The Blockbuster Synagogue

Synagogues beware: Don’t follow the video chain’s example by not adapting to today’s realities.

by Rabbi Jeremy Fine

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On a bad day or in a search for tranquility, many people go to a spot that soothes the mind. For some this is the place they grew up, for others it’s a spiritual home, but for me (assuming I could not drive to Camp Ramah in Conover, Wisconsin) it was a Blockbuster video store. Among the sea of movie cases I would ?nd myself looking for something to lighten my mood or to just lose myself in the endless gallery of Hollywood. Sadly, Blockbuster is gone. I, for one, miss the video store immensely. I loved stumbling upon a ?lm that I had never seen or one that reminded me of my youth. Finding it on Netflix or On Demand is just not the same. My daughters will never know from the physical video or DVD case or browsing for the perfect movie on a date. They will have it all instantly available on their television or cell phone.

Blockbuster died from the same two problems synagogues face when engaging millennials: laziness and an inability to adapt.

People are lazy. We are unwilling to get off the couch to look for a movie. We want our entertainment and information now, and the movie store down the street is just too far. I notice that many millennials struggle with the dilemma: If it is not in my neighborhood, then it’s not for me. Millennials will forgo the show or experience for the simplicity of the couch.

This brings me to the second problem: our inability to adapt.

Blockbuster should have seen RedBox coming. Blockbuster should have under-stood the potential of Net?ix. Because it did not adapt it no longer exists. Movies did not die, nor did the desire to experience those ?lms decrease. People are not bored with ?lms; they just want to experience them differently. Synagogues do not have to die. But if synagogues cannot adapt to the changing needs of their users, they will cease to exist. We must approach the future with a knowledge of the past and the reality of the present.

“New” does not mean our approach should be hokey or masked by serving alcohol. It just means we need to listen and learn from the resources we have. I spoke at the USCJ Centennial in 2013 about Temple of Aaron’s successful 20s and 30s group known as TAXY (Temple of Aaron Generation X and Y). The audience asked how to solve the problem of engaging young professionals. My response was if you are asking the question, you are not the one who will solve the problem. I urge rabbis and congregations to allow millennials to ?nd the “new” and “hip” ways to become engaged, resulting in their becoming proactive leaders in the community. Synagogues need to follow the leads of RedBox and Net?ix. Lead the change and constantly evolve, rather than sitting on the principles of a Blockbuster.

We know Blockbuster was stubborn. By the time its leaders realized that survival meant adaptation, it was too late. Many of us have been stubborn, as well, but I know it is not too late. I encourage all synagogues to create a team to look for what is new in the community. Find new voices to help you locate the next big thing that is going to lure in members, expand participation, and ignite excitement. Attack these issues head on. Support your rabbi and leadership team’s decisions even if that means diverging from the norms of the past 50 years. Don’t become the Block-buster synagogue.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine is associate rabbi at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2014, the Jewish Daily Forward named him one of America’s most inspiring rabbis.