Consuming the Consumers

February 1, 2012
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Noa Kushner

Let’s start with this perspective: People who come as consumers to “The Kitchen” (or any Jewish religious community) have more potential for Jewish religious growth than those who don’t show up at all. This is significant because, in San Francisco in 2012, this group — those who don’t attempt any regular Jewish religious experience of any kind — is by far the largest.

What this means is that a person who visits our community as a consumer, as someone who comes only wanting a specific item on the religious menu, is already more engaged than the person who doesn’t show up. At least we can say that a potential consumer is open to consuming something. What happens after that is up to us, the teachers.

The problem, then, is not only that some people enter a community as consumers, with a sense that a “religious” or “community” experience will be provided for them. Rather, the challenge is how to defy the expectations of those who want a tidy transaction with Jewish religious life. How do we meet the challenges of shaking up their loyalties and priorities and even of changing their view of the world and self? This is a problem of magnitude, a great Jewish problem, a problem about how to transmit a life that matters. This problem is one worth approaching with our every available resource.

For if we only fulfill the expectations of our “consumers,” then we’ve likely failed. Because the sad truth is, in general, expectations of religious experiences are embarrassingly low. Therefore, our success is not about fulfilling expectations but about shattering them. Simply put, it is about re-introducing the possibility of religious experience as life changing.

In addition, a consumer orienation — the idea that I can predict and control my religious experience — isn’t necessarily limited to those engaging in financial transactions. What my teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman calls a “fee-for-service” mentality may exist even if there is no charge for the experience, as in the cases of Hillel, Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, or Chabad.

The transformation of would-be consumers into generators, instigators, and producers of Jewish life will likely include an acceptance of financial responsibility. Ultimately, though, it must surpass any financial relationship. Nurturing more stakeholders and paying participants alone will not create religiously powerful communities. Project funding and membership models must be tied to truly meaningful and life-altering Jewish experiences. Otherwise, how can we expect to grow an understanding of the larger worth and necessity of these experiences within a given community? Without establishing an active feedback loop, even if the funds are raised, they may only perpetuate the status quo. Insisting on transformation and impact is our only safeguard against this stagnation.

So here are our challenges, and they are significant. First, we need people to come in the door, even if only as consumers. I suggest we do this in the most culturally resonant and engaging ways possible. Then, we must work to build a sustainable community with buy-in, where all of the “consumers” begin to take responsibility for the community’s direction. And we must do this not by supplying what the consumers think they paid for but by offering something much less constrained and measurable, something that will not leave them happy and satisfied but rather changed and burdened. For example, I am remembering a student who came in for his bar mitzvah but found himself wrestling with the implications and demands of Torah. Or the man who arrived to say kaddish on a yahrzeit, but ended up comforting a girl who was broken from the loss of her brother. Or the young woman who expected little from Kol Nidrei but found herself moved to feed people on the street because what she “got” from the experience was a call to give. I keep thinking of a Heschel-like reversal: Our goal is to have people come in as consumers only to find that they are, like us, consumed.

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Noa Kushner is the founding rabbi of “The Kitchen”: one part indie Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice,

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