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

  1. Olterigo says:

    A worm sitting in horseradish thinks there’s nothing sweeter in the whole world.

  2. Indigo says:

    The exact moment when I decided I’d better sign up and shut up with AARP was when I discovered that their insurance plans for folks on Medicare are actually pretty good and even, in many cases, affordable. Imagine that!?!

  3. ymr049c says:

    I find the author’s attitude strange. They don’t take the religious part of their (cultural/historical) religion seriously, but they get offended about the commercial? way a religious official goes about promoting the religion. ‘I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.’ Evidently they were already doing it wrong, or you wouldn’t have dropped out in the first place.

  4. The_Fixer says:

    I’ve never gotten one of those, and I’m well past that mark (although not quite full-boat retirement age). I think that’s because I’ve been fiercely protective of any personal information and do my best to live with as much anonymity as is humanly possible. The people at Radio Shack were really frustrated as I would never give them my name. Even though they made a pledge to never sell your information, all bets were off when they entered bankruptcy. It was one of the first things that they wanted to sell. It’s a good example of why one should never take such a promise seriously – you never know when a company could go belly-up and want to sell that info for desperately needed cash.

    In my case, I think what helps is that I don’t have a mortgage, and have nothing in the way of bank loans (I do business with a credit union, and I’m sure the members want no part of selling customer lists on which their names appear). I think the more business you do where you have to give your birth date, the less likely you are to get that kind of stuff. In fact, the less likely you are to get any junk mail.

    I was able to track a sold mailing list through one of my friends. AT&T were the first ones to misspell her name, and I can tell who bought a mailing list from them – every one has her name misspelled in the same way. It’s quite enlightening how often your personal information is sold, and to whom or what.

    Having said this, I am certain that the fates will see to it that I will get inundated with special offers and an invitation to join the AARP fairly soon. Just when you think you’ve escaped, that’s when you get shown up.

    So, I’ll just shut up now.

  5. mf_roe says:

    I think it’s wonderful that the Internet makes Porn Free and Religion More Costly.

  6. nicho says:

    If Synago can do for synagogues what Scruff and Grindr did to gay bars, Judaism is in real trouble.

  7. Indigo says:

    The classic example of that is the decision of the Olympian and Mithraic gods to roll over and call their High Holiday “Christmas.” That worked out great and it’s still a money-maker.

  8. Indigo says:

    Imagine you were formerly Catholic, then you could pray-by-mail. I get regular mailings from St. Jude this and St. Odelia that, send your prayer requests and $5.00 for a nice candle. How do they get my address? It’s like they’re tapped into the same pipeline of private and personal information that the AARP milks. Just wait for your personal invitation to sign up with the AARP a month before your 50th birthday. Seriously! How do they know these things?

  9. LanceThruster says:

    “Religions change with the times, or they cease to be.”

    ~ Anon

  10. The_Fixer says:

    And it doesn’t stop there! I’m sure that every day they’ll E-mail you tremendous offers, right there to your inbox, of which you can take advantage. Hell, I bought a pair of pants and a belt from a site on the Internet, and get once-daily sales pitches, why should these people be any different?

    They’re just leveraging a new paradigm in a social media world. (I know that’s really an insufficient number of buzzwords, but it’s early yet here and I am still just getting warmed up.)

    I’m sure that they will get a few takers, mostly fed by guilt (media tells me that Jewish guilt is a big thing), but it’s a fairly transparent attempt to turn back time in a rapidly changing world. Millennial-generation Jews are, like Millennial-generation anyone, are probably getting tired of being marketed to. This will not fly very far or very fast.

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