Low Davening Fruit


I was just leaving a comment on a new post by David Wilensky. He’s received an advance copy of part of the new Reform machzor – Mishkan T’shuvah – and he’s brainstorming the criteria he’s going to use to evaluate it on his blog. Go check out what he has to say. This prompted me to wonder:

Given that most of the people who go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are of the “twice-a-year” variety, shouldn’t a machzor be designed with this in mind?

If so, wouldn’t you – as an editor of this machzor – do everything you could to make it accessible and inspiring with the goal of encouraging these twice-a-year Jews to become thrice-a-year or whatever comes after thrice?

Wouldn’t you fill it with meaningful and explanatory commentary and inspiring readings that aren’t clumped together like they’ve been pulled from Bartlett’s Quotations? Wouldn’t you present it in an open and unintimidating way? Wouldn’t you make it beautiful and enjoyable to use?

Have you seen what most machzors look like today? (Hint: most don’t look like that, and those that do are cost-prohibitive).

Congregations work so hard to bring in members, and as any Jewish demographer will tell you, most are struggling right now. So on the very days during the year when the crowd is in the house with books in hand, shouldn’t congregations be equipped to fight the good fight?

If you were in marketing, you would bend over backwards for the opportunity to reach people in the way congregations can at the High Holidays.

Suppose you’re a marketing firm representing some company. Imagine a crowd of people have voluntarily sat down in front of a billboard you created advertising this company, having already purchased whatever it is the company sells. Now imagine that this crowd of people have also told you that they’re only going to sit there for five days, and then they’re leaving and not coming back for a year. To make matters worse, they won’t again be purchasing whatever it is the company sells until then. Sound familiar?

If you were that marketing firm, wouldn’t you do everything you could to entice the people to come back sooner? Wouldn’t you design a billboard that wasn’t just targeted towards the brand-loyal, but also to the fence-sitters and window-shoppers?

If you were that company, wouldn’t you demand that the marketing firm earn its pay by creating such a worthy campaign?

I’m not suggesting that a machzor is just a billboard or a piece of advertising collateral, and I’m not suggesting that a shul is just selling a product or service. There is unique spirituality and holiness among both. But there is also some resonance in these comparisons.

The twice-a-year crowd is often viewed with contempt and relegated to the back of the shul, since most assume that they only come out of a sense of familial obligation or Jewish guilt. Not being of this variety myself, I can’t speak for them, however I would assume that very few feel compelled to return to shul following the High Holidays. Indeed, the proof is in the pews. And to some extent, congregations allow this to be so by focusing their energy and attention instead on the regulars, since those regulars demand the attention.

But the twice-a-year crowd are low hanging fruit! They’re in the house with books in hand!

Most certainly there is a responsibility on the part of congregations to reach out in a welcome manner, create worship services that are engaging and meaningful, and do their job to reach these low hanging fruits daveners.

But in the major Jewish Movements today, most congregations use the standard machzor of that Movement. So isn’t there some responsibility on the Movement’s part, too? Isn’t there a responsibility to create a machzor that does everything that my imaginary marketing firm would do?

I say yes.

So as David evaluates the new draft of Mishkan T’shuvhah, I’m left wondering if it will be a product that is created cognizant and reflective of the majority of people who will be holding it, or if it will be a product that serves instead the vocal minority. I’m not going to judge the book by it’s non-existent cover by making any assumptions at this point. I just hope that Mishkan T’shuvah will be both an inspiring product for the brand-loyal Jews, and also an enticing billboard for the low hanging daveners.

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8 thoughts on “Low Davening Fruit

  1. Larry Kaufman says:

    Having spent my life in marketing, I find your analogy interesting but not compelling. I think the machzor has to satisfy the needs of the people in the sanctuary, as does the entire service for which it is the guidebook — but I am not confident that either will lead to greater consumption of the year-round product.

    This is especially true because the year-round product is so totally different from the HHD product — trading intimacy for drama, divrei Torah for centerpiece sermons, congregational community for audience.

    And I disagree with your contention that congregations focus their attention on the regulars. Even the least grand-standing clergy are conscious that they are performing for people they won’t see until next year — and in some ways, the regulars are, if not ignored, at least taken for granted.

    You express the hope that the machzor will be reflective of the majority rather than of a vocal minority. Remember that the majority doesn’t know, as one of my friends likes to say, a Torah from a hora — and is much less concerned about the nuances than the vocal, because knowledgeable, minority. To a considerable extent, the new book, like its predecessors, will be created to meet the perceived needs of the clergy.

  2. Larry, given that you’re in marketing and have a longer and stronger connection to congregational life than I do, I hope your comments can help refine my argument here.

