Three Reasons Why Chipotle Is Better Than Synagogue

I go to the same two places every week. One is the burrito chain Chipotle. For the record, I have the veggie burrito with black beans, onions and peppers, lettuce, guacamole, medium salsa and lettuce. I get cheese if I feel extra hungry and am not on one of my famed cholov yisroel kicks.

The other place I go is every week is synagogue: usually, the large suburban Conservative shul with the Saturday Torah study, but I am pretty flexible and tend to bounce around to wherever my friends are going to be.

The difference? Chipotle never fails me, and synagogues usually fail me.

Slate published an article dubbing this economy the Chipotle Economy. In this economy, people still demand a dining experience, but they want something different. They want the quality of a nicer restaurant, but at a more affordable price and without all the “extras” they were getting before. Chipotle has learned that people want Tex-Mex food, prepared on the spot and will pay a premium above typical fast food, if the quality is better. This model is working. While most restaurants fail, Chipotle is generating record earnings in a poor economy.

Conversely, synagogues are in decline. Shuls are merging or shutting their doors. Rabbis are finding it harder to get work. Many smaller communities are moving to part-time rabbis and while there are plenty of buzz worthy Jewish innovators, the shul is not attracting them. Heck, why do you think the PunkTorah community runs websites instead of opening brick and mortar shuls?

So here are three things that synagogues better learn from Chipotle:

Give people what they want

Synagogues really want me. Not me as in “Patrick Aleph”, but me as in an unmarried Jew pushing thirty. Every time I turn around, I see another organization trying to get me involved. They are right to do so: invest in me now, and you will get my wedding and my non-existant children’s bnei mitzvahs. I am a cash cow (or perhaps a Golden Calf?)

For all the BBQs, young professionals cocktail parties, and adult Jewish learning classes I have been invited to, something interesting has been missing. At no time have I ever been asked by a rabbi “what would you like to see our community do for you?” No one has ever asked, whether in person or by survey, what my needs are and what I would actually like to get involved with. If I am your customer, then why are you not asking me what I will buy into?

This is where our friends at the burrito place are genius. What do people want? Mexican food. What do people want to pay for it? Around eight fifty or less. And that’s it. Case closed.

The best places do the minimum, in the best way possible

It’s not just Chipotle. Here in Atlanta there is a great concept called King of Pops. Think about it: hipster popsicles. They are not cheap, but with flavors that include fresh ginger, spices, and whole fruit, King of Pops is a gold mine.

My favorite part is that King of Pops is not a place to get popsicles. It’s a guy with a cart.

Could King of Pops build popsicle restaurants? Sure. But no one wants that. They want to go up to him, get a gourmet treat for three dollars, and walk away.

This is where synagogues mess up. Even if they are great at providing services that people want, they go the extra step of doing everything. Synagogues believe, erroneously, that doing more means you will get more.

There is actually a negative correlation between the amount of products people offer and their perception of quality. Ever been to a family style pancake restaurant with a five page menu? The food is usually terrible. Why? Because if you try to do everything, you cannot do anything with expertise. How many times have I drooled over something being cooked on TV, only to learn that the person cooking it has been making that one dish their entire life? How many times have you seen someone building a product with their bare hands, to find out that this is the one thing they do all day long, and they are brilliant at it? Same idea. We marvel at people who can do one thing really well, but demand Jewish institutions be everything.

I have learned this as the director of PunkTorah. Every time we try to do something outside of PunkTorah or OneShul, it does not do incredibly well. Why? Because you, the community members, don’t want it! So we are going to stick with constantly improving our books, our PunkTorah Blog and OneShul Services and that’s it! We will grow by getting better and better at what we do, not by throwing darts at a Jewish dart board to see what hits.

Who do you work for?

How many times have you tried to deal with a rabbi who never calls you? How many times have you reached an office assistant who could care less about what you want to talk about? How many Jewish events have you gone to where the staff and volunteers are apathetic? More than I would care to remember.

My favorite restaurants and stores care about me. I know, they care about my wallet, but in a sense, they care about me as well. I get coffee almost every day, usually at 2PM. If I come in later than that, the manager always says, “late day, huh?” I have walked into the same synagogues year after year, while the same greeters ask me if this is my first time. Matter of fact, I stopped going to one synagogue because even after giving the dvar Torah, that same group of people two weeks later acted like they had never seen me before.

Who do you work for? Do you work for the rabbi? Do you work for the Executive Director? Or do you work for God and the Jewish community? Who you believe you work for, and who you serve, matters.

As my father, a man with fifty years of hospitality management experience says, “people are not willing to serve. They think they are lowering themselves if they serve others.” That is a shame, because synagogues, your “competition” is not another shul down the street. Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform are not competing with each other, so quit using that smoke screen to hide from reality. Your competition is restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters, and anywhere else people are going instead of Shabbat services…including the couch, a take out pizza and Netflix. Serve others: plain and simple.

I’d love to get into some heated arguments on this, so please reply with your thoughts below.

EDIT: Wednesday, July 18th @ 5:24PM EDT

Here’s a video reply to all the awesome comments!

Patrick Aleph is the founder and executive director of PunkTorah. He wants to be your friend, so find him on Facebook. When not working at PunkTorah, or teaching classes at OneShul, Patrick is a rabbinical student, musician and suffers from an addiction to overpriced coffee.