Institutions need to build brand loyalty, says Israeli rabbi and thinker

Offer what people want. Don’t simply expect they’ll stick around out of guilt, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute said at Temple Rodef Shalom.
Photo by Audrey Rothstein Photography.

You’ve heard the narratives before. Many American Jews increasingly view Israel as under the thumb of the Orthodox Rabbinate and an abuser of human and civil rights. Israelis think American Jews are spoiled and should stay out of Israeli affairs. The gap, we’ve all heard, is widening.

You’ve also heard about impending doom for the North American Jewish institutional life. Participation rates in the community are rapidly declining. American Jews are checking out.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, wants to reframe it all.

For centuries — even millennia — he told a Northern Virginia audience on Monday, world Jewry has seen itself through the lens of family. Today, that’s outdated.

“One of the challenges we’re facing in North America is that increasingly Jews, while still being family, are becoming consumers. People are asking, ‘What do I get from it?’” Hartman told 200 people at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

“Well, maybe our institutions have to work harder. The assumption that you’re going to have people joining might
be an assumption that you’re creating mediocrity.”

Hartman’s appearance was part of an initiative of the Jerusalem-based Hartman Institute and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington that includes public lectures and seminars in order to “enhance Jewish life,” according to the project’s mission statement.

If the North American Jewish community is looking for ideas on how to improve synagogue membership and general engagement with the community idea, Hartman has a lot of them — primarily on what not to do.

For one, don’t try to scare Jews into a loyalty to their community or a return to the “family model” as Hartman described it. He painted a picture of the most secure and prosperous time in history for Jews, one in which — despite horrific acts like the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year — North American Jews can’t be convinced that the state won’t come to their defense.

Hartman told of his experience the day after the shooting, driving up to a San Francisco synagogue.

“There was an American flag about the size of this room and it was flying at half mast,” Hartman said. “We weren’t alone in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was not Kristallnacht, ladies and gentleman. And Pittsburgh is not going to be enough to keep the Jewish family together.”

Instead, he said, Jewish institutions need to adopt more of a “consumer model,” and treat potential members as buyers in a competitive marketplace for time, money and ideas. Offer what people want. Don’t simply expect they’ll stick around out of guilt, Hartman said. Build brand loyalty.

His takedown of the family model continued as he discussed North American Jewry’s strained relationship with Israel. Hartman moved to Israel in 1971 at the age of 13. For a long time, he said, Israelis have been operating under the family framework, that though they may have disagreements with the Diaspora, ultimately those would remain within
the family.

And financially, Israelis expected Americans to act as “investors,” in Hartman’s words.

Instead, many Americans want to be “partners, building the Israel that [they] want.” He warned, though, that demanding a partnership role can come off as “profoundly paternalistic.”

And pleas from Israel that it is dependent on the support of North American Jews are increasingly falling on deaf ears, Hartman said.

“You can’t be start-up nation and pathetic nation at the same time,” he said.

But Hartman chided North American Jews for often underselling the danger Israelis face almost every day, or thinking they could easily export the ideas of minority rights, pluralism and social progressivism.

For all the talk of Israel being a haven for the Diaspora if ever needed, it’s in Israel, in fact, where Jews are most often in danger. But in the consumer model, that can turn off North Americans even more.

“Every family in Israel is a Gold Star family, but consumers are saying ‘That’s not my experience, I feel safe here,”
Hartman said. “Consumers are asking Israel, ‘Are you really the best of what Judaism could be?’”

Hartman ended on a note of optimism for American Jews hoping that Israel will eventually better reflect their own values.

Pointing to public opinion polls of Israeli views on American Jews, he said despite the dire headlines, Americans will find open arms, and ears, in Israel.

“Family puts you in the room, consumer challenges you to make that discussion meaningful. Sixty percent of Israelis say we shouldn’t take your opinion into account on issues internal to Israel or issues of foreign policy. Forty percent say we should take your opinion into account,” Hartman said, his voice rising.

“The ultra-Orthodox are 10 percent, now you have 40 percent of Israelis to work with. If you have 10 seats in the Knesset you rule the country. Well, there’s 40 percent of Israelis who are open to talking to you. So talk.”

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