Do Synagogue Movements (Except for Chabad) Know What They Really Sell?


My friend and colleague, Dr. Jim Schreier, sent me a link to an article called, “The Only Thing Apple Really Sells,” that inspired the content of this post. The gist of the article is that Apple does not sell hardware, software or cloud-based solutions. Rather, Apple sells an ecosystem. Their products and services are, “one-way tickets to platform archipelagos, to fiercely guarded fiefdoms where everything works in harmony within walls that are high and strong. And the longer you’re inside, the harder it is to leave.” The author of the article goes on to say, “That’s (an ecosystem) the endgame. An ecosystem so interconnected, entwined so tightly, that you can’t leave even if you wanted to. It’s not hardware, or software. It’s a family of products, apps, services, and accessories with the gravitational pull of a black hole. And Apple, today, simply does it better than anybody else.”


Do denominational synagogue lay and professional leaders understand that they are really selling a Jewish ecosystem? Or, do they fall into the understandable default position of selling “membership” (a product). What’s the difference between the two approaches? Thinking of a denominational congregation as a part of an ecosystem means that camps, youth groups, regional and national learning opportunities, ritual and prayer, and national and international social networks are all a part of the benefits of membership. Thinking of a congregation as an ecosystem would mean that there would be greater intentionality on the part of congregational leaders to connect with people and help people connect with one another at all stages and ages, locally, nationally and internationally. Leaders would think more often about how to make congregations an indispensible part of people’s lives-by collaborating internally and with other partners in the local Jewish community.


Focusing on maintaining and acquiring new members suggests a much narrower message, namely that someone is joining an organization that they can easily “ unjoin.” A membership mentality often conveys the unintended meaning that we know that you are using the synagogue for a particular service at a particular point in time. In this mindset, the larger web of opportunities is not revealed to the member of potential member.


I know that the analogy is not perfect, but it is instructive. Thinking of the congregation as an ecosystem helps to focus leaderships’ attention on the holistic needs of individuala as they grow. Chabad seems to have figured this out, (although it’s not entirely clear to me why they are more successful than other denominational movements). But in order to present your congregation as an ecosystem, you have to be one. There has to be a conscious, integrated effort to get all of the departments of the congregation to stop acting like compartments. And denominational headquarters and local synagogues have to offer seamless paths of engagement.


Let me know what you think. Does conceptualizing your congregation as an ecosystem stimulate any new potential ways to reach and involve people more deeply and more often?


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18 Responses

  1. Daniel Alter says:

    Interesting thoughts. It seems to me like this concept of an ecosystem is pretty much a given in the Orthodox commmunity, where an entire culture has been formed. Orthodox families attend an Orthodox Shul. Most of their kids attend Jewish schools. Entire industries have formed to support this ecosystem like the Jewish music industry, the Kashrut industry etc.
    Halacha, more than anything else, has created this ecosystem. I live in walking distance of my community, eat food only in the homes of my friends or kosher places where most of the people share my cultural values etc.
    Without halacha as a system, I think it is very hard to create this ecosystem in a way that people “can’t leave even if you wanted to”.

    I am also not so sure that Chabad has created this ecosystem in any way that is different from the Orthodox community. They have plenty of people floating in and out on a regular basis, and then a percentage of their participants buy into the system and begin to keep halacha. At that point they are part of the ecosystem.

    • Hayim Herring says:

      A very good insight! Your highlighting the role of halakha is consonant with the Apple analogy, because both “systems” get you to behave in a certain way. But, I think there is more than behaving a certain way that’s involved. Apple users are also emotionally engaged with their products. That’s where Chabad may be different from other expressions of Orthodoxy. Chabad captures the emotional feelings of non-Chabadniks on a scale that modern Orthodoxy does not.

  2. Lisa Colton says:

    This language really resonates with me. I love the Apple analogy (I live in that ecosystem!) and find that each investment Apple makes exponentially increases the value of the investments that I’ve made. It’s win-win every time.

    The “productizing” of Jewish life I agree does everyone a disservice. That doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter, but it’s the positioning and value and person-centric design rather than organizational centric design that makes an important difference.

    The ecosystem analogy also points to the interplay between and among all elements of the system. We spray to kill mosquitoes and the frogs and birds starve, which itself has a ripple effect. I wonder what kind of ecological models could be adapted to measure and inform Jewish communal health?

  3. Michael Weis says:

    The best explanation I have ever seen on this concept is contained in the book “Selling the Invisible” by Harry Beckwith, a book that should be required reading by every Jewish professional. With all due respect to Dr. Schreier, people don’t buy ecosystems. Nobody cares that what they’re buying when they buy Apple is an ecosystem. The fact that Apple has created an ecosystem does not mean that’s what they’re selling.

