[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?