Give Me That New Old Religion

When design thinking enters the synagogue


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.

American Jewish organizations have struggled with engagement for decades, as younger generations increasingly choose secular lives. Many resources have been devoted to solving the problem outside of the synagogue, including hundreds of millions of dollars to fund free “birthright” trips to Israel, bolster Jewish life on campus, and build summer camps for the pre-bar mitzvah crowd.

But until the creation of The Kitchen, a non-denominational “startup synagogue” in San Francisco, the question of how to drive Jewish religious engagement among under-40s had never been asked and answered in the context of design.

Rabbi Noa Kushner likens it to an argument of form and content; software and hardware. “The essence of religion — its software, if you will — is generally good,” she says, “True, there are some bugs, but there is still lots of value to be found in the way religious thinkers, both traditional and modern, approach the world. It’s the hardware, the way we’ve been transmitting religion, that’s been messed up badly. It’s like an outdated social network.”

Kushner believes, from her conversations with hundreds of people, that there is a genuine need for what religion can offer contemporary life. “When people say they don’t like religion, but they like Jewish culture, they are making an arbitrary distinction,” she contends. “Most of them like the moving music of prayer, they want to be with their family on special holidays, and they like an emphasis on social justice and a reason to do good deeds.”

So Kushner is finding ways to bring them what they want in a way that isn’t perceived as overbearing, judgmental or alienating. In the process, she and her team of clergy, lay leaders and creatives — including thought leaders at IDEO, the global design and innovation firm—are redesigning the way San Franciscans are “doing Jewish.”

Kushner provides a charismatic bridge between the culture of Silicon Valley (even quoting from the hit HBO comedy of the same name) and her 5,000-year-old tradition. As the 43-year-old daughter of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and wife of Rabbi Michael Lezak, she has a deep understanding of how American Judaism operates, and a powerful connection to the meaning that Jewish prayer and practice can offer individuals. In order to “make this religion too sticky for its users to ignore,” Kushner knows that she needs to engage her community the way Apple does.

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.

As a religious community without a building (they’d rather raise money for more rabbis than real estate), The Kitchen also partakes of the sharing economy by renting space for weekly Shabbat services from the San Francisco Friends School. Holiday celebrations happen at various iconic locations like Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park. But the place where community members can always find The Kitchen is, of course, the Internet.

“We are religion in the cloud,” explains Kushner. “What we put out on the web is very important. Email is not secondary, it’s primary.”

Along with The Kitchen’s executive director, Yoav Schlesinger, and designer and brand strategist Josh Levine, Kushner understands that over the past three years since founding The Kitchen, she has been launching a brand. And it’s a brand that is strikingly distinct from other Jewish institutions, which are not usually known for their bold aesthetics or digital accessibility. Here, Grandma’s Russian chintz from the old country has gone into the recycling bin along with anything smacking of sentimental nostalgia or kitsch.

“When we talk about The Kitchen’s brand points, we think of it as being edgy and contemporary,” said Schlesinger. “It has a bold energy that is content-driven. We try not to use many graphics, but instead emphasize the typography.”

This part of their strategy isn’t without historical precedent. They’re channeling the Jewish designers who helped to shape the Bauhaus style in the 1930s, others who pioneered mid-century Modernism, or built the streamlined city squares of Tel Aviv.

Pages from the Kitchen’s high holiday prayer book.

In addition to maintaining a spare, yet informative website, The Kitchen’s print production includes a prayer book for weekly services and a special text, called a “machzor,” that guides services on the High Holidays. Both chart new territory, eschewing the mainstays of Judaic design. No Stars of David, no mystical watercolors or cartoon-style Biblical characters. “We had a strict ‘no Judaica’ policy,” said Levine, the designer. “That’s the whole schtick here — it’s very Jewish content, but the format is not like anything you’d find elsewhere.”

For instance, the machzor pages for the Shema — the central Jewish prayer affirming connection to God and the Jewish people — are illustrated with a gritty, high contrast photograph of an overcrowded utility pole on a residential street. The prayer, concretized through hundreds of generations of repetition, is printed in a sans-serif font in Hebrew and English, with transliteration for those who don’t read Hebrew. The metaphors evoked by this juxtaposition are plenty: that prayer is a connection point to a higher power; that praying taps us into a current uniting all beings; and that everything, including gritty street corners, can be sacred.

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.”

A phrase like this is like the rabbi’s voice visualized, notes Schlesinger. “We are trying to stay away from trite, familiar language. Our messaging is self aware, with a slight irony,” he says.

While The Kitchen insists that its innovations are not meant to critique any other mode of Jewish observance (and Rabbi Kushner left her last job at a conventional temple very amicably — her husband still leads it), it does seem to be disrupting some key American Jewish beliefs, particularly around who can be a member.

In most Jewish denominations, in order to belong to the synagogue, an individual must have some degree of Jewish ancestry, or undergo a conversion. This is a hot-button issue as increasing numbers of Jews marry non-Jews and have kids who might not meet one or another community’s pedigree requirements.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who leads Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, has long been involved with Rabbi Kushner and contributes to The Kitchen’s educational program, frequently flying up to the Bay Area. He’s known for pointing out what might seem—from the outside—absurd about Jewish life. “In order to practice yoga, did your father and your mother have to practice yoga before you can get on a mat and get all of the benefits of that practice?” he posited. “No! that’s ridiculous. Anyone can do it. So why do we say that in order to participate in this tradition, you have to have this long genetic history?”

