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.