Back in the ‘Nineties, the slogan of American Express was “membership has its privileges.” Just pay your dues to join a community of card-carrying consumers. To emphasize your participation in a relationship with Amex, your card (in green or gold or the most precious black) states the year you became a member. Today, Amex does not focus on connection. “Belonging” is less important in the 21st century. The same societal pattern can be seen in Judaism today.
Marketing adjusts to the times, and the emphasis on the collective has given way to focusing on the individual. American Express offered a new slogan for the 2020s: “don’t live life without it.” Meanwhile, ads for the green card encourage us to say, “I got this.” With Amex, you and your hard plastic card are living your best life! And if you are looking for the American Express community, you can find it as an online forum.
The shift from membership to individualism reverberates through the ways we “do Jewish.” Foundational principles of Judaism reflect our responsibility of one person to another. Parshat kedoshim, in the middle of the Torah, emphasizes the holiness of caring for others. The Jewish innovation was to create a relationship with God by accepting our personal responsibility to other people. When we honor parents, offer food to the poor, stay honest in business, and pay our debts, we connect with God.
Knowing that every Jew is responsible, one for another makes clear that Jewish membership has its privileges. The currency for credit in this holy community is the loving-kindness we offer. Judaism is a global network, and the only transaction fee is your willingness to expand goodness in the world.
The challenge is that modern society emphasizes efficiency and individualization. We rely upon the internet for information more than we discuss ideas with other people. People are free to move to Bay Ridge or the Bay Area, diminishing lasting attachments to a local community. Values are shaped by what we view on Netflix, perhaps more than by what we read in Torah. Accordingly, Jews are desensitized to the Jewish membership structure which builds on personal connections.
In addition, two years of covid lockdowns and masks broke the back of community spirit. Zoom and YouTube could not sustain a veritable sense of belonging. I don’t feel a part of the Jewish community while sitting in pajamas watching Shabbat service on a laptop.
Our challenge is to remember that Jewish membership is a privilege. Unlike American Express, you can be a member even if you don’t pay any dues. A healthier Judaism will focus on the benefits of membership. Taking on the responsibility of caring, we activate the purchasing power of the Jewish membership card. Your participation in a caring community prompts a network of holy transactions. You can log in to your account for a statement of transactions when you study Torah.
That is the Jewish enterprise, being of service to others. And Torah instructs us to carry that membership card and remember, “don’t leave home without it.”
Rabbi Evan J. Krame