Daze of Awe

After two days of talking marketing with Jewish organizations, I’ve come to appreciate that marketing is not a very Jewish idea. Think about it. Marketing is all spin and presentation. What did we, the Jews, do at our first great marketing opportunity?

The year was 70 C.E. The center of our existence — the Holy Temple — had just been destroyed. Did we reach out to the world and strengthen our standing by launching an “image campaign” to attract more adherents to our faith?

Or did we go off and spend 1,900 years trying to improve our product?

Indeed, for centuries, our Jewish sages worked to interpret, refine and better understand our Holy Book. And, in the process, they taught us that the Jewish way has little to do with the flash and seduction of marketing, and a lot to do with the substance of introspection and refinement.

Having said that, most Jewish organizations today will tell you they “need marketing.”

Maybe that’s why fellow marketer Gary Wexler and I got an enthusiastic response to our Days of Awe offer of free marketing advice to the Los Angeles Jewish community.

A total of 26 Jewish nonprofit organizations registered for individual sessions on Sept. 18 and 19 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Beverly Boulevard at the corner of Pico.

It was an intense and dizzying experience. For two days, while Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz was giving out New Year blessings in an adjacent area, Gary and I huddled in a bunker-like conference room where we engaged in “speed meetings” with a wide cross-section of the Jewish world — and had to come up with marketing ideas on the spot.

We could probably write a book about our two-day whirlwind, and maybe one day we will. But for now, here’s a taste of some of the groups who came and what we said to them.

We met a hospice group that deals with one of life’s more sensitive areas: helping people who are at the end of their days. They wanted their specialty to become more recognized. Our suggestion: Create a new mitzvah for the Jewish world. Just like you have bar mitzvahs and shivas, this mitzvah would be called “The Last Cycle.” It would have its own rituals and receive the same reverence and attention to detail given to other life cycles.

We also met a leader of an old, run-down shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood that had lost its rabbi and many members and was desperate for any idea. We suggested banners on their storefront to promote the shul as the “real shtibl in the hood” with “nothing hip,” just “davening and a little herring.”

A JCC in the San Fernando Valley, which had lost use of its key asset — the swimming pool — was also eager for a big idea. We suggested having kids build the world’s biggest Chanukah menorah in the empty pool using recycled soda cans, inviting the mayor and the city’s press , and creating a rebirth of excitement based on unique community-wide events.

A small Holocaust museum had a problem: What do you do when the city already has one of the world’s best, the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance? Our suggestion: Instead of playing up the notion of a “martyr’s memorial,” play up the more dynamic idea of “survival” — and make it a more hopeful, universal and future-oriented experience.

The Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys wanted to continue to pull the two communities together. Our idea: Do an event — like a community Passover seder — right at the border of the two areas, and continue the “Events at the Border” theme throughout the year.

The Israel Institute Green Technology Fund came in with a PowerPoint presentation outlining how they can harness the skill of Israeli scientists to contribute green technology to the world. We gave them a new name for their pitch — “A Convenient Truth” — and helped them with strategies for high-powered fund-raising.

For a group that wanted to keep the Yiddish language alive, we suggested having “Yiddish Cooking Nights,” in homes throughout the community, that would combine the Yiddish language with the all-time No. 1 Jewish marketing hook: food.

On and on it went like this, with one group after another sharing their stories and challenges, and each hoping for a little marketing injection — in thirty minutes.

We saw all kinds of groups: a new community mikveh; a Reform temple; an Orthodox high school; college and high school outreach groups; two Jewish universities; a Chasidic Jew’s Kung Fu program for disabled kids; the Board of Jewish Education; Jewish World Watch; Koreh LA and even venerable institutions like Hadassah.

Each cause had its own drama.

Some touched us especially deeply, like the Jewish group that travels to tiny villages in Ethiopia to care for fellow Jews. We suggested they create Ethiopian events and Shabbatons throughout the Los Angeles Jewish community to build awareness for this unique culture, and start a campaign asking for Jews to help out another “old Jewish neighborhood.”

In truth, Gary and I were touched by all the groups, and the gratitude they showed us. At the end of two days, although we were in a bit of a daze, we felt exhilarated — and hopeful God would go easier on us on Judgment Day.

Looking back, we were also struck by the candor of the people we met. Many of them admitted that marketing was out of their comfort zone. They felt it was too intangible — they were more comfortable just servicing their cause.

Of course, they also realized that if not enough people knew or cared about their cause, there would be no cause.

We wanted them to see that it’s not either/or. You can be wildly imaginative and successful in marketing and “presenting” your cause, yet still continue to develop the Talmudic-like substance to back it up.

Jews, of all people, should feel no guilt about marketing. Seriously: We spent 1,900 years refining and improving our product. It’s not like we haven’t earned the right to show it off — even if that’s not exactly, you know, the Jewish way.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.