With the news coming out over the last couple of weeks that two major arms of the Conservative Movement are selling significant land parcels in New York the sense of a Conservative Judaism on the wane is again in the air. A number of the movement’s most difficult challenges continue unabated, with little or no end in sight, including funding for the United Synagogue and JTS and the dwindling number of Jews who formally affiliate with Conservative Judaism. Although the movement initially seemed to have a ‘come to Moses’ moment when the Pew study results were released, not much has been done since to directly address these problems. One recommendation that I would make is the Conservative Movement has to find its own version of the iPod. Let me explain.
When we moved to Baltimore, now some 17 years ago (!), Apple Computer stock was selling for about 14 dollars a share. I remember looking at the stock quotes in the newspaper one day (in the days when newspapers had stock pages) and saying something to my wife about it. “If we only had a few extra bucks, we should buy some Apple stock!” Of course we had almost no money to speak of, and the thought of actually using some of the money we did have to buy shares of stock in a sinking computer company was ludicrous. Yes, I loved my Mac, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would within a year or so be doing my computing on a dreaded PC. I was about to be forced over to the ‘dark side,’ and there was nothing I could do about it. That was 1998.
Apple hung on for another two years. Steve Jobs came back to the company, and they released the first iMac, and then a gorgeous laptop, the Powerbook G3. But things were tenuous at best. Pundits were still predicting that Apple Computer would go the way of the dodo bird. It wasn’t, they said, a question of if, it was a question of when.
Then in the fall of 2001 something remarkable happened. Apple released a pocket sized digital music player. They called it the iPod. It looked cool, worked easily, and enabled you to store 1,000 songs in your pocket for anytime listening. The rest of the story we know. The iPod exploded in popularity. The iPhone followed a few years later. Then the iPad. Apple Computer became Apple Inc., now the most valuable company on the planet, long ago surpassing Microsoft, something that 17 years ago would have seemed as impossible as traveling in time. In the last quarter, Apple sold 38,000 iPhone 6 models an hour. Seven days a week. For three straight months. 38,000 an hour. Talk about hard to imagine.
The point is this. Apple wasn’t an iPod company. It was a computer company. The iPod was a music player. But Apple found a product that it felt it could do something with, even if it wasn’t the company’s bread and butter. And it was that product that enabled Apple to survive and thrive. And it was that product – the iPod – that gave Apple the chance to keep doing what it originally set out to do, namely to make and sell computers. The iPod saved the Mac. It was Apple Inc. that ensured the survival of Apple Computer.
The synagogue world in general and the Conservative Movement in particular needs to find its iPod. Something that we can do, and do well, that might not have much to do with what we’ve done for the last 75 years, but that will speak to people, get them interested, entice them to come through our doors. Maybe it is adult education. Or yoga. Or ice cream, or coffee, or infant-toddler care. Maybe scotch tastings, kayaking or hiking, social action. Healing centers. Maybe some combination of those things. If we can find our iPod, its success will enable us to continue to be a synagogue in the traditional sense of the word. Somewhere out there is a synagogue version of the iPod. We are looking like crazy for it here. How about you?