    What they’re really selling is a value. For years, Apple’s ads all said “Think Different.” That’s a line straight out of Beckwith’s book (p 17, in fact). When you buy Apple, you’re buying the right to say, “I’m unique. I’m different.” And deep down, isn’t that something we all want to be able to say? The ecosystem is there to make you feel totally secure and comfortable in making that choice. If the ecosystem wasn’t there to support going out on that limb, nobody would buy their products.

    The challenge for Jewish professionals, and specifically rabbis and cantors is to help lead our congregations to an understanding of just exactly what it is that we’re selling. It’s not membership, and it’s not an ecosystem. Maybe it’s a sense of connection, but I think it might be more a sense of belonging. That’s what people get from the Orthodox and Chabad ecosystem. They don’t get the ecosystem, they get to belong.

    • Hayim Herring says:

      Thanks for the reference to the Beckwith book. To clarify, customers don’t buy ecosystems and I don’t think that’s what the article was really saying. Rather, Apple understands that it has to create value and positive emotional feelings at all levels of products and services. It’s that rigorous commitment to excellence and value that provides learning for those of us who care about tezedek, justice, compassion, purpose and simply creating microcosms of what a more perfect world can be.

      • Lisa Colton says:

        An ecosystem is interconnectedness. I do think the value I get from each new Apple product is the ease of interconnectedness between and among devices and operating systems. My brand loyalty is based on that (think different doesn’t hurt either). Why swim upstream when I can surf the wave much more easily? The same is true Jewishly. Interconnectedness creates a sense of belonging. That’s not tushes in seats, it’s meaningful relationships with people who share practice, values, heritage and traditions.

  4. Hayim, this is an excellent post, thank you. I am constantly thinking about these issues and I think that this is another metaphor that will help. It is ironic-many of us understand and advocate for the Erica Brown language of Nordstroms (consumer oriented) and still recognize that we need to get beyond a transactional experience (which I would argue Nordstroms tries to do as well) and make the expereince one of stakeholders and investors in a life long community that creates meaning and purpose.

    • Hayim Herring says:

      Rachel-you hit the nail on the head about our potential to offer unique meaning and purpose, in a community where others care about the same thing-as our best “selling” point!

  5. Rabbi Aaron Bisno says:

    Hayyim, with this post, you have provided us with a means of naming one of the most significant deficiencies within our current autonomous congregational structure. Neighboring congregations within a given area/city (or for that matter, nationally) speak of being in the same Movement (I myself serve a Reform congregation) but each respective congregation works independently in what today amounts to a zero-sum game. We are inevitably squared off against each other and our national leadership is seemingly unable (ill-equipped/impotent?) to bring any leverage to bear on bringing our disparate congregational entities (our rabbis and lay leaders) together such that all come to understand that our whole (our ecosystem) would be greater than our independent (inevitably rivaling) parts were we to get of our current me-first, survivalist mindset. What Chabad has in place, that neither the Reform nor Conservative Movement has realized is necessary, is a centralized system of command-and-control such that their brand/product/would-be ecosystem is aligned. At present in the non-Chabad world (the irony!) every Reform and Conservative congregation is all-but going it alone in a quest to survive as a stand alone “community.” Standard operating procedure has each congregation behaving as if it has real responsibility to the larger Jewish world in which we all live; instead congregations are competing with one another for members (because all “need the dues”). Failing to recognize the destructive nature of this patter seems especially dangerous (self-serving designs always are) given that we can have no expectations that our children will live in the same local community in which they are raised and therefore are unlikely to affiliate with the same congregation – if they some day affiliate at all – in which they grew up. It’s high time that congregational rabbis and lay leaders on the local and national levels, both, recognize the wisdom in the ecosystem analogy you have introduced here and determine thst our collective communal well-beibg necessitates that we engage in the courageous conversation you are encouraging!

    • Hayim Herring says:

      Aaron-you are spot on again. Think about how much more valuable it would be to participate in a Jewish community where organizations under the same umbrella thought day and night about how they could work together to deepen the impact of their members!

  6. As the internet and digital communication developed, you could count on Apple products to work cross-platform while other platforms often didn’t. This defies the analogy of their ecosystem being high-walled and closely guarded. It was low walls and an easy access interface that regularly added value and potential that drew loyal customers far and wide. It worked better for more people with broader and more varied uses. That’s an ecosystem worth emulating—and its competitors have! There’s a lot for religion to think about in the analogy, especially since old values and structures play such a significant role.

