Since its founding 10 years ago, New York’s Soho Synagogue has been trying to reimagine the way that young, hip Jews interact with their religion. The trendy establishment hosts everything from comedy events before High Holy Days services to swanky loft parties. Originally they charged for events, but eventually they made most things free because the money wasn’t really covering the cost and, more importantly, they wanted to avoid the “did I drink my money’s worth?” mentality. Whenever there was an event, Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, founders of the synagogue, would send out an email with the details. As the list grew and word of mouth spread, more and more people came. So many that the Scheiners realized they had to change tactics.
“Soho Synagogue works because we start with the premise that everything on offer in the Jewish world isn’t working—proof being that the audience isn’t going to those,” Dovi told me. “It’s about experimentation and moving every year to a formula that is engaging. But why can’t we do the same thing to funding?”
Usually when people want to make something appealing to hesitant customers, they may lower the price, or, as is the case in many religious activities, make it free. (Perhaps most famously is Birthright, the free trip to Israel offered to Jews ages 18–26.) That approach wasn’t sustainable for Soho Synagogue, and, in Dovi’s mind, sent the message that what they were offering wasn’t valuable.
That’s why, after about two years of research, Soho Synagogue opted for Synago, a mobile-friendly website launched in August. Synago has a nice ring to it—it connotes the idea of synagogue on the go but also means “come together” in Greek, and that’s one of the main goals. Designed by Hassidic coders—both male and female—at Spotlight Design, the sleek, minimalist interface is perfect for the hybrid goals of synagogue hub and social network. But, most importantly, it costs money to join. There are three monthly tiers of giving, $30 for “members,” $60 for “supporters,” and $150 for “philanthropists.”
Annabel Lawee, 24, donates about $1 a day as a member, but she hopes to give more once she’s more established in her career. She started attending Soho Synagogue after moving to New York from Montreal two years ago at the recommendation of a friend. For her, experiencing the community made joining Synago a no-brainer: “It’s basically Facebook for Soho Synagogue members.”
The comparison to Facebook is obvious and necessary. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for religious groups to try to replicate the Facebook experience—earlier this year the Brazilian FaceGloria made headlines for being “sin-free” and attracting more than 100,000 users in its first month. Synago is a much simpler interface with a different goal—getting a select group of people to actively want to pay to sign up.
The home page has four options: People, Events, Content, and Recommend. The People tab opens up to all the current members; each person’s face appears in a bubble along with a color designated for his or her tier of donation. Clicking on each will lead to a profile. When you sign up, you’re asked a series of OkCupid-style questions, including the classic educational background and profession. There’s also a section for you to list three things people should ask you about—for instance, career expertise, like marketing or tech, or the best restaurant in New York. It gets a little cutesy when it comes to relationship status, referring to it as your “soul cycle,” which gives you a clue as to who the clientele might be. You can message someone, but it will go to his or her email inbox, and the messages, as of now, don’t live on the site. (It’s not explicitly about dating, but there’s no reason that can’t be a side effect.)
All that is pretty standard for most social networks or dating sites—though, in this case, all members are viewable to all other members. What the Synago team hopes to capitalize on are the Events and Content sections. Soho Synagogue is known for its lavish and enticing events, and part of Synago’s goal is to get people to commit to paying and coming.
The biggest room for growth is in the Content section, which right now is primarily a primitive Facebook news feed: It shows new members, but it also includes a Hebrew word of the day. A morning video greets you with the words “good morning” and a recitation of the morning prayer “modeh ani.” But Dovi also hopes to share stories and questions, prompting Jewish discussion and exploration.
Mendel Jacobson, the chief content officer, tries to use this space to adapt prayers to a more contemporary language. Each week he takes a mitzvah, one of the 613 commandments in the Bible, and tries to convey it in a way that members can relate to. Often, this takes a kabalistic bent. Most recently, he told me, he wrote about the commandment to keep the eternal flame that appeared in the temple lit at all times. Many synagogues keep a light in the front of the sanctuary, but Jacobson encouraged Synago members to think of “an eternal flame of your heart” always elevating and trying to reach higher.
If this feels a bit like Chabad, the global network that tries to get Jews to reconnect with Judaism, it should. As the New York Times noted in 2013, the Scheiners broke with the Lubavitch Chabad community they grew up in but continue to identify with its teachings. And the people they’re trying to bring to the community are the same whom Chabad tries to attract, but the approach is more contemporary.
But they’re not just depending on members; Synago is doing a round of venture capital, raising money through what they call “Mentschure Capital.” (See what they did there?) Their pitch to philanthropists—which is working; so far they’ve raised more than one-third of their $540,000 goal—is that this isn’t a pit that keeps getting refilled, it’s an investment that will make Soho Synagogue sustainable.
It’s still too early to tell if a generation that rejects the traditional synagogue can be convinced to start paying because of a fancy website, but Dovi is optimistic. Right now, there are about 350 members from communities in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and they hope to have 300 more each quarter, ending the year with about 600. Many of their new members signed up around the High Holy Days, and they’re hoping to replicate that with a big Hanukkah blowout: A friend of the synagogue has access to what Dovi referred to as “Andy Warhol’s Soho escape loft.” Over the course of the eight-day holiday, they’ll have two black-tie parties there.
For now, the Scheiners still send out a weekly-ish email to trigger involvement and get people excited about the site, but they know it’s not for everyone. Most members are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and, while Jewishly inclined, are not actively practicing in other ways. Sign-ups are screened, and it can be difficult to figure out how to do so. (You have to email Dovi through the site’s “contact us” page.) As the community grows, they hope to include more benefits, like a podcast and videos about members. But even without the planned updates for the Content section, the simple interface can lead to some missed connections.
During Rosh Hashana services, Doug Schottenstein, a longtime member of the community, went up to bless the congregation with the rest of the kohanim, or priests.* A few days later, he got a message via Synago from one of the women in attendance: “Thanks for the blessing, let’s meet up.”
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2015: Due to a production error, this article originally misspelled Doug Schottenstein’s last name.