    You stated:

    “I think the machzor has to satisfy the needs of the people in the sanctuary, as does the entire service for which it is the guidebook — I am not confident that either will lead to greater consumption of the year-round product. This is especially true because the year-round product is so totally different from the HHD product…

    You’re most definitely correct. To draw out my analogy, I suppose the HHDs are like Super Bowl commercials. They certainly do exist on a different level from the regular offering, but I think that their needs to be a cognizance on the part of the creators of the machzor (the super bowl ad) that it is one crucial entry point into congregational/communal life. In that light, it does (or at the very least should) have the potential to lead to greater consumption of the year-round product.

    I suppose this all begs the question – what is the role of the machzor in the grand scheme of the HHD? Is it just a guidebook? Is it just a template? Is it just a script? Of course, it goes beyond these things, but it still remains a central, fixed component of the days. As such, I think it’s important for it to be reflective of or directed at the majority that will use it.

    “I disagree with your contention that congregations focus their attention on the regulars. Even the least grand-standing clergy are conscious that they are performing for people they won’t see until next year — and in some ways, the regulars are, if not ignored, at least taken for granted.”

    You’re right again. To clarify my point: my personal anecdotal evidence suggests that the contempt and relegation I speak of does not necessarily come from the clergy, but from the entire HHD experience in general and the machzor specifically. If people were truly being engaged and connected and provided with a product they felt was meaningful and relevant, wouldn’t they show up year-round?

    “You express the hope that the machzor will be reflective of the majority rather than of a vocal minority. Remember that the majority doesn’t know, as one of my friends likes to say, a Torah from a hora — and is much less concerned about the nuances than the vocal, because knowledgeable, minority”.

    That’s exactly my point! if we want the majority to know the Torah from the hora (cute and hilarious), and want them to become the knowledgeable majority (which I can’t imagine that we don’t), we need to do two things:

    1. Provide a worthy product that raises the bar in a meaningful way.
    2. Entice people to that product with well designed and thoughtfully created materials.

    “To a considerable extent, the new book, like its predecessors, will be created to meet the perceived needs of the clergy.”

    And that’s the very problem I’m addressing. The HHDs provide an invaluable chance to reach the masses and the low hanging fruit. The machzor is one of the things that can reach those people given that they hold it in their hands! Of course the needs of the clergy should be considered, but I believe it’s more important to consider how to reach the masses presented by the very uniqueness of the HDD that you yourself identify.

  3. Larry Kaufman says:

    I draw the SuperBowl analogy somewhat differently. The HHDs are like the Super Bowl, and they only provide the audience for the Super Bowl commercials. Clearly a lot more people watch the Super Bowl game than watch Monday Night Football. How many of them do you suppose are motivated as a result of the SB game to watch more games, whether on TV or in the stadium? Nor do the commercials ask them to; they ask rather that the audience buy an iPhone, or a Coca Cola, or a Chevrolet.

    What do our HHD “commercials” do? They ask people to contribute to the Yom Kippur appeal, which many do, and to be aware that Adult Ed will start right after Simchat Torah, which will be ignored by most. I’m inclined to think that the sermon is more part of the game than it is a commercial for the year-round life of the synagogue, especially when it deals with matters outside the synagogue(e.g., Israel).

    You ask what the role of the machzor is in the grand scheme of the HHD. My answer here has to do with my own approach to attending services. In the old story about Levine who comes to services to talk to God, and Goldfarb who comes to talk to Levine, I am very much Goldfarb. Yes, the machzor has elements of a guidebook and a template and a script, but for me, it is a connector — to being on the same page as all my fellow Jews in the sanctuary, but also with those in other sanctuaries, and especially to those who have gone before. And it is also a reminder of the puzzles that Judaism puts before us. Do I really believe that God is writing down my fate in his book? No. But the poetic or metaphoric concept prods me to take stock of my life.

    Your suggestion (?) or hope (?) or challenge (?) that the HHD and their machzor will lead people to more year-round involvement is worthy, but probably not realistic. (Lo alayich hamlachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenu.) I am satisfied if the HHD service and the machzor that guides it bring the people back next year, and in the meantime, impels them to support the synagogue for the benefit of those who are drawn to its year-round programs. After all, staying in the Pirke Avot milieu, im eyn kemach, eyn Torah.

    • @ Larry:

      “The HHDs are like the Super Bowl, and they only provide the audience for the Super Bowl commercials. Clearly a lot more people watch the Super Bowl game than watch Monday Night Football… How many of them do you suppose are motivated as a result of the SB game to watch more games, whether on TV or in the stadium?”

      I suppose this is true. My point vis a vis the Super Bowl is more that congregations have this one, massive, opportunity to reach the masses, and it seems to me that they are not demanding the best collateral to do so.

      “Yes, the machzor has elements of a guidebook and a template and a script, but for me, it is a connector — to being on the same page as all my fellow Jews in the sanctuary, but also with those in other sanctuaries, and especially to those who have gone before.”

