Monday, April 11, 2011

The Weakness of the Rabbi’s Business Model

[I hope to return to the Netziv translation in a bit, but this has been sitting on my plate for a while.]

In my opinion, a synagogue rabbi doesn't need all that many ingredients in order to do a good job: He needs a head, a heart, and a work ethic. And yet, it seems to me, based on anecdotal reports, that North American synagogues and rabbis part ways at an alarming rate, often in the first few years of a relationship. Why is that?

There are many reasons, of course. It’s not always that congregants are evil. (heh) And it’s not always that rabbis are ill-suited for their shuls. And part of it is the North American rabbinic job description.

But part of it, I think, is that the rabbi-shul business model is inherently challenged by five factors:

1. The rabbi's product must satisfy a large percentage of the customer base, providing their needs, as a basic definition of successful performance.
Contrast this with food producers, who need to satisfy a much smaller percentage of the market in order to be considered a success. Coca-Cola, for example, has a 17% market share, and Diet Coke is #2 at 9.9%, followed by #3 Pepsi at 9.9% – Imagine a rabbi with that kind of “success”!

2. The rabbi's product is served to the customer base daily, or with even greater frequency, so that there is a high rate of producer/customer interactions, opening the possibility of occasional failure to satisfy.
Contrast this with attorneys and stock brokers, who meet with their clients only occasionally.

3. The rabbi's product is marketed directly to the customer, with little investment by the rabbi or by any middle man in promotion.
Contrast this with makers of just about any commercial product, who invest in promotion directly or through a middle man or vendor who has an investment in successful promotion.

4. The rabbi's customers are highly connected, and communicate virally, so that negative feedback is spread quickly.
Contrast this with clients of professionals, or customers of stores, who are far less connected even in today's age. I don’t know anyone else who drinks Boost Plus, or eats Liberte Yogurt, and could not communicate a critique to any of them other than via an at-large tweet or blog post.

5. Alternative products are easily available in many markets.
Contrast this with the airline industry.

Indeed, the rabbinate isn't the only 'business' to face most of these challenges, and to have trouble as a result. Consider the following three industries which experience an oft-noted high turnover rate, due to challenges inherent in their industries as well as many of the factors listed above:

• Restaurants (60% fail in their first three years) - Challenged by factors 1, 2 and 5

• Airlines (Take a look at Warren Buffett's quote re: airline investing) - Challenged by factors 1, 2 and 4

• Politicians - Challenged by factors 1, 2, 4 and 5

I don’t know how to change this. Promotion can be solved, I suppose, but that’s it. Shuls are never going to want rabbis who satisfy 17% of their congregants, since they can’t afford to hire other rabbis to reach the remaining 83%. Rabbis will continue to have a great many regular interactions with congregants. The viral communication remains, as does the existence of alternative ‘products’.

So is there any hope for the rabbinic business model?


  1. What about all the reasons a Rabbi would leave a community? I can think of many pulpits that cannot keep a rabbi for more than 10 years because the Rabbi moves on to a "better" job. From my extremely limited knowledge, I know of many more Rabbis who have left/abandoned their communities than vice versa.

    If you are looking at this as a market, why do you think the Rabbinate is any different from management? I can imagine that there is a crisis in management, that people only keep their job title for a few years before getting a promotion. So too the rabbinate, where many Rabbis are looking for a "promotion" -- a more prestigious shul, community, or job description, or a community with more amenities for their specific situation.

  2. There are several problems with the rabbinic business model. One is that it is against the Halacha according to the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah). (One is not allowed according to the rambam to receive money for teaching Torah.) This has the penalty of being cut off --karet according to the rambam in mishna Torah and in perush hamishna. The only Rishon that allows it is the Tashbatz (a minor authority that he is not quoted as an authority on any other question). But later "Rabbis" latch onto him in order to have a air of legitimacy.
    The other is that the title and prestige that goes with the position of rabbis is based on a kind of fraud. according to the Gemara there is no more Semicha.
    In Klal Israel before the pseudo ordination that we have today was started up the religious authority of the community was the person that taught Mishna (and sometimes Talmud is the people had the time).
    This is the model that has a good potential. This would mean that today the local rav should be the person who gives a class in Mishna and Talmud. But this still would not be a salaried position

  3. 1. When a community is factionalized enough, this overall "customer satisfaction" is hard to create.

