Stanford prof: Temples must be marketing oriented

Peering down the hall from his office in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer could spend a couple of minutes rattling off the names of his Jewish colleagues who are married to non-Jewish spouses.

It is a less arduous task to list the intermarried business professors who remain affiliated with the Jewish community — so far as he knows, Pfeffer's the only one.

"So, in every other case, these people are in the process of losing any connection with the organized Jewish community," said Pfeffer, who will be speaking at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. "I think that's too bad."

Had things gone only a little differently for Pfeffer, he too might be unaffiliated. Hoping to find a synagogue back in 1986 where he could marry his non-Jewish fiancée, Pfeffer traveled from congregation to congregation, only to garner the same result — a polite "no."

Yet after much searching, a congregation eventually found him. After Pfeffer told a friend about his plight, the friend — a congregant at San Francisco's Reform-Conservative Beth Israel-Judea — dropped a line to then-Rabbi Herbert Morris.

"The next morning, my phone rings — my phone rings — and a voice says, 'This is Rabbi Herbert Morris. My friend told me about your situation and I'll perform your marriage,'" recalled Pfeffer. "I thought if I couldn't get a Reform congregation to do it, I'd never get a Reform-Conservative congregation."

Morris, however, had given this subject a great deal of thought.

"He said, 'Here we have a nice Jewish boy who was bar mitzvahed and confirmed who met someone and fell in love. We have two choices: If you can't get married in a temple, you'll still marry her. And if you don't marry her in a temple, you'll never go into a temple again,'" recounted Pfeffer.

"The rabbi is a smart man."

Still happily married, Pfeffer and his wife, Kathleen Fowler, are both members of Congregation Beth Israel-Judea.

His talk at Emanu-El will focus on "what not to learn" from Silicon Valley business practices.

An organizational expert, the professor sees his personal experience as an example of much of what is wrong with Jewish organizations. To start with, he points out how rare it was for Morris to have called him, and not the other way around.

"I know I have a lot of friends who are unaffiliated Jews, and if someone called them up and said 'We're interested in helping you reconnect with your Jewish history and tradition and heritage in a way that feels good for you,' the first thing most of them would need is to be brought some smelling salts," he said.

"I wonder sometimes if Jewish organizations are as inclusive and reaching out — 'marketing oriented' to use the business phrase — as they ought to be. There are an enormous amount of unaffiliated Jews. We ought to reach out to people, get people involved. If Amazon can find me, then a temple can find me."

Hearkening back to the rejection he experienced from multiple congregations in 1985, Pfeffer describes Jewish organizations as "schizophrenic" when it comes to matters of inclusion and exclusion.

"There is a great concern about assimilation and losing our Jewish identities through intermarriage," said the professor. "Fifteen years ago, I ran into a number of congregations who said, 'We're not interested in any part of this.'"

But, peering again down the hall at his unaffiliated colleagues, Pfeffer brings up the other side of the argument.

Congregations "have a set of values and a set of operating principles, and it's their right to have that," he said. "But for the community on the whole, there is a consequence."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.