Premium Jewish Value

by David Bryfman

The New York Times online has a free and premium subscription. Naturally, I joined for free. After a few weeks of enjoying free articles, I reached my permitted limit and could not reach the one article that I was really looking forward to. So I took the $5 plunge and paid for a premium service; recognizing that the value of having the full NY Times delivered to my screen whenever I wanted it was much greater than saving the few dollars a month.

When I delivered my ELI Talk, “The Value of Jewish Learning and Living in the 21st Century” I used this encounter with the Times as a window to explore the meaning of “value,” in terms of both meaning and worth and to ask what is it in our community that we are willing to pay for? I don’t want to sound defensive, but I do want to set the record straight; I never actually said that “free” was a bad thing. What I did say is that “free” is an incredibly powerful psychological tool that can make people do some pretty crazy things, often with unintended consequences. I also made the point that when something is offered for “free” without a greater context of value, then the full benefit is seldom achieved. Clearly I touched a raw nerve with a few people.

This topic has pushed me to consider factors what might move me and my fellow Jews to pay for a premium Jewish service. What in the Jewish world do you value enough to pay for? This is important because when people pay for something there can be both greater reach and greater sustainability. Sam Glassenberg (video below) suggests a Jewish video game may be one of those things, but I have my doubts – and here’s where my initial argument may begin to unravel.

People only value what they that want. Even when I recognize that payment isn’t the only criteria to measure value, I have to acknowledge that people value things they perceive as important. They value what they know and what they need. Based on this criteria unfortunately Sam’s video game idea and Jewish education don’t stand a chance. We live in a time when Jewish education for many of today’s Jews simply isn’t a commodity for which enough of a critical mass would be willing to pay for a premium service. It appears to be the case that Jews don’t crave Jewish education as much as they crave companionship and sex. The result is that we will never be able to produce the quality of Jewish educational product that would entice enough others to want to purchase the product based on sales alone. A cyclical argument if ever I’ve seen one.

Based on this analysis I could walk away now and admit defeat. But if nothing else, Jewish educators, almost by design, are optimists. Even what may first seem like a gloomy scenario is fraught with possibility – but only if we circumvent the basic premise that people only value what they want. And so I want to suggest three additions to this idea to make a Jewish premium service a possibility.

  1. People also value what others (who they have an affinity with) value.
    If we can create enough buzz around something then who doesn’t want to be part of it? How many people constitute a tipping point? Some might argue 51%. The other question to consider is who constitutes a tipping point? In playground parlance – “what are the cool kids doing?”
  2. People don’t always know what they want.
    By now we all know that we never wanted an iPod. So, what is it in Jewish education that we don’t yet know we want? Hand in hand with this question must be consideration of who is helping us to figure out what people want. Market research, design thinking, surveys and focus groups are all techniques being employed today by some Jewish educators to help better understand what consumers want. But this cannot be at the expense of helping to advocate for the yet unknown needs that people don’t quite know that they need and then leading them in a direction that they never knew they wanted to go.
  3. The Jewish value proposition actually has nothing (or very little) to do with the Jewish value.
    Basic human needs are just that. People crave for connections and meaning. They actually want things in their life that add value to their lives. As a people we happen to believe that being Jewish has something to contribute to making people’s lives and the world better. If we lose sight of that then we will never be able to argue our worth to a large enough pool of consumers.

Some people have interpreted my work as promoting an effort to rebrand Jewish education. While this might be part of the story I must must also caution us to understand that re-packaging a bad product won’t pass the smell test for a discerning audience – and nor should it.

And so the inherent tension in my argument is revealed. I return to my original question, what is it in the Jewish world today that you would be willing to pay for? But I now add a second question, one of which I take seriously and personally. Who among us is developing and investing in Jewish education to create a need for a generation that they currently don’t even know they value?

David Bryfman, Ph.D., is Chief Learning Officer at The Jewish Education Project.

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Comments

  1. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Dr. David,

    People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. For the vast majority who identify as Jews in North America (the approximately 4 out of 7 or more, Jews who are unaffiliated as well as the majority of the non Orthodox affiliated), Judaism, the synagogue, and by extension Jewish education are not in the “have to” (read obligatory) category. Those are the facts on the ground.

    In today’s consumerist world, Judaism, the synagogue and Jewish education must compete in the arena of ideas and leisure time/discretionary income choices. People will give of their time, talents and tithes to that which is perceived to have value. Synagogues, Judaism and Jewish education are perceived by the masses of Jews as having at best marginal value and thus the result is at best marginal commitment. In a world where most North American Jews today are Jewish like a Reuben sandwich is Jewish

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77z2VsqEmXk

    the irreversible marketplace movement toward free only makes perceived value more important than ever.

    There is however a great opportunity to persuade those Jews to “convert” to the “want to” group. Answering the following questions from the bimah as well as in the classroom, clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly is where it all must begin: 1. Why be Jewish? 2. Why do Jewish? and 3. Why Judaism?

    The vast majority of North American Jews already have voted with their feet that other than for life cycle events and perhaps an occasional worship service, non Orthodox Judaism and its institutions and organizations are irrelevant and meaningless.

    So what would your answers to the three questions posed above be? Without this foundation all planning is but an exercise in futility.

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  2. Caroline says:

    It’s more than rebranding because content does count. If you tell adults without a strong sense of religious affiliation that you will provide their kids an education that is not just about religion but about how to be a happier, more productive human being, than that is worth paying for. The same thing is true for adults as well. If the content can help you make life decisions, process information, make you more confident and motivate you to be a better person–that is worth paying for. And if it isn’t doing that, what good is it anyways?

  3. David, the challenge facing Jewish education is directly related to the larger issue of goals. In the Orthodox world, the goals are Torah, Mitzvot, and the Land of Israel (in various proportions, according to sect). They are clear, prominent, and well-related to the institutions of Orthodoxy.

    In the non-Orthodox world, those goals are hard to name, harder to quantify, and difficult to detect within the fabric of a non-Orthodox community. Perhaps it’s because we’ve shifted into an identity-centric rather than mission-centric conception of ourselves. Judaism, and any other ism, is a collection of relationships and activities, rather than a set of goals and priorities, and that has significant implications that we haven’t fully worked out for what that means for education and educational institutions.

  4. Charles Lebow says:

    David,

    I have what I think is a simple solution. Instead of trying to find something palatable within Judaism that people are willing to pay for, sell a package deal. Isn’t that what Jewish summer camps do, sell swimming and tennis and throw in a little Shabbat on the side?

    What if we put together a college that could academically compete with the best but was also loaded with the best Jewish experiential activities that we can offer? What about a medical school that would teach the best of medicine and the best of Jewish medical ethics? What about a Jewish residence complex for the tens of thousands of young adults in the New York area that would be an attractive place to live and build a vibrant Jewish community at the same time?

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