Moneyball Judaism: We’re Not Selling Jeans Here

If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization.

by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

My favorite summer pastime is baseball. Every day, I watch baseball, read about baseball, and pray that my beloved Baltimore Orioles will eventually win the World Series (hey, a guy can dream). However, while it has been years since I gave up my dream of ever playing in the major leagues, I still try, every day, to find ways to follow baseball more intelligently so that I might better understand what it takes for a player or a team to be successful. Without question, the single thing that allows me to better understand pathways to baseball success is sabermetrics, unofficially known as “Moneyball.”

Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane, and the strategies Beane employs to position the A’s, with a relatively low payroll, to routinely make the playoffs over other teams with far deeper cash reserves. Beane’s strategies were taken from the sabermetric playbook, where objective data is used to measure baseball performance as a means of helping baseball professionals make their decisions based on evidence, rather than gut instincts. Sabermetrics currently impacts all major sports, Hollywood, and even politics, where Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland recently wrote an article in the The Atlantic Monthly asking, “Can the government play Moneyball?.”

I thought a great deal about Moneyball when I read the results and subsequent reactions to the Pew Forum’s recent report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. On the one hand, I was not surprised to see so many bemoan the overall negative picture the survey paints about the current state of Judaism in America, particularly amongst liberal Judaism. At the same time, I find it ironic that, as a community, we pay far less attention to the data that helps tell us what works than we do the data that tells us what we are doing wrong. Over the past several months, I read debates about the relative merits of day school versus congregational schools, in-reach versus outreach, whether denominations have a future in Judaism, and a myriad of other big questions that can affect our community’s strategy for taking ownership of our future. However, in most cases, when I read these debates, or even share my own opinion on a question, I see the opinions of myself and others justified by an over-abundance of personal perspective, and a dearth of objective data. The consequence of this is that the majority of conventional wisdom and conversations in the Jewish community are driven by what we believe to be true, rather than what concrete evidence we can offer to support our claims, in spite of the fact that we do have data that paints a picture of what works in creating meaningful, lasting Jewish experiences. As a result, as I watched the baseball playoffs, and thought about the implications of the Pew Forum’s survey, I wondered what it would take for the Jewish Community to play “Moneyball Judaism.”

Of course, we have organizations in the Jewish Community promoting data-driven decision-making, such as Measuring Success and J-Data, and researchers who use qualitative and quantitative data to measure emerging trends, such as Professors Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe. However, producing data is the easy piece of the puzzle; the hard part is listening to what the data tells us. The Jewish Community lacks a culture that collectively promotes the essential principle behind Moneyball, namely that it matters, “less how much money you have than how well you spend it.” When you have limited money, finite resources, and a competitive marketplace, you will succeed only through a shrewd understanding of how the marketplace based on objective data, which, if used properly, will challenge conventional wisdom and results in leaner, meaner pathways to success.

By extension, if the Jewish Community is to transform our vicious cycles into virtuous cycles, we must understand how to judge the relative value of organizations and strategies, and recognize our own fallibility as human beings who always bring our assumptions to the big Jewish questions of the day. While I am not a statistician, nor a sabermatician, I would like to suggest three principles as a starting point of enacting a strategy of Moneyball Judaism, each of which apply a major principle of sabermetrics to our Jewish Community:

1. What matters most is getting on-base: One of the statistics deemed critical by sabermetrics in baseball is On-Base Percentage, otherwise known as OBP. The basic assumption behind the OBP is that getting on-base is more valuable than making an out, one of the reasons why Billy Beane hates when baseball players are asked to bunt, as bunting generally involves a team voluntarily relinquishing one of three precious outs to the other team. In contrast, even if a player draws a walk instead of getting a base hit, each of these acts are of similar value, since drawing a walk also gets the player on base (as an aside, this is the reason why Jonah Hill’s character in the movie Moneyball states several times that current New York Yankee, Kevin Youkilis, is the “Greek god of walks”). Ultimately, moving a player across the diamond is a skill of paramount importance when judging a player’s effectiveness.

