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.

  • Cantor Yonah Kliger

    Nice piece . An issue I encounter over and over when I DO pose the question “what r u looking for?” is the response “I dunno”. Is it, an I’ll know if when I see it kind of thing?
    So Patrick, tell us, what r you looking for when that cantor or Rabbi does call u back?

  • Patrick Aleph

    Thanks for the post Yonah. I would tell you what I am looking for in a rabbi when they call me back…but they don’t!

  • Noam Neusner

    I like your thinking… similar ideas here:

  • Dan Mendelsohn Aviv

    Yes I agree that the shul model is DAFOOK… but to compare it to a fast food eatery? Must we reduce even the faintest remnant of a supposedly transcendent experience even further by cutting-and-pasting from consumer culture? Ick.

    I have another idea about what to do with shuls and IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MAKING IT LIKE IKEA OR CHIPOTLE OR STARBUCKS.

    Are we Jews or consumers of Jewness?

    …Because if we continue to let consumerism leech into Judaism, then I say: GAME OVER.

  • Rabbi Michael Bernstein

    I appreciate the article because it takes to heart the experience of endeavoring to be an active part of a synagogue and yet finding yourself still feeling unappreciated, unrecognized, and left out.  No amount of deflection or debate changes what you have shared about not getting a call back from a Rabbi or being treated like a stranger in a place that professes to want to be your home.   To take seriously the specific comparison of Chipotle and “synagogue” the biggest drawback is that you are comparing one successful example of a kind of service provider with an entire category of institutions that are, at least in part, service providers.   A provider less satisfying tex-mex than Chipotle or a more anonymous experience than your 2 o’ clock coffee  wouldn’t stack up as well, but that doesn’t matter because I’m sure your negative shul experience resonates with so many.  
    Building a community together that runs deeper than pure consumerism is a challenge, but, in my opinion that should never be an excuse to neglect the basic task of making a participant, any participant, feel wanted and valued.  Successful businesses know that their costumers can be seen as a community.  A congregation that wants to succeed must try to treat its participants with at least as much respect as that.

  • Dan Mendelsohn Aviv

    “Building a community together that runs deeper than pure consumerism is a challenge, but, in my opinion that should never be an excuse to neglect the basic task of making a participant, any participant, feel wanted and valued.”


    Except the way to getting a participant to feel like a participant (as opposed to a consumer) and to feel wanted and valued is not by faux-greeters seeking to reproduce the intimacy of the long gone mom and pop shop or customer-service-training that turns people into brainwashed drones…

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The first thing we do, let’s ignore all the consultants…”

  • Joel Brown

    A good friend encouraged me to check out this article, so job well done on picking up a new reader. One response to the notion of “giving people what they want”. It is an uncontestable fact that your good friends at Chipotle have detailed projections that indicate exactly when America’s current love affair with burritos will end. But no worries! Right behind these projections they have business models for the next generation “must have” convenient food item, its ingredients already sourced through long term supply contracts, its price point determined with laser precision. You don’t know what this food item is yet, or from what part of the world it originates, but trust me: you’re going to love it. Literally millions of research and marketing dollars ensure this. These same business drivers also inform wave after wave of “cutting edge” religious and spiritual practices and philosophies, keeping us well stocked with literature, dietary supplements, comfy clothes (gotta have Lululemon to do proper yoga, after all) and more. My simple point: our “wants” that places like Chipotle service, and service so well, are to a significant degree created by the servicers themselves. This is no consipiracy: it’s business in America as practiced every single day, and it informs huge swaths of spiritualism in this country as well. Judaism should stand for more than servicing fleeting trends and fads. It’s the difference between honoring tradition (albeit one that is susceptible to evolution over time) and catering to whims.

  • Ron Wolfson

    Despite his affinity for Chipotle, Patrick is not full of beans. He makes three important points that any synagogue leader should hear: 1) listen to people, 2) don’t do too much, and 3) care…really care. My thoughts: 1) Synagogues don’t listen carefully enough to what people, especially young Jewish adults, are saying. The only way to hear what people are saying is to engage them in sacred conversations about their lives. The LOMED Team at The Jewish Education Project in NYC has been doing exactly that all year, teaching synagogue leaders how to listen and tell each other’s stories. 2) In “Uncommon Service,” a terrific new book by Harvard B-school prof Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, they argue that service organizations must be bad to be great. Their point: you can’t do everything well. Southwest Airlines decided that it was more important to their customers to offer a plentiful schedule of (mostly) on-time planes that will get you from Point A to Point B cheaply, with free bags, and with warm and funny flight attendants than to offer pre-assigned seats. Imagine if synagogues gave up some of the “programs” they do that serve a tiny segment of the population and poured resources into what people they are trying to engage really want: a spiritually uplifting and “safe” place to build relationships with others and with Judaism. 3) To really care about someone, you need to know the person, learn their interests, needs, and talents. So, we circle back to the beginning – listen to people’s stories, connect them to a community where they can find meaning, purpose and blessing, build relationships between each other and with the Jewish project…and we have a “Relational Judaism.” As for Jews and Mexican food, the most popular meal served at the American Jewish University appears when our fantastic Latino chefs cook up kosher enchiladas, burritos, and homemade guacamole. On that day, I’m happy to be full of beans, too.