    2. There is a temptation to try to get on the good side of the lay leaders and wealthier congregants without relating well to everyone else and their concerns.

    3. Is the number of available rabbis with the needed scholarship, leadership, and people skills greater than or less than the number of congregations? If it's "less than", some congregations will have a problem!

  4. No one, I think the 'rabbi's business model' isn't referring to the rabbi receiving compensation. It refers to looking at his profession and challenges from a business and marketing perspective. Since that is how the potential congregants look at it, it can't be ignored. Potential congregants often compare available congregations, and pick one. That's where their participation and money goes. Without members and money (often related), the place closes for 'lack of business.' Try to run shul without any money. Can't be done. Someone foots the bill somewhere - rent, books, electricity, etc. Even without paying a rabbi.

    For that matter, the American model requires a 'rabbi' as figurehead, functionary, and to reach out and teach those who want it. We tried operating with a less visible and less dominant rabbi, and found that most people just didn't get it - and didn't want to. It was like Rober Pirsig's experiment where he taught a course at Bozeman State with no grades. The students freaked out without their comfortable anchor and reference point.

    You're mistaken by the way about a rabbi being forbidden to get paid. It is clearly established that he may get compensated for time lost from other earning opportunities (the time he spends teaching could otherwise be spent earning a livelihood). He may be paid for teaching Torah she-baal peh according to the g'mara. He may be paid for all the many many things we require of him outside teaching Torah.

    By the way, I've never heard the Tashbetz dismissed as a "minor authority".

    I've already written too much, and others know better than I. I'll let the Husband address the "fraud" and "semicha" issue if he likes. I do think, though, that your presentation is a bit simplistic and therefore misleading.

  5. Russell-
    Hope you enjoyed your morning.
    There are many reasons why rabbis leave pulpits, certainly, but my understanding, based on the cases of which I am aware, is that the reverse is true more of the time.

    No one-
    Thanks for commenting.
    1. The Rambam's comment, which is based in Nedarim 36-37, is limited to teaching torah sheb'al peh. Also, it is limited to payment for teaching, as opposed to payment for batalah from another possible position; the gemara specifically approves payment for batalah for people engaged in mitzvot. In addition, the role of Shul Rabbi involves much more than teaching torah sheb'al peh. Finally, the Rambam does not use the term "Karet" for this.
    2. I believe you are mixing together two separate issues - payment for learning Torah, and payment for teaching Torah. The Rambam/Tashbetz machlokes is on payment for learning Torah, not on payment for teaching Torah. The Rambam's use of "karet" is also regarding payment for learning Torah, not payment for teaching Torah.
    3. In my experience, the "title and prestige" are not for their semichah and psak abilities. Rather, it's for the way they look out for the neediest of the community, and for the health of the community and its institutions.

    1. Agreed.
    2. I've actually seen quite the opposite, that there is a tendency to err on the side of the weaker - but I am aware that it is possible for someone to be biased in the way you describe, too.
    3. Good question.

    R' Mordechai-
    Thanks for stepping in.

  6. I did enjoy this morning, just as I enjoy every morning of my life.

    Maybe I don't know what you know, but in the O community in Toronto (where you currently reside), if I'm not mistaken, there have been three "firings" of Rabbis, or Rabbis forced to resign in the past 20 years. All three were Rabbis of their shuls for at least 10 years, two of them the founding Rabbis. I don't think that really fits in with the model you are presenting (i.e. they did like them for at least ten years)

    There are other cases of Assistant Rabbis who took over the responsibilities of the mara d'atra who were forced out, but they weren't fits for their communities from the start.

    In the same time, I can count on the top of my head two who made aliyah, one who left because of family reasons, and a few who went on to "better" positions. I'm sure I'm missing some more, who left their community of their own volition.