  • The value of OBP translates into the first principle of Moneyball Judaism, which is that an effective organization increases overall Jewish involvement. If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization. If an organization brings participants together for an intensive experience, yet those participants do not or cannot independently engage in Jewish life once the program concludes, it would be difficult to argue that the organization’s program was effective at advancing that individual person’s Jewish involvement. By extension, if we want to compare organizations with one another, we should be able to compare how each succeeds, or fails, at getting Jewish people “on base.” We may not be able to judge the relative value of each act of Jewish living, but we can agree the more active your Jewish life, the more likely you are to be active your entire life.

2. Measure Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Before he became famous for predicting the results of political elections, Nate Silver was a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus, a publication that uses sabermetric analysis to create statistical models to measure all aspects of a baseball player’s performance. Silver’s main contribution to this publication was a statistic called PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test and was named for former journeyman infielder Bill Pecota. Essentially, PECOTA allows us to measure the best-case, worst-case, and most-likely scenarios of a player’s performance. While you cannot know how a player will perform before choosing to draft him or sign him to a multi-million dollar contract, you can measure the probability of a player being a tremendous success, or have a sense of that player’s value even if they never fulfill their maximum potential.

  • The principle behind PECOTA provides a model for thinking about how to judge one Jewish decision versus another. Every Jewish organization showers us with their success stories, individuals for whom participating in their program changed the entire trajectory of their Jewish life. However, we need to ask whether or not those success stories are a typical result, or a statistical aberration. Many organizations provide data about the portrait of their program’s alumni, and how much those alumni engage in Jewish life years after their participation in the program. Based on the data, we can create composite pictures of the best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios for how a person’s Jewish life will be impacted by that organization. If a program or organization claims substantial impact, yet the most likely scenario is a mediocre impact, it would be reasonable to conclude that this organization is not a worthy investment.

3. We’re not selling jeans here” (Or- Value impact over image): Famously, Michael Lewis writes in Moneyball that when scouts at the Oakland Athletics would ignore statistical performance and state that a prospect “has a great body,” Billy Beane would respond “We’re not selling jeans here,” implying that the goal of a successful baseball team is to find players who produce the needed impact, not project a desired image. We might want a certain conclusion to be true, but if the data does not back it up, we need to consider a change in strategy.

  • Not surprisingly, this final principle is key for own understanding of what a “Moneyball Judaism” should mean. When we comment upon and promote individual organizations and modes of Jewish engagement, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are searching for impact, or whether we are “selling jeans,” valuing image over impact. On paper, if one organization closes, and another one receives a $10 million donation, our typical reaction is to assume that the former organization is a failure, while the latter is a success. However, at the moment, we have limited knowledge as to whether or not the organization flush with cash is successful because they have the right members on their Advisory Board, the right marketing strategy, or simply the right aura. While Moneyball may be about the numbers, ultimately we reap the benefits of Moneyball when we use data to recognize what works, what doesn’t, and where our own biases hold us back from seeing the difference between the two. Sometimes, the data might confirm what our collective wisdom suggests, and while other items it might challenge a well-established belief. In either case, the more willing we are to use data to identify effective strategies, the more likely we are to pursue the strategies that lead to maximum success.

In his introduction to The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that, “we must think differently about our ideas – and how to test them. We must think more carefully about the assumptions and beliefs that we bring to a problem.” At the present time, the Jewish Community faces a variety of challenges on a number of fronts, yet we cannot stem the tide of declines in almost every measure of Jewish participation unless we are willing to challenge the way we make decisions, analyze the assumptions behind our current strategies, and learn how to ask the right questions about judging talent, value, and performance. Moneyball sparked a movement of thinkers in sports, politics, and business who saw the importance of being smarter about how we determine what assets are valuable in a market with limited resources and fierce competition. If the Jewish Community wants to succeed in stemming the tide of declining involvement, then we must have the courage to embrace “Moneyball Judaism,” and do the same.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island. You can read more of his writings at joshuarabin.com.

