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Got God? Jewish ads offer bland diet|
By ANDREW SILOW-CARROLL
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 12, 2000
NEW YORK--The full-page ad in the Utne Reader, the Reader's Digest for the
alternative press, drew me up short. It offered "a few Rosh Hashanah thoughts"
along with a list of 14 suggested ways to enjoy the holiday. These included
"Write your own holiday prayer. Share it," "Balance serious conversation
with laughter," "Reflect on your good fortune," "Forget
your office voice mail," and "Rejoice in the love that surrounds you."
Who was responsible for so generous and welcoming an advertisement, so traditional
in its feel for the rhythms and themes of the New Year but attuned to the contemporary
feelings of so many American Jews? What Jewish organization was willing to reach
out to the granola and Birkenstocks crowd, those New Age seekers whose Jewishness
is often decried by traditionalists as "narcissistic," "syncretic,"
Well, no Jewish organization, it turns out. The advertiser was the Solgar Vitamin
and Herb Company in Leonia, New Jersey. And it is no small irony that it took
a nutritional supplement company to highlight the bland, stale and often unhealthy
diet served up by most Jewish institutions in their advertising.
Over the past few months I have been collecting advertisements placed by synagogues,
community federations, JCCs and other institutions, usually in Jewish newspapers.
I've then shown them to various Jewish audiences, asking which of the advertisers'
pitches appeal to them, and which sorts of messages they would like to see coming
out of organized Jewry.
Especially among the 20-something, marginally-affiliated-but-willing-to-be-convinced
cohort that is seemingly the target audience for many of the Jewish advertisers,
the reaction to most of the ads was surprisingly negative. Surprising to me,
at least, an old fogy of 39 who thought many of the ads were on target, even
Before I could understand their objections, I had to understand the ads. And
to do so I played the old hermeneutic trick you use when studying the Torah
commentaries of the 11th century sage Rashi: What's bothering Rashi? Rashi's
commentaries include his answers to questions posed by the text, but not the
Similarly, every advertisement is a solution to a problem identified by the
advertiser. How do we get adults to drink more milk? How do we get consumers
to spend more for our name-brand product than for the cheaper, generic variety?
What's "bothering" advertisers, then, is the behavior or perceptions
of certain target audiences; the "solution" is to make emotional connections
and either transform or reinforce the desires that fuel their consumer choices.
Advertisers often identify these target audiences by their mindsets: their
values, yearnings, needs. I was able to identify at least seven audiences, or
mindsets, seen by Jewish advertisers as likely targets for their products or
services-as "problems" to be "solved."
Below I list these seven cohorts. Five of these categories were particularly
bothersome to younger audiences despite what I thought were good intentions--and
even brave community criticism--on the part of the advertisers. I paraphrase
their objections. The last two approaches hint at a way of communicating--indeed,
at a way of being Jewish--that may offer the best hope for effectively connecting
Jewishness with the majority of American Jews.
1: The "Why Does Judaism Have to Stink?" Audience
In an ad for the new Saatchi Synagogue in London, part of a controversial campaign
for a synagogue pitching itself as an Orthodox alternative for those under the
age of 45, there's a picture of a meatball on a toothpick. Over the nosh is
the headline: "At our new synagogue, this is the only thing that gets rammed
down someone's throat." The ad copy goes on to read, "We don't see
why an Orthodox service must necessarily be a boring service."
Many Jewish advertisers take this tack: The cohort they're after thinks Judaism
is irrelevant, boring, staid, obsolete, coercive, synagogue-based, Sunday school,
you name it. They're looking for the hipper, more interesting alternative.
The Objection: "Sure we hated Hebrew school, but don't remind us. Instead
of focusing on the negative, tell us how Judaism can be a positive influence
in our lives."
2: The "There Has to Be More to Life" Audience
"Better than shopping. Better than tennis. Better than sleeping in."
That's the headline on an ad for an "anxiety-free, 'no-Hebrew-necessary'
"beginner's Sabbath service sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program.
The service will "keep you looking forward to Saturday mornings."
The assumption here is of a cohort that is fed up with the spiritual emptiness
of typical American rituals like the weekend. These consumers have material
comfort, but feel a spiritual void. Jewish connection can provide the meaning
that they're missing.
The Objection: "Who are you to say my life is empty? It's quite rich,
thank you very much. What I'm looking for is a Jewishness that will enrich,
not replace, the activities that already give me satisfaction."
