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The Rebranding of Judaism

September 27, 2012

You all know what branding is?  There is the Apple brand of course – anything with an Apple logo on it is golden.  You can take a regular computer, stick an Apple logo on it, and all of a sudden sell it for twice the price.

How about the Starbucks logo?  When traveling throughout Europe, Patti would say let’s go to the Starbucks.  Why did she want to go to Starbucks?  You could get a real American cup of coffee with some volume to it – maybe even eight or 12 ounces of coffee – instead of the typical 5 ounce European.  That brand has appealed to my lovely wife especially when she would like some caffeine early in the morning.

Or how about the Mercedes-Benz logo?  When you see that on a car you figure it’s going to be a pretty decent vehicle.  Is it really better than that ford vehicle?  I can’t really tell you with any experience as I’ve only owned the Ford.  The way most people associate the brand Mercedes-Benz, I can assume most people believe is a better vehicle.

Or how about Judaism?  How is Judaism branded?  That’s the challenge I want to talk with you about tonight.  What is that people really think about Judaism and what is it that we Jews think about Judaism?

I might be wrong, but I believe when many people think about Judaism they often think of an Orthodox Jew or Rabbi in a black coat, black hat, and a beard.  If you don’t believe me, watch some TV, and that is the exact image you often see.  Just a few weeks ago I walked into a hospital room at the Springhill Memorial Hospital to visit a member of our congregation.  There was a pulmonary therapist, who must be an educated woman working there.  When I introduced myself and she discovered I was a Rabbi, she immediately said, “you don’t look like a rabbi- you don’t have that black curly hair.”   Despite the many positive images, from the “people of the book”, to the many Jewish Nobel prize winners, and despite fact we are the faith that first gave the belief in one God to the world, there are many other images for Judaism.  Branding that might quickly pop up in people’s minds ranges from Shakespeare’s Shylock, to continual incidents of anti-Semitism around the world, and from the tragedy of the Holocaust to Israel being constantly under assault.  None of this is good, positive branding for the future of Judaism.

A similar analogy would be if the branding of Christianity was represented by a black coated bearded man in Amish country riding on his horse and buggy.  Imagine that as the branding of Christianity.  Now granted Christianity too has its branding.  Here in the buckle of the Bible belt I think, though I know often incorrectly, of a preacher who has his hair slicked that certain Jimmy Swagart way, held perfectly in place by the morning application of hairspray.  I hope I don’t offend anyone here tonight in my remarks – so of all days, this is the night to forgive me.

What do you do if you’re branded in a way that doesn’t represent your product?  That is among Judaism’s greatest challenges.  How can you get people excited about a religion whose brand in the popular imagination is falsely represented by men whose costumes are about three hundred years outdated?

Our challenge tonight is to rebrand Judaism.  That’s something that Apple Computer Company was able to do – rebrand themselves.  It was only about 10 years ago it seemed as though Apple was going down the tubes.  But then they dramatically improved their computers once again by invented iPhones, and ipads:  they took on a whole new persona.

 Certainly all religion faces challenges to reimagine itself like never before.  This summer we spent two days in St. Petersburg Russia.  The tour guide told us that 60% of the population would say they are Russian Orthodox Christians.  However very, very, few of them ever attend church.  In fact he said only one out of 30 couples will be married in the church – the 29 others prefer a civil ceremony.  All throughout northern Europe religion is facing a dramatic decline.

Here in the United States the statistics are beginning to follow northern Europe.  Recent statistics show that within the last decade, average Sunday attendance has dropped 23% in the Episcopal Church.  This is a church which has attempted to follow the most progressive possible path for a mainline Christian denomination.  Not a single Episcopal diocese in the United States saw churchgoing increase.

The path for Judaism I’m convinced must be transformative.  Can Judaism be publicly rebranded as an innovative spiritual path to ethical monotheism, one without a problematic trinity, believing science and religion must be compatible, open to all, filled with love and acceptance without exclusion, sophistication without arrogance, and a true caring community?  That is a tall order isn’t it?  But that is at its essence what Reform Judaism is all about.  The challenge is for us to get that information out to the world.

The answer for the rebranding of Judaism is really not so complicated.  It’s not up in the heavens that we cannot reach it, nor is it beyond any of our imaginations.  The rebranding of Judaism takes a simple twofold approach part of which everyone of us can be involved in, and part of it maybe we need some large financial and creative help.

First, I will tell you the hard part.  But I warn you the easier part of my message will affect every aspect of your life.  The hard part is that to rebrand Judaism properly will cost a lot of public relations time and money.  If you’ve been following the lawsuit between Apple and the Samsung Company over their respective tablets you might’ve noticed a tidbit that leaked out in the press, one that Apple wished to keep secret.  Apple spent a tremendous amount of money in rebranding to convince the world that the iPhone was better than apple pie, and that the ipads was just as good as the ice cream on top.  It came out in court that Apple spent more than $640 million to market their phones and more than $400 million to market their ipads.  And you know what happened:  people came to believe the value of their product.  Just look at the sales of the brand-new iPhone – they say more are on backorder than any other phone ever.

Judaism needs to rebrand itself the same way.  Yes marketing is everything these days and though I neither went to business school, nor studied marketing I can clearly see the effect.  And so what I’m suggesting is the Judaism needs to really market itself through public relations.  In my little way for years I’ve able to reach out to a small but significant part of our local community through advertising taste of Judaism.  A few little ads bring at least forty to fifty people like clockwork every year to the Temple to learn about Judaism.  Imagine what would happen if a campaign to inspire people about the beauty of Judaism was orchestrated by the U RJ, or the Federation movement, to excite people about the beauty of Judaism.  It all of course would take financial backing and so that’s the difficult part.  There is a generous national Jewish benefactor from Maryland who has offered this year to help with any positive Jewish ad run around the country, and hopefully we will be able to try that in our community, if our Board of Trustees deems it worthy.  We need to hear positive, good, and welcoming messages coming out of our ancient religion if we want it to flourish and grow.  It is that simple.  And we need to make annually a couple of very special events such as our Craig Taubman Shabbat, invite the community and let them know how wonderful Judaism can be.  And we need to do it regularly and repetitively. Judaism needs to market itself, and of equal importance it needs to deliver an inspirational faith. 

Now comes maybe the easier but much more involved part.  Every one of us is part of the real branding of Judaism.  By every single action we take we are part of the branding of Judaism.  Do we choose to conduct our lives like Bernie Madoff, who through his unscrupulous actions might have set Judaism back as much as Apple’s vast advertising campaign set that company forward, or do we choose to live our lives as our prophets have taught us?

2700 years ago the prophet Isaiah taught the following:

Your hands are stained with crime

Wash yourselves clean;

Put your evil doings

Away from my sight.

Cease to do evil;

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow.

Those are the words of Isaiah.  Now consider: 

Every time, we in our actions stand up for justice, we help rebrand Judaism. 

Every time we reach out to those who are wronged and do what we can to lift them up, we help rebrand Judaism.

Every time we help the sick, the orphan, the widow, and the poor, by our actions we help rebrand Judaism. 

So what will you do this year to live that eternal message?  Will you help me rebrand Judaism or will you be part of our dilemma.  I ask you consider your actions, the motivations in your heart, and join me in bringing honor to God and our ancient faith.

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