Show the Value in Jewish Community Before Sending the Bill

by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Amanda Kaletsky

Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we often discuss the value of participating in the Jewish community. In other words, how do I personally benefit from being a Jew or from participating in Jewish communal life? But why do I have to pay for it before I understand its benefit and value? Thanks to social media and other free platforms like Facebook, we have been socialized in such as way as to expect that we no longer have to pay entrance fees to join community. Even the new gold standard of Birthright Israel is free. So I expect that it shouldn’t be necessary to pay membership dues to worship or join a JCC until I have determined its personal benefit. (Perhaps we need to do better helping people to understand such a benefit beforehand in any case.)

David Bryfman recently posted a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy defending statements he made in a recent presentation about programs and services in the Jewish community that are free. He argues that while “free” isn’t a bad word, there must be value added or “the full benefit is rarely achieved.” His analogy of the NY Times “free” and “premium” subscriptions is a good one: people must first see the value and realize they want something before they will pay for it. Bryfman believes people don’t yet realize what they want, and we have to show them in order to convince them of the value. I think that people do indeed know what they want. They are looking for the Jewish community to demonstrate how it adds meaning to their lives before being asked to pay for it.

Take, for example, the changes fitness centers have had to make in their dues structure. There were lots of upfront fees. And then it was nearly impossible to break out of a contract with a gym. Because of the competitive environment of the marketplace, fitness centers have evolved their models. They understand that there is only a benefit to them if members join and stay as members because they see the benefits of membership.

Successful kosher restaurants understand this notion, as well. They understand that they have be good restaurants first and kosher restaurants second – if they want to succeed.

The same is true for the general Jewish community. Once we articulate and then demonstrate value, people will pay the premium and not just keep the free subscription. Jewish institutions can continue to delude themselves into believing that they can push against this cultural shift by immediately asking for, say, membership dues before showing true benefit of said membership, but it will only result in pushing more people away.

The Jewish community currently tends to lead with cost, believing that people will only value what they pay for. People will pay a premium for what they value, yes, but only after they see the value for free. To go back to Bryfman’s NY Times analogy, he first “tested out” the value of the product with the free subscription, and once he reached his monthly limit of free articles, he realized he wanted more. He saw the value in paying the premium. The Jewish community should follow suit.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), located in New York City. Amanda Kaletsky is JOI’s Communications Manager.