3: The "Old Time Religion" Audience
A Cleveland funeral home boasts of a refurbished library and a "state-of-the-art"
sound system. At the same time, "there's a lot we haven't changed. Like
the traditions of our faith. We still wash and purify the deceased. We still
use wooden caskets. And we are still here to advise Jews of the traditions and
rituals that help make grief bearable and enable life to go on."
For this target audience, Judaism provides the comforts of tradition, roots
and stability in a world that emphasizes change, immediacy and mobility. It's
where one turns for life cycle and holiday rituals and ceremonies. It provides
a way to talk to God in times of distress and celebration, gratitude and mourning.
It is your father's Oldsmobile.
The Objection: "Ugh, it's my father's Oldsmobile."
4. The "Don't Think it Can't Happen Here" Audience
"When we stand as one, hate can't stand against us," reads the ad
for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia. The ad lists recent
anti-Jewish incidents, and declares, "a new wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping
over the world." Supporting Federation is "our best weapon against
those who wish to destroy us."
This is a less popular tack than it once was, except among "defense"
agencies like the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It is meant to appeal
to those who feel the social acceptance and economic security of contemporary
American Jewry is fragile. For this cohort, Jewish belonging is an obligation,
to honor the memory of the victims and to rebuke our enemies. Unity is strength. Finding "meaning" in Judaism is fine, but a luxury, not a priority.
The Objection: "This is America 2000, not Berlin 1938. First you tell
me that the gentiles are out to destroy me, then you object when they want to
5. The "Judaism for Dummies" Audience
To encourage neophytes to take part in the daily study of Talmud, or Daf Yomi,
a full-page ad features a clean-shaven, casually dressed man, reading a volume
of Talmud and sitting next to a stack of 19 more. The tag line: "I'm on
my way to finishing the entire Talmud. Pretty good for someone with two years
of Hebrew school."
The target cohort is a close relative of the "Judaism doesn't have to
stink" crowd. Judaism is intimidating, complex, esoteric. They'd like to
get more connected to Jewishness, but don't have the background, and feel they'll
never break the code. They'll enroll if you remove the prerequisites.
The Objection: "I'm no dummy."
So much for the negatively received campaigns. The following two approaches
are more rare, but were more generously received.
6: "The "Have it Your Way" Audience
An ad by the Jewish Community Centers Association of America juxtaposes two
photos. One depicts fit, attractive yuppies working out in step class. In the
other, toddlers with paintbrushes are at work in a classroom setting.
The tag: "You get perspired. They get inspired." Emphasizing the
typical JCC's Fitness Center and Early Childhood Learning Center, the ad copy
describes "just two ways families grow here in body, mind and spirit."
This is the reverse of the "better than tennis" approach (see number
2). Rather than reject "pick-and-choose" Judaism, it embraces a cohort
that wants to be involved Jewishly, but not necessarily in "traditional"
activities like prayer and ritual. They don't think it is hypocritical to send
off to the classroom while they pump iron. This cohort declares, "I'm Jewish,
but I'm also a [take your pick] mother/father/liberal/conservative/musician/professor/Generation
Xer/retiree. I want a Judaism that lets me be me, with people just like me,
without asking me to be something that I'm not."
7: The "I Didn't Think Judaism Could Be Like That" Audience
Another ad from the National Jewish Outreach Program is similar in format--and
spirit--to the Solgar Vitamin Rosh Hashanah ad. It suggest 12 ways to "Light
up your life--with Shabbat: "Rest those weary bones--catch up on your sleep,"
"Exhale the mundane cares and concerns of the workday week by saying a
little prayer for anything or everything," "Chill out with some wine
(for Kiddush)," "Volunteer to visit patients in the hospital,"
and "Get to know someone really important a whole lot better-- yourself."
Both ads appeal to those who want an expansive, open Judaism that offers choice,
not coercion; tradition that speaks to, and with, modernity; a Jewish way of
framing the American reality. Such Jews do not want to choose between their
various identities. They want to come to the table--and the synagogue, JCC and
federation--with all that they are, but are open to new ways of experiencing
connection, commitment, spirituality and activism.
A tough sell? Perhaps. But in a buyer's market, which the 21st century spiritual
marketplace certainly is, the smart seller knows that success comes to those
who understand, and can respond to, the real needs of the consumer.
Experience shows that Judaism can be sold--without being sold out.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is former communications director for the National Jewish
Center for Learning and Leadership and new managing editor for the Forward.
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.