      This is absolutely valid, and I appreciate learning about your personal motivation on the HHD. For you, then, is it more about the structure of the machzor than the content? Could there be anything included as long as was the same for everyone?

      “And it is also a reminder of the puzzles that Judaism puts before us. Do I really believe that God is writing down my fate in his book? No. But the poetic or metaphoric concept prods me to take stock of my life.”

      The puzzles and challenges and metaphors and poetry are exactly the things I believe we should be reinforcing through a more thoughtful design. Most of the people in the pews on the HDDs are likely struggling greatly with the puzzles and metaphors, and at the end of the day, they walk away and don’t return because of the weight of them. My question is what can we do with the machzor to foster a greater engagement with the puzzles in the book?

      “Your suggestion (?) or hope (?) or challenge (?) that the HHD and their machzor will lead people to more year-round involvement is worthy, but probably not realistic.”

      I suppose my suggestion is all predicated on the simple statistics most congregations face. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a congregation that isn’t trying to increase its membership base. And then you have these few days during the year when masses of people willingly enter the synagogue. And on top of that, they come with a machzor in hand. To me, this presents a unique opportunity that most congregations are clearly not taking advantage of to the fullest extent.

      • Larry Kaufman says:

        I absolutely agree that the HHD represent the major marketing opportunity a congregation has, and I equally agree that we, as a collective, have not figured out how to deploy it effectively. Leaving aside people who join congregations for the religious school, I would imagine that the next biggest draw is “needing a place for the HHD.” Interestingly, there’s an influx of strangers on Friday nights during August — shul shoppers — and they no doubt decide whom to give their business too based on some mix of three factors: the quality of the sermon, the cantor’s voice, and how they are welcomed at the oneg shabbat.

        Then they come to the shul they have chosen, and while the rabbi will preach, and the cantor will sing, there will be no real opportunity to be welcoming, and thus draw them back for Shabbat when the holy days are over. (Shabbat shuvah is typically one of the least well-attended services of the year.) I would certainly leave a brochure on every seat, outlining all the adult programs of the congregation — and that will be a much better marketing tool than the machzor.

        As I implied above, I don’t sense any pressure to obsolete GOR — although it shares many of the flaws of GOP, especially English readings that don’t parallel the Hebrew they purport to translate, it avoids the redundancy of GOP. GOP wasted a hell of a lot more paper than MTf does, in offering 10 Friday night services, and I think 4 for Shabbat morning, and 4 for seder kriat haTorah, with essentially identical Hebrew and various different points of view in the English. (The great Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l is purported to have said that any of the variants in GOP was acceptable, as long as it was Service #1. Wolf, by the way, was reasonably satisfied with Mishkan T’filah, although he told me he expected it to be the last siddur the movement would ever print.)

        As to the balance in the machzor between structure and content — we have to differentiate between the structure of the book and the structure of the service. I can’t imagine that the editors will make any substantive changes in the structure of the service — and the content changes they make will reflect the decisions made for Mishkan T’filah — like an option for mechayeh meitim, and the addition of morid hatal. Assuming a format for the machzor similar to that of the siddur, the content of the left-hand pages is likely not to be the same for everyone, because by everyone, I mean close enough to what the other streams have, and close enough to the inherited tradition. (And to placate BZ, I mean both what we inherit from previous Reform machzorim and what we share from Orthodox and Conservative machzorim. )

        I think it would be kind of nice if the new machzor were to supplement the traditional Reform Torah and haftarah selections with the option of those that are standard to the other denominations. (I remember reading an essay by Rabbi David Polish z”l, the founding rabbi of my current congregation, in which he expressed the idea that the Akeda cannot be properly understood without the context of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.)

        I don’t agree that people don’t come back because they are uncomfortable with the weight of the unanswered puzzles. They don’t come back during the year because they’re perfectly happy putting the puzzles aside until next year; and they come back next year, not to get the puzzles answered, but out of a herding instinct, like the swallows coming back to Capistrano, as the old song has it.

        I would have no problem with the new machzor having more in the way of commentary, explanation, even stage directions. These would give people at all levels of background an opportunity to learn more if they were so inclined — and bina goreret bina — but would that added understanding drive anybody to start coming on Shabbat? I remain dubious.

      • Larry Kaufman says:

        I slid over “begs the question” without giving it any thought, but, prompted by ML, I pulled out my Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (Bergen and Cornelia Evans, copyright 1957). I have no reason to think its meaning has changed since they wrote:

        “beg the question does not mean, as it is often assumed to mean, to evade giving a direct answer. It means to assume without proof, to take for granted the very conclusion in dispute. Thus he who challenges the doctrine of organic evolution and begins by assuming Special Creation has begged the question.”

        Based on the Evans’ drash, I find you not guilty of what the Evans’ describe as the common misuse, but also not compliant with their suggested correct use. So if you go back to your original text and change “begs the question” to “stimulates the question,” you can delete this thread.

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