From: Andrew Silow-Carroll
To: Synagogue leaders everywhere
Subject: The Commoditization of the Jewish Experience
As some of you know, I have long looked to the Starbucks coffee empire
as a source for ideas about reinvigorating the synagogue experience. As
I once wrote in an essay (reprinted in Heavenly Coffee: The Journal of
Religion and Caffeine), your typical Starbucks serves as a model and
metaphor for community-building. "The physical setting is often
exquisite, the seating is conducive to lingering and conversation, the
music is current and tasteful, the price of admission is low, and the
entire place commands you to slow down, albeit in a highly caffeinated
Over the past 10 years, however, I've noted an erosion in the Starbucks
model. And it's not just me. Last month, Howard Schultz, the chairman of
Starbucks, sent a memo to employees. In it, he complains that the chain
has made a series of business decisions that have led to the "watering
down of the Starbucks experience." Automatic espresso machines have
replaced hands-on "baristas." "Flavor-locked packaging" fills in for
aromatic roasted beans. Too-tall machines prevent customers from seeing
their mochas and cappuccinos being concocted. Automation even removes
the aroma -- the "most powerful nonverbal signal" in the Starbucks
In short, customers are being robbed of the "romance and theater that
was in play." By "stripping the store of tradition and our heritage,"
Schultz wrote, too many stores "no longer have the soul of the past."
Schultz is talking about coffee, but it doesn't take more than few shots
of espresso to see that he is also talking about synagogue. Judaism may
not be on the same growth curve as Starbucks (which went from 1,000
stores to 13,000 in a decade), but aren't we all struggling with how to
hold onto our "tradition and heritage"? Can't we also say that too many
Jewish institutions "no longer have the soul of the past"?
That's why I think Schultz's memo should be added to the reading list as
we think about the Jewish future. We all should ask his question: "We
achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost?" Okay, maybe
that's not exactly the question for American Jewry, but you get the
idea. In what ways do our own synagogues represent a watered-down
version of Jewish tradition? In what ways have we shortchanged
congregants who are in search of "romance and theater"?
Schultz's memo is really a five-point plan for synagogue renewal.
One: Bring back the baristas. When new people show up at your
synagogues, are temple regulars and employees closed and automatic, or
are they open and intimate? A people-to-people approach is the single
biggest factor in attracting new members, and keeping them.
Two: Reflect the passion. Schultz complains that "some people even call
our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our
partners feel about our coffee." Does your synagogue and its decor
reflect the personality of your congregation? Do decorations and signage
display the soul of the membership or the mere craftsmanship of the
Three: Let them see the drink being made.
People want to see the process. Rabbis and boards who make decisions
behind closed doors miss an opportunity to educate and engage their
congregants. Lower the barriers.
Four: Bring back the aroma. What are your "most powerful nonverbal
signals"? Is it an inviting Kiddush? Is it the array of information for
new congregants right by the entrance to the sanctuary? Is it the sight
of young children who obviously appear comfortable in shul?
Five: Get back to the core. Schultz urges Starbucks employees to "push
for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate
Starbucks from all others." That seems to contradict his message of
tradition and heritage, but it doesn't. It means always finding fresh
ways to remember who you are, and to remind others of the differences
that make you, you.
Okay, I'll admit it: Growing a coffee chain and running a synagogue do
not make for perfect analogies. While a synagogue should offer a variety
of ways to engage Jews, a menu that's too big would certainly lead to a
"dilution of the experience." Successful synagogues also demand more
from their "customers" than that they merely show up, pay for a service,
and walk back out the door. In successful synagogues, "customers" are
found on both sides of the counter.
But Schultz could well be the keynote speaker at a synagogue renewal
conference when he says, "We desperately need to look into the mirror
and realize it's time to get back to the core and make the changes
necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we
all have for the true Starbucks experience."
Substitute "synagogue" for "Starbucks" in that sentence, and you have
what sounds like you'll pardon the cliche a wakeup call.