Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lobsters and Synagogues

James Surowiecki: The Surprising Complexity of Lobster Prices : The New Yorker

James Surowiecki writes in The New Yorker about the complex pricing of lobsters. Apparently because of climate change there are too many lobsters and so lobstermen are forced to sell their catch for lower and lower prices. Some are barely able to stay in business. They have of course fixed costs like their boats, cages, crew and gas. Sound familiar yet? We have heating, air conditioning, roofs and staff. Despite their lower costs, restaurants have not lowered the price of lobster dishes. People value a good lobster dish, apparently. The price of delicacies are directly related to people's appreciation for them. Most people believe that a cheap lobster, like an inexpensive wine, tastes inferior even though you can obviously have an excellent $20 bottle of wine and a terrible $100 bottle.

Much of taste is related to perception. And so it is with synagogues. Let us be forthright. There are more synagogues than the Jewish community, and Jews, are willing to support. This is not because of climate change, yet we sense similar seismic shifts. It is primarily a result of shifting demographics and people's dwindling sense of obligation. Many synagogues have therefore resorted to gimmicks and lowering dues. These devalue our institutions. Synagogues become like lobsters, a commodity item.

I believe instead that synagogues are the foundation of community.  I teach that synagogues help to elevate our lives, and I don't only mean our Jewish lives.  We are better, and stronger, when we stand together.  We can't sell that, and we should not sell that, for cheap.  We demean ourselves when we do so.  We then turn synagogues into a commodity and not a value.  I refuse to cheapen what I believe.   I refuse to lessen what we must value. Community requires investment.  It demands work.

Back to lobsters.  Surowiecki writes:
Setting lobster prices is not, in other words, a matter of just adding a markup to costs. It’s a surprisingly complex attempt to both respond to and shape what customers want. The key, though, is that restaurants are able to adopt such strategies only because the restaurant business is not, at heart, a commodity market.... Commodity producers, by contrast, can make lots of money if the conditions are right, but their fate ultimately depends on the broader economy. Restaurants are trying to insulate themselves from the market; lobstermen are at the mercy of it.
The problem then is that too many synagogues, and their leaders, see themselves as lobstermen rather than fine restaurants.

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