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  1. Steve Kerbel says:

    Terrific article Josh; though OBP is not the only measure here (tushes in chairs or what we call TIC) but also depth and frequency of involvement in behaviors that are harder to measure, like making Shabbat at home, building a Sukkah or including Jewish destinations in vacation travel (all other measures of OBP hidden from our view). Kol HaKavod!

  2. While I do like the baseball analogy, in the end, you can’t compare baseball, with its rigid sports structure with Judaism with its lifetime goals. A baseball gave has a beginning and an end, Jewish involvement ebbs and flows over the lifetime of a Jew. Scoring in Baseball can be easily recorded, the effect of an educational program may be seen sometimes years after the program has finished, Words spoken by a Rabbi or a teacher (Rabbi Rabin knows this) could take years until a student understands the meaning of the lesson in his or her life and suddenly it has a large impact. Sometimes multiple lessons have to be learned until the impact is felt.

    There are lessons here for Judaism in general but we are taking about the meaning of life, Sometimes that develops long after the players have left the field. Judaism in the end is not about the money or how many people are in the seats (just as baseball is not about runs but getting people to come and pay to watch the game), it is about finding God, making a difference and doing what is right – not easy to score and not easy to quantify in statistics. We may need decades to know what will work or not.
    It is a nice analogy but I think it strikes out in the game of real life.

  3. Elaine Suchow says:

    Data Matters. Though it is difficult for small not- for profits to find the time and staff to strategize tactics to track progress, measuring data is critical in order to understand true results. Great must read article. Thanks for articulating such an important message.

  4. Josh –

    Great article. A couple comments/questions:

    • Unlike in baseball, where every pitch, hit, walk, strikeout etc. going back 100 years is available for every fan and GM to access and analyze to draw their own conclusions, that’s not exactly the case in Jewish life. You acknowledged the existing research folks and resources, but that still only represents a small fraction of Jewish programs/services out there. Are you calling for a transparency sea change, for all Jewish organizations to place dialogue about failures (stats included) alongside successes, so that others outside can draw their own conclusions? Or just that orgs need to be more honest with themselves and utilize data more and gut instinct less?

    • Even baseball has stats that are difficult to completely identify the distinction between causation vs. correlation. (EG, was Cincinnati’s – random choice, of course – Brandon Phillips’ first-time 100 RBI this year a breakout year, or due to two OBS league leaders batting first and third right ahead of him?) In the Jewish world, that gets even more complicated, especially for a person/family that engages in multiple touchpoints, even if within a short time window. EG, if a kid has a positive Jewish school experience (either one), goes to a Jewish summer camp, and has an Israel experience by age 16, it’s hard to isolate the “moneyball” impact of any single one of those factors to the exclusion of the others.

    PS Surprised you didn’t touch on the fact that Jonah Rabin’s character MISTAKENLY referred to Youk as the Greek God of Walks, when of course, he should have said a Jewish deity or something….

  5. Rabbi Eric Stark says:

    As Elaine says above, “data matters” and sadly the Jewish community really has very little hard data. What is amazing to me about Pew isn’t the findings (many of us had intuited them for years) it is that it has been over 10 years since we last study our community! The Jewish communal enterprise is a multi-billion dollar “industry”. Can you imagine any other “company” that only did market (customer) research every ten years?! By way of example, when the last NJPS study was done, birthright Israel hadn’t yet launched, Facebook was 4 years from being founded, and tweeting was something birds did! As a community (both local and national), we need to start investing more funds, more often, in market research. If we don’t know who our “customers” are and what they are like, it is going to be awfully hard to reach them with the “products” and “services” we are offering.

  6. Beautiful article Josh, and love the Moneyball parallels (at Measuring Success, we also like to draw on some of those themes!) .

    Though gathering and producing data is NOT always easy through methods like surveying, performing financial analyses, or leveraging existing databases, you’re certainly correct that “the hard part is listening to what the data tells us.” Of our 7 Steps of Data-Driven Decision Making, making decisions is certainly the most critical!

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