Tradition, aroma and heritage

What the American synagogue can learn from the world's largest coffee chain.

starbucks 88 (photo credit: )
starbucks 88
(photo credit: )
I have long looked to the Starbucks coffee empire as a source for ideas about reinvigorating the synagogue experience. As I once wrote in an essay (reprinted in Heavenly Coffee: The Journal of Religion and Caffeine), your typical Starbucks serves as a model and metaphor for community-building. "The physical setting is often exquisite, the seating is conducive to lingering and conversation, the music is current and tasteful, the price of admission is low, and the entire place commands you to slow down, albeit in a highly caffeinated way." Over the past 10 years, however, I've noted an erosion in the Starbucks model. And it's not just me. Last month, Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, sent a memo to employees. In it, he complains that the chain has made a series of business decisions that have led to the "watering down of the Starbucks experience." Automatic espresso machines have replaced hands-on "baristas." "Flavor-locked packaging" fills in for aromatic roasted beans. Too-tall machines prevent customers from seeing their mochas and cappuccinos being concocted. Automation even removes the aroma - the "most powerful nonverbal signal" in the Starbucks experience. In short, customers are being robbed of the "romance and theater that was in play." By "stripping the store of tradition and our heritage," Schultz wrote, too many stores "no longer have the soul of the past." SCHULTZ IS talking about coffee, but it doesn't take more than few shots of espresso to see that he is also talking about synagogue. Judaism may not be on the same growth curve as Starbucks (which went from 1,000 stores to 13,000 in a decade), but aren't we all struggling with how to hold onto our "tradition and heritage"? Can't we also say that too many Jewish institutions "no longer have the soul of the past"? That's why I think Schultz's memo should be added to the reading list as we think about the Jewish future. We all should ask his question: "We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost?" Okay, maybe that's not exactly the question for American Jewry, but you get the idea. In what ways do our own synagogues represent a watered-down version of Jewish tradition? In what ways have we shortchanged congregants who are in search of "romance and theater"? Schultz's memo is really a five-point plan for synagogue renewal. Consider: One: Bring back the baristas. When new people show up at your synagogues, are temple regulars and employees closed and automatic, or are they open and intimate? A people-to-people approach is the single biggest factor in attracting new members, and keeping them. Two: Reflect the passion. Schultz complains that "some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee." Does your synagogue and its decor reflect the personality of your congregation? Do decorations and signage display the soul of the membership, or the mere craftsmanship of the architect? Three: Let them see the drink being made. People want to see the process. Rabbis and boards who make decisions behind closed doors miss an opportunity to educate and engage their congregants. Lower the barriers. Four: Bring back the aroma. What are your "most powerful nonverbal signals"? Is it an inviting kiddush? Is it the array of information for new congregants right by the entrance to the sanctuary? Is it the sight of young children who obviously appear comfortable in shul? Five: Get back to the core. Schultz urges Starbucks employees to "push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others." That seems to contradict his message of tradition and heritage, but it doesn't. It means always finding fresh ways to remember who you are, and to remind others of the differences that make you you. OKAY, I'LL admit it: Growing a coffee chain and running a synagogue do not make for perfect analogies. While a synagogue should offer a variety of ways to engage Jews, a menu that's too big would certainly lead to a "dilution of the experience." Successful synagogues also demand more from their "customers" than that they merely show up, pay for a service, and walk back out the door. In successful synagogues, "customers" are found on both sides of the counter. But Schultz could well be the keynote speaker at a synagogue renewal conference when he says: "We desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it's time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience." Substitute "synagogue" for "Starbucks" in that sentence, and you have what sounds like - you'll pardon the cliche - a wakeup call. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, where this article first appeared.