The Customer Is Not Always Right If They’re Not A Customer

Rabbi Amitai Adler
February 23, 2012
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The primary problem with consumerism is its social effect. The relentless quest for satiation through purchasing may be bad enough as a phenomenon on its own, but far worse is the creation of a culture of consumers. “The customer is always right,” goes the cherished old saw of the business world. And while that may be an excellent managerial motto for someone running an ice cream shop or a phone store, it won’t work with shuls, schools, and other institutions of Jewish life. Jews participating in these things aren’t customers. They’re people engaging in the nurturing and preservation of their society, and in seeking for self-improvement, spiritual development, and elevation in holiness. And in all those instances, sometimes it’s necessary that one be wrong, and be told that one is wrong; and sometimes it’s necessary that one defer to another’s wisdom. And at no time is it useful to have the mindset of entitlement that consumer culture creates- the attitude that if one hands over money, one is entitled to a precise constellation of results and feelings.

That kind of attitude may be reasonable when purchasing a refrigerator: you hand over a thousand bucks, you should feel entitled to a fridge that looks good, performs well, is roomy, and gives you a nice cold glass of ice water; and if any of those things proves not to be the case, you should feel entitled to complain about it.

But it doesn’t work that way with a shul. You pay your dues to keep the shul running. What you get out of it is nothing to do with that money, though: it’s to do with everything else you put in. Money, with shuls, keeps the lights on and the rabbi paid. But the equity of the congregants isn’t in financial contribution, it’s in sweat (spiritually speaking), and nothing else- it’s about participation.

Likewise, at a Jewish school, a parent sends their kid to be Jewishly educated. But the biggest impediment to doing just that is often those same parents, who, having paid the admittedly exorbitant amounts needed to keep quality Jewish schools running, then feel that they are the customer, and they are entitled to have their kids get great grades and feel entertained at school. At some Hebrew schools I have worked at, the word of the parents is law for the teachers, but while the parents may force their kids to show up, they refuse to give them motivation to want to be there, or to participate. And I can tell you, as a teacher, there is nothing I can do about that. No teacher has a classroom full of kids that are happy to be there and excited to learn. But that’s part of the reason why teachers traditionally are permitted to assign homework, to grade based on quality of work done and level of participation, to discipline students for lack of participation or disruptive behavior, to fail students who do not learn the material and demonstrate that knowledge; and to have the administration of the school stand behind them when they make difficult decisions about grading and discipline. And these days, in many Hebrew schools, teachers do not have such rights. Even in some day schools, it can be very difficult for a teacher to, say, grade a student below a “C” on a test (much less in a class), or to get their behavior corrected. Parents complain to the school that this is not what they paid for. Having sacrificed so much to pay for their kid’s Jewish education, they want their money’s worth, and they don’t want to hear that Jewish education- the same as any other kind of education- requires the discipline and participation of the students, and- more than any other kind of education- requires reinforcement at home.

But not only is that just now learning is created, that is not how Jewish community is created. Jewish education is about learning how to live a Jewish life., and the core of Jewish life is loving Torah, loving the rhythm of Jewish ritual observance, and internalizing the Jewish love of learning. And these things are not businesses or acquisitions.

Money may keep institutions open. But participation keeps them functioning. That participation may simply be showing up and being interested. It may be learning the skills that Jews need to maintain and grow the Jewish world. It may even be learning to accept that neither engagement in Jewish life and learning nor spiritual development and awareness can be purchased or commanded. We can’t buy those things, we can only support the creation and maintenance of opportunities to cultivate them.

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