  • Ruth Katz

    Now they just have to open a kosher branch and synagogues can start doing Chipotle kiddush/oneg!

  • Rebecca

    Well said. There is a huge problem getting young adults involved within our community as well. I cant even afford to belong to a synagogue because of how expensive it is. Also, I tried getting involved with doing young adult events- and no one would organize anything and when I tried to take an initiative, no one would let me. No one ever asked me what I want. What I would like. What I would like out of a Jewish experience and even when I tried to tell someone, no one was there to listen.

  • Eve Alexandra Lyons

    I heartily agree with much of this. I belong to a small Reform temple in Boston, because even though Reform Judaism is not necessarily the best fit for me liturgically (Reconstructionist would be better) it gives me what I need from a synagogue — a small community of people who care about me, welcome me and my spouse, who isn’t currently Jewish (may convert in the future) and who seem happy to see me each week. The rest of Judaism I look for elsewhere – Shabbat dinners with friends, reading Torah, trying to live an ethical, Jewish life. I figured out that the reason why I am always slightly dissatisfied with synagogue, any synagogue, is because there’s a limit to how much I even want from it. I used to have secular potlucks with the same group of friends ever Friday night and this felt as Jewish to me as anything I’ve ever done.

  • Miriam

    You should move up to Chicago! The shuls are a lot more welcoming here, based on what you’ve said. However, it *is* really awkward to come to shul and find no one there your own age. There are parents with kids, and there are senior citizens, and there is nothing in between or outside of those two groups. That has been my shul experience, consistently. And while I know it is good for me to interact with people of other generations within the Jewish community and I do enjoy it, I still long for a place to mingle with Jews my own age. Where are all the 20-something unmarrieds? Why aren’t they coming to shul? I can envision a group of us holding those little coffee cups, munching grapes and brownies during oneg and chatting about college majors, grad school, pop culture…why doesn’t that happen? Out of the 6 or 7 shuls that I’ve been to in this area, only one has failed to make me feel welcome, but none of them had people my age for me to meet and hang out with.

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  • David E. Powers

    Chipotle has a business model that is successful, and the place is worthy of praise. However, it is not an apt model for a synagogue, nor for any religious institution. Synagogues are encyclopedic and probably, for the near future, need to be. Doing many things is what they do, and likely doing yet more could be wise. Synagogues need to experiment with our Judaisms because we do not know where we are headed, and no collection of sociologists, rabbis, and bloggers can predict our route or even scope out our destination.

    The world is changing, and so is Judaism, such that we do not really know what the Judaism of the next generation, much less the next century, will be. I don’t have any idea whether the change is as grand as that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, when we grew from a sacrificial cult serving an illiterate agricultural community to a transnational literary and spiritual tradition. Yet the literary tradition of rabbinic Judaism is just one of the Jewish experiments at the time of the second destruction and after. The Essenes did not survive. The Karaites did not really survive, either. What if the Jewish world, as Patrick Aleph advises, had decided to do less. Imagine some early post-exilic Hebrew suggesting and successfully persuading, “This Pharisee thing is just too complicated. We need less. Let’s try the Essene and (subsequently) the Karaite thing because we need to do less.” Well, we would not be having this discussion today.

    Some of the next changes likely could owe to Israel and its destiny. Will it preserve both its Jewish and democratic qualities or will one have to go? Will it survive international politics and potential warfare? How, if, as I hope it does survive, will it handle increased globalization? Some of the changes likely could owe to the US and our destiny. Is the hugest ever hegemon fading or just ramping up for our next big push? How will the destiny of the US affect the second center of world Jewish life?

    So, Patrick Aleph’s voice is worthy, but worrying too much that we are overreaching and therefor under-achieving, is, at this juncture, altogether the wrong perspective. Let’s find a way to give Patrick what he wants, but do everything else, as well. If there is a glib metaphor for a synagogue, it’s not a fast food restaurant. It’s entertainment. Sometimes the film is good, the opera is excellent, the television show is mediocre, or the trip to the museum a disappointment, but almost always, any of them outshine a burrito, even one with some nice trayfe chicken.