A new Yeshiva University program aims to have its Torah and flour—and to eat them, too.
The joint semicha-MBA program, which debuted in the fall with its first student, responds to a “leadership crisis” among future rabbis, according to Noam Wasserman, dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business.
“It’s not just all [about] knowing Torah for you to be able to be a shul rabbi or the principal of a school or the rabbinic head of a tzedakah (‘charity’) organization,” he told JNS. “It’s also being an organization person. Being a leader. Being able to read budgets. Being able to think strategically, to craft a vision.”
Wasserman holds a business doctorate from Harvard University, where he used to teach. An Orthodox Jew, he recently completed his third cycle of daily Talmudic study. As he told JNS about the new program, he often peppered his answers with Hebrew and Aramaic terms, and at one point, cited the exact Talmudic tractate and page for a citation.
There are direct and indirect benefits to rabbis having business training, according to Wasserman.
The indirect is how “the business skills might enable someone to excel at the intangibles—the interpersonal and other things like that. To be able to learn the emotional intelligence part of the leadership course,” he said.
The direct benefits pertain to many of the most important recurring questions rabbis get that “are about workplace halachah—about being able to relate to what happens in a company, what are the pressures, what are the dynamics, what are the realities of the day to day.”
He said “that’s a critical thing for a rav [rabbi] to be able to know and to be able to answer the shaylos [‘religious questions’] they’re getting from their congregants,” he said. “Having a rav who is also coming with an MBA is going to be able to give them confidence that I can bring my workplace shaylos to this rav and not have him punt on it. Or give me a pesak [‘ruling’] and not have it grounded in the realities of the workplace.”
Prior to the fall, students at Yeshiva’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary took pre-requisites toward a master’s degree in the university’s Jewish education, Jewish studies and social work schools. Now Yeshiva’s online MBA is an option. (Rabbinical students can take six semesters of advanced Talmud study in lieu of a master’s.)
More than half of the rabbinical students at RIETS went to the Yeshiva business school undergraduate, according to Wasserman.
“They are going to be able to have a dual career, if they want to have it,” he said. “They could be doing accounting for half a year or half of each week, maybe. And half the time, they could be doing a smaller shul that they’re going to be the rav of.”
Wasserman was the founding chairman of the board of Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael, a boys’ high school in Boston. He thinks that one area in which a semicha-MBA can help is boards of Jewish day schools, which tend to think too small initially.
“We built a board that would be the same board that could scale to 50 students. Now a decade later, the school is at almost 50 students and it is the same structure that we had in the beginning,” he said. “There didn’t have to be any violent transitions.”
Some 40% to 50% of those graduating from RIETS do not work in rabbinics, Wasserman told JNS.
“They’re going to be working outside of rabbinics for their day job. They’re going to be the major lay leaders of the community,” he said. “To have a menahel (‘principal’) who knows business, to be able to have a chairman of the board of directors who understands the Torah grounding, that’s where they can have the same language, the same concepts to be able to work more productively together, because each of the two is able to relate to the other one.”
Many of those expressing interest in the program are also those who intend to become rabbis in smaller communities, where a rabbinic post could be a half-time job. “Sometimes, that turns into their business skills that they’re going to tap,” Wasserman said.
Yeshiva’s business school had been seeing an enrollment “boom” of 23% before the Hamas terror attack in Israel on Oct. 7 and ensuing antisemitism now soaring worldwide, including on many North American college campuses.
Sy Syms introduced its online MBA in the fall of 2021. “That program was eons beyond the old program in terms of flexibility,” Wasserman said of the asynchronous program, which is very compatible with Orthodox Jewish schedules, particularly Shabbat and holidays.
“The last four years of that foundation building has been poised for the post-Oct. 7,” he told JNS. “We will continue, bli ayin harah [‘without the evil eye’], to soar.”
The school’s honors program has also grown from 125 to 170 of late. “These are students who are giving up Ivy League admissions to come here,” he said.
“In addition to the quantity going up, the quality has gone up because the best of the students are seeing that this is where they can be setting the foundation for decades of their life without having to sacrifice on the academic side for it,” he continued. “They had more to come to YU for, and they had more pushing them away from the other universities. And that has just become a crescendo now after Oct. 7.”
In a few years, Wasserman hopes two dozen students come through the program. “That I would consider a major success,” he told JNS.
And he thinks the school could be well on its way to getting much-needed data about rabbis with MBAs. “We’re probably three or four years out from being able to point to that,” he said.
In 2008, the Kellogg School of Management, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., launched an executive program for rabbis and Jewish leaders. The program’s website is defunct, but Kellogg offers a “faith leaders week,” including for rabbis.
Brandeis University offers a joint M.A. in Jewish professional leadership and social impact MBA that affords “a strong foundation in both management and nonprofit practices, as well as a deep knowledge of Judaica and contemporary Jewish life.”
Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, offers an M.S. in organizational leadership and innovation and an M.A. in Jewish nonprofit management.
Management programs for Christian leaders appear to have proliferated more widely. In 2008, the Villanova School of Business outside of Philadelphia launched a master of science in church management.
“Other programs include church management as an add-on specialization within a standard MBA degree, but at Villanova School of Business, the MSCM curriculum is holistic and fully integrated,” per its website. “Each course is meticulously designed for those who lead churches and addresses management issues from a faith-based perspective.”
“I think what is unique is that it helps people become bilingual in speaking church and speaking business,” Matthew Manion, who directs Villanova’s Center for Church Management, told the business news site Poets and Quants.
Manion told JNS that the center’s founder, Chuck Zech, “always said that a church is not a business, but it is an organization, and the leaders of that organization have a responsibility to steward the spiritual, people, financial and physical resources in a way that is worthy of the mission.”
“I am excited to hear about this new program,” Manion said of Yeshiva semicha-MBA. “As a Catholic university, we work primarily in the Christian space, but leaders of all faith-based institutions would benefit from this type of education.”
“Most leaders of churches and synagogues have excellent theological formation but very little education or training in how to lead a significant organization,” he said. “Just as many engineers, doctors or social workers pursue an MBA to fill in the gaps in their education as their careers advance beyond their specialty into more of a leadership role, leaders of faith-based institutions have the same knowledge gaps to fill.”
At Villanova, the M.S. in church management tailors the curriculum to the needs of church and faith-based organizational leaders. An ethics and leadership course includes
instruction in Catholic social teaching. Information technology, human resources, financial reporting and organizational management courses include the theory and research of a typical MBA program, “but they are applied to a church or ministry setting,” Manion told JNS. “The case studies are all inspired by real-life situations other students have encountered.”
“We have found there is tremendous value in bridging mission and management. Many faith-based leaders fail because they separate the two,” he said. “They treat faith and business as two different worlds. At Villanova, we believe this is a false dichotomy. We believe that faith is the foundation for every business decision a church should make.”
Programs like Villanova, and potentially Yeshiva’s, “can serve as an important translator for two groups who often misunderstand each other,” according to Manion. “Businesspeople can sometimes use business language that church leaders do not understand, and this results in conflict or confusion. Similarly, church leaders can sometimes use theological language that business leaders do not understand, and this also results in confusion and misunderstanding.”
The Sarasota, Fla.-based Graduate Theological Foundation offers an MBA in pastoral planning and church management. Duke Divinity School, in Durham, N.C., is offering a course in “strategic management for churches.” And the Busch School of Business at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. recently relaunched its online M.S. program in ecclesial administration and management.
“Our aim is to help the priest appreciate that by being a good leader, a good manager, a good administrator he’d be a good pastor,” Rev. Robert Gahl, director of church management programs at the Busch School, told the National Catholic Register.