Friday, The Rabbi Sold Sermons

Torah-Fax zaps E-mail inspiration to religious leaders

One hand steering his Mercedes, the other clutching a cell phone, Rabbi Bernhard Presler, 62, is answering his new calling while driving down a Fort Lauderdale highway. A reform synagogue leader for three decades, Presler is now in the "clergy support" business, zapping out canned sermons by E-mail and counseling overstressed rabbinical peers--often from his car.

Some rabbis say that his service offers too easy a shortcut, but there's no doubt about it: Presler certainly has clients. The calls pour in. "Bernie," pleads one rabbi, "do you have a prayer for removing a wedding ring from the deceased?" Amiable, with a dash of calming wisdom, Presler assures them he can help.

"The clergy today are swamped," explains Presler. Indeed, he compares the leader of a sprawling modern congregation to an overtaxed corporate CEO. Scholarly life at the neighborhood shul has been replaced by board meetings, building committees, personnel problems--and as many as 100 sermons a year. "Every week is like writing a new PhD thesis," he says.

SPECIAL BLESSINGS. Enter Torah-Fax, the Davie (Fla.) research and support operation he founded six years ago that now ministers to 430 rabbis--an estimated 15% of the pulpits in America's three major branches of Judaism. ("Torah" is the Hebrew term for the first five books of the Old Testament.) For $400 per year, Presler ships bimonthly sermons tied to the Bible. Members get two to three additional "last-minute" sermons a week--news-driven submissions drawn from Presler's network of scholars and authors. (A $1,500 VIP service throws in all the products Presler sells separately, such as a Eulogy Disk or audiotaped conferences.)

Subscribers may also tap the restless mind of Presler himself--and his 50,000-item database. Can't find a blessing for a new set of twins? Presler, at 800 TORAH-FX, can. "Rabbis are expected to be supermen. Anything that can make their lives less hectic makes their lives better," he says.

That view irritates some. "Preaching is an art. It requires you to do the hard work if you're going to do it well," says former subscriber Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, senior rabbi at Manhattan's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Congregational leaders echo the concerns of Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice-president of the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, who says what matters is how it's used. As a tool, Torah-Fax is fine, says David Magidson, president of the 585-family Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Fla. But, he says, "we hired a rabbi for his originality, his feeling, and his belief." Presler doesn't disagree. The sermons are meant to inspire, "not to be read word for word"--although detractors say it occasionally happens.

Presler moved into business in 1992 after his contract at a South Florida synagogue expired. He and editor Rabbi Jack Riemer, a well-known scholar and writer, began building a database, organizing material by subject. Much of it is topical.

"There are books of sermons, but they're not up-to-date," says North Miami Beach rabbi Max Lipschitz. "I can call up Torah-Fax and ask for the latest on, say, abortion, and he finds it.'

CHRISTIAN MISSION. Through word-of-mouth and direct mail, Torah-Fax is adding 75 subscribers a year, says Presler, and reaches 35 states and 12 foreign countries. With three full-time employees, Presler sells more than 50 products: customizable letters to grieving families, Bar Mitzvah sermons, and even "time management for rabbis" software. This year's revenues are expected to top $200,000, and the business has been profitable since its launch.

Now, Presler is hoping to inspire a new market: the Christian clergy. His latest project, dubbed "Bible-Fax," takes aim at the estimated 40,000 churches in America. As Presler sees it, the message of many sermons "is universal." And he has commissioned a friend from interfaith meetings to retool some of the sermons in his database into a Christian framework.

They'll have plenty of competition, though: More than a dozen services already cater to Christian denominations one way or another, according to Stan Purdum, editor of Homiletics, a for-profit quarterly that publishes sermons. "Generating a new idea every week is hard," Purdum says--for any clergyman. Presler, for his part, remains confident he can find common ground. Just call it a leap of faith.