  7. Russell-
    True, but Toronto is considered unique in the field.

  8. The figures you show for soda sales are not really relevant comparisons for rabbis. In the first place, while coca-cola may have a 17% market share, more than 17% of soda customers buy it--most soda drinkers drink more than 1 flavor, splitting their purchases. But also, the national soda market is a farm more diverse group than the membership in a shul.

    It seems to me that there are two main sources of difficulty. One is the tension between serving the congregants, and serving the rabbi's calling by encouraging religious growth in the congregation, which isn't always comfortable for the congregants. The other is the tension between being a spiritual leader and being a fundraiser, and the extent to which rabbis must combine these roles.

    A third factor that is particularly important early is that rabbis are rarely trained for the pulpit; most yeshivot offer education more geared toward high le3vel teaching and psak than managing a congregation.

  9. Ah, but your business model has a flawed assumption. The rabbi does not have to serve the entire market (every Jew in town). He serves only a smaller targeted portion (those with membership at his shul). By segmenting the market at the outset, he has a much better chance of targeting his message to his customer base. The problem, of course, is that even a single small shul has several distinct target market segments within it, with different needs, to whom his "benefits" offered need to be presented differently.

    Most rabbis are pretty good at this - they relate differently to the old folks, the young families, the learners, the daveners, the mystics, etc. Once you determine what the segments are, it's easier to see what's your niche, where you'll get a higher success rate, and get those folks to talk about you to the other segments.

    Unfortunately, good reviews get heard by 1 to 2 people, and bad reviews get heard by 10 - 20 people. That's true in business as well as in the rabbinate.

  10. Mike S-
    The soda statistics are the actual sodas sold. Imagine if people who chose to go to shiurim only went to their rabbi's shiur 1 out of every 6 times.
    I do agree re: the tensions, although I should note that many congregants do want that elevation - the question is how to deliver it in a way in which it will be accepted.
    Re: Training - I would be very interested to see if there is a difference between the statistics for schools which train for the pulpit more heavily, and those which do not.

    Indeed, hence my item about the viral communication.

  11. No matter how you look at it to the Rambam receiving money for teaching Torah is forbidden. He could not have been clearer about this.

    Compensation for time lost (sachar batah) is explained by the Rambam in hilchot shoftim. It is when a person has a paranah that he is in fact actively involved with. Then to ask him to spend time doing something else like judging a case ) is called compensation for time lost.
    It does not mean giving a salary to judge or rabbi which is forbidden.
    And besides that if one is already a rabbi receiving a salary he is forbidden to decide the ;law on this case because of being "nogae bedavar" (affected by the matter). This is called conflict of interest.

    He writes the rabbis of the great yeshivot that say it is a mitzvah to support them are saying a lie.
    (Might I add that one is not allowed to lie according to the Torah.)

  12. No one-
    1. You wrote: "No matter how you look at it to the Rambam receiving money for teaching Torah is forbidden. He could not have been clearer about this."
    1) The Rambam himself qualified it;
    2) The Rambam himself (and not only in Hilchos Shoftim - also regarding other mitzvos, as in Gezeilah va'Aveidah 12:4 and Parah Adumah 7:2) recorded the issue of schar batalah.

    2. You also defined "schar batalah" as where a person already has an active parnasah from another cause. Source, please?

    3. You mention that the rabbi may not rule on a case involving a source of his salary - this is correct.

    4. You wrote "He writes the rabbis of the great yeshivot that say it is a mitzvah to support them are saying a lie."

    True, but irrelevant to the salary of a synagogue rabbi.

  13. Fine ---a shul rabbi is doing better to the rambam than a kollel. --and that is the specific heter of the tashbatz.

  14. The Cola numbers are more like how a rabbi would feel if his congregant went to his shiurim and then went to five others. I don't think many rabbis would be troubled by that.

  15. A rabbi is like a dietician for diabetics. He gets stuck trying to enforce a regime for which people may try cheating. it's not enough to be right and nice.