Give Me That New Old Religion

When design thinking enters the synagogue

Jessica Carew Kraft
Oct 23, 2014 · 12 min read

There are certain things that lend themselves easily to design thinking — the development of an ergonomic vegetable peeler, say, or an improved system for hospital rotations. Even large-scale problems like climate change have become targets of design-oriented solutions. But religion, generally, has not been an obvious candidate for redesign.

An iterative problem-solving protocol seems like the exact opposite of ten commandments inscribed in stone. It verges on heresy to conceive of religion as a “product” that needs to be branded in order to sell. But for one rabbi in San Francisco, combining the spiritual with the commercial was exactly what was needed to attract more people to Judaism.

As its website states, The Kitchen is “one part indie Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice.”

It’s neither a synagogue nor a kitchen, but it’s extracting the essence of both in a new mash-up. As a social hub centered on food, The Kitchen draws on the best of the Bay Area local scene, offering post-service meals from trendy restaurants like Wise Sons Jewish Deli, DOSA, and Local Mission Eatery.

Pages from the Kitchen’s high holiday prayer book.

Most synagogues use conventional prayer books that are handed down from centralized authorities every decade or so. The majority just use text. Thus, regularly revising the prayer book and pairing ancient liturgy with avant-garde visuals sets The Kitchen in a singular category.

In fact, almost anything that The Kitchen publishes has a noticeably on-trend voice. A sign posted outside the recent Yom Kippur services advised attendees to quiet their cell phones with: “Shut it off. God rarely texts.”

But some of The Kitchen’s innovation toes the line between meeting digital natives where they are, and trivializing or commercializing sacred ideas. Kushner knows this. “My fear is that the Jewish vending machine is going to get spun the wrong way, it could be misperceived,” she said.

One millennial Kitchen member admitted that he was turned off by the tech-savvy talk and the presumptions of internet bounty (which might be taken as a ploy to tickle a particularly well-endowed community). He pointed out that The Kitchen’s subscription options include an inexpensive “starving artist” tier. “When your dot-com IPOs, remember who loved you,” says the subscription webpage, flippantly endorsing a culture of instant gratification.

re:form

A field guide to the designed world

re:form

A field guide to the designed world

Jessica Carew Kraft

Written by

An anthropologically trained writer, artist, and naturalist writing about education, health and rewilding. Mother to two girls in the East Bay, CA.

re:form

A field guide to the designed world