Jewish leaders make an app for “young, hip” Millennials to keep them in the faith

Jews are worried about Jews. Specifically, older Jews are worried that younger Jews aren’t going to stick around as Jews for much longer. And their concern isn’t exactly unfounded, as over a third of Jews between the ages of 18 and 34, myself included, don’t believe in God.

Our Jewish identity is completely cultural and not at all religious. We say we’re Jewish when people ask, but with a particular emphasis on the “ish.” We recognize Yiddish but we don’t understand it. We’re proud of athletes who refuse to play during the High Holidays, even though we might not be observing them ourselves. We drink Manischewitz ironically.

Our elders in the Jewish community are worried about us, because the lack of faith and observance that comes with our identity means that while we register in surveys of religious affiliation, we aren’t showing up for services on a weekly basis. More importantly, we aren’t paying dues to our local synagogue. And while this may not be that big of a deal as far as the man upstairs is concerned, it’s a big deal for the faithful here on Earth: If in 20 years “being Jewish” looks less like the formal observance of our grandparents and more like the decentralized, cultural identification of people like me, a lot of synagogues are going to have to close.

As one might imagine, synagogues around the country are tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to keep this from happening. How do we keep the youths around? How can we make Judaism “cool” for the “young, hip” generation? they ask themselves, oblivious to the fact that if you have to ask the question, it’s already been answered.

That hasn’t stopped them from trying, as most recently exemplified by Synago, an app featured in Slate yesterday that encourages Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s to connect, plan events and, most importantly, pay to be a part of their local Jewish community:

Synago has a nice ring to it—it connotes the idea of synagogue on the go but also means “come together” in Greek, and that’s one of the main goals. Designed by Hassidic coders—both male and female—at Spotlight Design, the sleek, minimalist interface is perfect for the hybrid goals of synagogue hub and social network. But, most importantly, it costs money to join. There are three monthly tiers of giving, $30 for “members,” $60 for “supporters,” and $150 for “philanthropists.”

The goal for the people who made the app is to “reimagine the way that young, hip Jews interact with their religion.” Having found success in organizing exclusive events and mixers for local Jews, Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, realized that if making Judaism cooler could work for participation in the community’s events, it could potentially work for the community’s finances.

As Rabbi Scheiner told Slate, “Soho Synagogue works because we start with the premise that everything on offer in the Jewish world isn’t working—proof being that the audience isn’t going to those. It’s about experimentation and moving every year to a formula that is engaging. But why can’t we do the same thing to funding?”

It’s hard to read that paragraph and not come away with the impression that Rabbi Scheiner is measuring his “success” in the same way that digital marketers measure theirs: in engagements, conversions and retentions. And while we’re more or less fine with that when the engagements being measured are for value-neutral (rather, value-free) products like freemium games, doing the same for a religion seems sacrilegious, to say the least.

But there’s more! Not only is the app designed to monetize the Jewish community, it’s also designed to pare down the tenets of the faith into bite-size tweetlets framed for the Millennial audience, allowing them to consume their religion on their own terms:

The Amazon "Fire Phone" new 3D smartphone. (Image courtesy of Engadget.)

The Amazon “Fire Phone,” via Engadget

Mendel Jacobson, the chief content officer, tries to use this space to adapt prayers to a more contemporary language. Each week he takes a mitzvah, one of the 613 commandments in the Bible, and tries to convey it in a way that members can relate to. Often, this takes a kabalistic bent. Most recently, he told me, he wrote about the commandment to keep the eternal flame that appeared in the temple lit at all times. Many synagogues keep a light in the front of the sanctuary, but Jacobson encouraged Synago members to think of “an eternal flame of your heart” always elevating and trying to reach higher.

Call me old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that the whole point of religion was that it didn’t need a “chief content officer.” At least with the three major monotheisms, one of the central tenets of the faith is that God already provided all the content we needed, and that the unforced force of the holy Truth should be enough to keep members in the faith. This reformulation of the faith for the 21st Century, watering it down by replacing the religion with a social network, is an admission that this is not the case. It isn’t enough to be right; you have to be cool:

Many of their new members signed up around the High Holy Days, and they’re hoping to replicate that with a big Hanukkah blowout: A friend of the synagogue has access to what Dovi referred to as “Andy Warhol’s Soho escape loft.” Over the course of the eight-day holiday, they’ll have two black-tie parties there.

Setting aside the extent to which this attempt to commercialize Jewish identity is limited by socioeconomic class, viewed from the outside, it comes off as gross. If your approach to your faith is “How can we incentivize our paying customers so that they’ll stick around?” I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.

As Slate outlines, Synago is designed for people like me: “Most members are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and, while Jewishly inclined, are not actively practicing in other ways.” The app aims to sign up people who identify as Jewish without practicing, in hopes of keeping them in some way financially affiliated with the religion. That seems like a cheap trick, and only underscores the original reasons why Jews like me are leaving the faith.

There shouldn’t be an app for that.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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