Pay-for-service Jewish innovation in Israel, with a little help from the U.S.

    Beit Daniel synagogue
    (The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism).

American-style Jewish innovations that draw on business and consumer models are finding some resonance in Israel, especially in secular Tel Aviv, according to a study by Einat Libel-Hass and Adam S. Ferziger. In an article appearing in the current issue of the journal Modern Judaism, the authors study prominent Reform and Conservative synagogues in Tel Aviv that have adopted such American-pioneered practices as having the rabbi play the role of a CEO. These fit in with a pay-for-service model (rather than requiring a congregational membership fee) that is popular in Israel. Because the Israeli state subsidizes much of Jewish life—kosher food supervision, divorce and burial regulations, support of prayer houses—synagogues are compelled to appeal to the consumer for added services and features. This is seen in the offerings of the Reform synagogue, Beit Daniel, in Tel Aviv’s urban center, which operates as a religious, educational and cultural service provider to a niche of liberal Jews. Upwards of 100,000 people a year participate in some way in lifecycle rituals and religious and cultural programs of the synagogue. The synagogue has expanded to start various “hubs” (also taken from an American model) around the city and beyond, including in the city of Jaffa, as well as a new merged synagogue led by a Brazilian-born rabbi in central Tel Aviv.

Researchers have previously found that while Israelis may desire American brands, in the religious sphere, the American identities of liberal groups have impeded their growth. But while Beit Daniel may have an American pedigree, the synagogue’s leaders, Libel-Hass and Ferziger write, “recognized early on that they had to adjust it to local Israeli tastes and sensibilities.”. Such tailoring to Israeli preferences starts with the synagogue’s homegrown rabbi and his cultural and linguistic fluency and reaches down to the pay-for-service structure that includes celebrating lifecycle events. Close ties with city and other organizations generate revenue outside of traditional synagogue sources. For instance, Beit Daniel has an ongoing agreement with the Tel Aviv municipality to provide Jewish enhancement programming through the city’s primary and secondary schools. The authors compare the success of Beit Daniel to a neighboring Conservative synagogue that attempted similar innovations but, due to a less charismatic and politically adept rabbinic style and weaker network ties to the city, was unable to “transform from a classical family membership, neighborhood-based synagogue to a wide-ranging service-oriented institution.” There was also minimal motivation among the core lay community to invest in this new kind of synagogue.

(Modern Judaism,