Acting on this novel idea, The Kitchen positions itself not as a place where Jews get together to do stuff, but as a place where people — any people whatsoever — can get together to do Jewish stuff. “All that matters is that you show up, and you want to be here,” said Feinstein.

Started in 2011 on Rabbi Kushner’s initial idea to rethink the synagogue-as-institution, The Kitchen has now amassed an email list of 1,500 and regularly gets 100 members coming to its Shabbat services. Over the most recent high holidays, over a thousand people stopped in for at least one prayer service. Schlesinger estimates that about 80 percent are 20- and 30-somethings, many with young families. Its “kitchen cabinet” (in less pun-inclined circles it would be called a board), is stocked with high-achieving Jewish cultural players and CEOs of investment banks and non-profits. The congregation membership is no less accomplished — it’s hard to attend a Kitchen event without running into an Ivy League Ph.D. or a V.C.-backed tech entrepreneur.

Yet despite their initial success, the leadership still worries about staying relevant to younger generations. During yet another discussion on the issue, spurred on by the release of a Pew Report officially documenting the decline in interest in Jewish religious life among millennials, Schlesinger suggested that The Kitchen talk to IDEO, the global design and innovation firm.

“IDEO is great at finding innovative ways of getting communities engaged and they don’t have a bias,” said Kushner, who explained that the field of design, as IDEO practices it, has scaled out its focus from objects to systems. So if a client wanted to build a better grocery cart, IDEO wouldn’t offer a shiny new model, because it might turn out that a better solution would be to re-tool the whole way we shop for food. “So it wasn’t crazy to think that IDEO might have something to say about redesigning religious practice,” she added.

With a few IDEO employees among their membership, the connection was easy to make, and the two organizations convened for a two-day workshop in the spring of 2014 to strategize solutions to a new design problem addressing the priorities of the millennial generation. The question they asked got to the heart of what Kushner had heard from so many Jews who had turned away from their religion because it didn’t speak to them individually. So the teams asked, “How might we allow people to customize and add religious content to their lives in their own ways?”

Twelve Kitchen members and eight IDEO creatives emerged from a flurry of post-its and prayer books with fresh prototypes for “doing Jewish,” the bespoke way, without an intervening institution: An AirBnB-inspired Shabbat dinner would allow people to sign up online for a Friday night family meal with great food and provocative discussion topics; a pop-up retail space would sell ritual items like white tablecloths, candlesticks, challah and wine. Meanwhile, in the back of the shop, Jewish “geniuses” (à la Apple store) would provide workshops on how to bless children, give support for creating phone-free events, or offer classes on cooking chicken soup and brisket. Rudimentary plans were drawn up for a Jewish ritual iPhone app and a Judaica vending machine. One group proposed a traveling Shabbat dinner table that could captivate San Franciscans with interactive street theater on tough moral issues like human trafficking or the prison-industrial complex.

There’s an old adage, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions,” but the contention it suggests wasn’t present in The Kitchen’s design-thinking process, reports IDEO’s Suzanne Gibbs Howard. “Noa and Yoav are deeply in touch with what people want, in terms of religion today,” she says. Howard’s role in the workshop was to help participants get inspired and informed about what drives involvement in a community and what inspires passion. “We looked at diverse influences like Stanford football, or the Mini Cooper,” she says.

Howard says that IDEO wants to help create large scale positive change that sticks, and doesn’t look for the next gizmo or viral marketing gimmick. In the case of collaborating with Jewish engagement organizations (they are also working with Reboot), “what we are doing is understanding the needs that people actually have and then designing new forms of religion that meet them where they are.”

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.

Overall, though, most Kitchen members appreciate that there is substance, depth, and even transcendence inside what might initially look like a slick facade. “Once you get into the community and talk to Rabbi Noa, and you go to spiritual fitness events to hear scholars and rabbis and you meet other people, it doesn’t feel cool or hip; it feels warm,” says Jeff Tiell, a member and leader of The Kitchen’s current social action project.

Tiell says that the community appealed to him immediately because of its diversity. “I didn’t want to just be in a young person’s synagogue,” he says. “I want to learn from the experience of older folks and be with babies and kids when they are laughing and crying, and The Kitchen authentically does that.”

Six months after the IDEO workshop, many ideas have already been put into action, including a new welcoming video on the website and AirBnB Shabbat dinners, organized with the help of food startup, Feastly. The consensus seems to be that if all of these newly conceived programs and branding measures bring new people to the community—and they make friends, deepen their spiritual practice, and bring others when they return—then it’s worth it.

The next design problems that The Kitchen confronts might be similar to what other startups encounter decades on: How will The Kitchen continually stay fresh and innovate? How will it deal with growing old? How will it stay anti-institution? It’s the nature of Jewish life to continually adapt according to the surrounding culture, so the answers will likely be found in tapping the best, most engaging, and most well-designed parts of secular life.

But the foundation of Jewish practice — even in the absence of an actual building foundation—will remain. “This is ultimately about building a loving community around Torah,” said Kushner. “That means it’s a community that gives you a sense of direction in life, a place to fall when you fall, people to help pick you up, and a project that is larger than yourself.”