowledgeably about the words we recite when we pray and the intricate theology these prayers form and the subtle but meaningful ways in which this theology differs from other belief systems. Instead, the closest you’re likely to get to theology in shul these days is some well-meaning muttering about tikkun olam, as if professing our commitment to repairing the world was something more than spiritual smooth jazz, all feelgood and no real depth. These prayers our ancestors have been reciting since they’ve dwelled in sun-stricken tents have meaning, and it’s that meaning, that ancient and primordial connection, we seek when we plop down in the pew.
Let’s have more of that, then. There are many other places we can go to be cool, and many other ways for us to be Jewish, but we still want to go to a place where we can forget about the cheaper and quicker thrills of the world outside. It’s the High Holiday season, and it’s time for another miraculous turnaround.
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