  7. Hayim Herring says:

    And Judith, to extend the analogy, their products were simple and enjoyable to use. You weren’t required to go through mounds of jargon to have a great experience.

  8. adina frydman says:

    Love this conversation stream! This is multi-tiered as we are simultaneously speaking about ecosystems within ecosystems – departments within synagogues, synagogues, denominations, the jewish communal landscape.
    Not sure who said it but for the Jew on the street the custumer centric view is about weaving a jewish journey in and out and through these ecosystems and it is a mistake to only think of singular ecosystems. Rather, we ought be thinking about how to create interconnected, porous systems with navigators. Someone needs to connect the dots in what has become episodic jewish engagement – we have a leaky pipeline issue and all of our closed institutions inadvertently send the wrong message when they close they doors to members only and frown upon lapsed members.

  9. Hayim Herring says:

    I remember Jonathan Woocher already back in the mid-90′s or even earlier speaking about a “smooth handoff” of individuals from institution to institution so that they would not feel the friction of turf wars. And I also wrote about looking at the institutions of the Jewish community from a user perspective in my publication, Network Judaism (

  10. Jesse Cogan says:

    With Apple, synagogues, Jewish organizations and Day Schools it’s
    all about branding. To belong to something you have to know what you belong to. You don’t belong to classes, outings, delicious kidushim or
    a trip to the Jewish Museum. You belong too an idea, hopefully one unique to yourself. And everything you do should support the brand.

    In Eastern Europe there were a number of mussar yeshivot, but two were branded so clearly that you’d know where they went having seen no advertising, direct mail or even having visited. One was Slobodka which believed in Gadlus Haadam – the majesty of man and how high he cab become through ethical living. The other was Novardok which stood for shiflus Haasdam – that man is nothing, just a speck in the universe, and you have to work hard on yourself to get to where you want to go.

    Slobodka students were clean, neat, dressed like the upper class, and held their heads up high. Novardokers were shlumpy, spent little money on themselves (though some were from wealthy families) looked and dressed poor and sometimes had no trouble embarrasing themselves in order to realize their position in the univefrse.

    At Slobadka they said, “You think you’re a great man – I am a greater man than you”

    At Novardok they said “You think you’re a nothing, I’m a bigger nothing than you.”

    You should be able to recognize your brand (your synagogue, organization, etc.) if it sat across from you on the subway. You should be willing to turn some people off when the rewards are turning more people on.

    Synagogues should know what they stanf for, let people know and practice it.

    You shouldn’t join a shule. You should identify with a concepgt.

    We might live to see a time when Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist will b e clearly branded.

    We might live to a time when Judaism itself is branded.

    And we might see a day when belonging is more important than joining.

  11. Hayim Herring says:

    I received a comment from my friend, Bryan Badzin, and am posting it with his permission:

    Excellent article! As someone who was born an raised Conservative, and now primarily goes to Chabad, except for the every other month class I teach at Beth El, I have a good insight into what they do differently. Here’s a few of them, though I’d be happy to discuss further if you wanted:

    1. They have a central mission and the same core values, but decentralized tactics. This keeps them similar enough at the core, while allowing for local customization.

    2. They’re Petraeus, not Abizaid. As the former said when asked how the surge was different, he said, ‘We won’t go home at night.’ Chabad families move into a community for life, not temporarily for a job.

    3. It’s a family business, not dad’s career. Look at how few wives of non-Orthodox rabbis are primarily involved in their husbands’ shuls. Look at the role the Chabad daughters play in baking for Shabbos lunch and running the Shabbos kids program. It makes being a rabbi and running a shul much easier and effective when the whole family’s involved.

    4. They provide a community, not just a service. The former includes the latter, the converse does not.

    5. The rabbi owns the synagogue. This cannot be understated, and impacts everything.

    None of this is meant as criticism of the non-Orthodox rabbis. They work very hard and as a group are phenomenal people. I’m only pointing out what I’ve seen as a few of the differences.

    Bryan Badzin

  12. Linda Rich says:

    I heartily endorse the idea of the synagogue community as a sustaining “ecosystem” nourishing its citizen-inhabitants in a holistic way. But there are problems with holding Chabad and Apple up as exemplars worthy of emulation. Let’s look instead to the great success of Limmud and build Limmud-style ecosystems to create healthy, engaging Jewish communities. And let’s not forget to throw in some unique flavoring (denominational, ideological or other) to satisfy the human need for identity and to forge group cohesion.

    • Hayim Herring says:

      Always good to learn from the outside world, in addition to the ecosystems that we’re generating internally (although I don’t understand the reference to Limud, which lacks a local ecosystem).