Sunday, December 1, 2013

Genius Bars or Maker Spaces?

For years I’ve been hearing people wishing that Judaism in general—and synagogues in particular—were more like the Apple store. It’s a lovely metaphor; apple products are beautiful and easy to use. When you go to the store everything is laid out so you can explore. The staff are courteous and trained to focus specifically on your needs. And if your device is acting up, you can take it to the ‘genius bar’ to be repaired. Wouldn’t it be nice if our religious experience resembled that? Customized, specific, courteous, with someone who can guide you when you’re stuck.
I’ve never liked this metaphor. For one, it’s a consumerist model—you’re not in the Apple store to build community, despite appearances. You’re there to buy a widget. And, Apple isn’t especially interested in you getting into your device—it’s ‘locked’ both programmatically (which phone network it works on) and literally (you can’t open one or take it apart).
Lately, I’ve preferred the idea of synagogue as maker/fixer space. What is a maker or a fixer? You may have run into the word reading Farhad Manjoo in the Wall Street Journal or Wired magazine. The word describes itself—it’s the person who makes or fixes things (years ago we would have called that person the ‘hobbyist’). The woman with the lathe or soldiering iron, or the man with the knitting needles or sewing machine. Whether they’re making art, jewelry, or furniture, or repairing furniture or cars, makers and fixers experience the world in a different way.
Our culture has become consumerist to the point where we buy things we might be able to make, and we throw away instead of trying to fix the toaster, chair or computer. Not only that but they form communities around the work they do—asking questions, sharing tools and sometimes even sharing space (hence ‘maker space’).
Synagogues need to be maker and fixer spaces. Rather than experience Judaism as consumers—waiting for someone to create the perfect version for us to acquire—we need to roll our sleeves up and get dirty. Rather than disposing with prayers or rituals when they fail us or seem out of date, we should work to ‘fix’ them or create new ones. We should feel empowered to make our experiences work for us, and create community sharing tips, tools and space with one another.
Now, that metaphor may not work for everyone. Some of us might be worried that, should we take it apart, once the parts are spread around, we may not be able to put it back correctly (as someone who took  his toys apart as a kid, I can relate). Without a doubt, it can be challenging, requiring study and engagement. But, speaking as one who’s repaired his own computers (and his kids’ toys) it can also be deeply satisfying and empowering. Yes, if we take the Torah apart we may find it doesn’t go back together exactly the same way, but we may also find that we can relate to it better, and find that we have ownership over our experience.
Perhaps the answer is that we need both—genius bars for those who need help accessing their worship experience, and maker spaces for when people are ready to roll their sleeves up. But I’d rather see community created around people making their own experiences than waiting for someone to make it for them.

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