The Cost of Free Programming

By Ari Witkin

A few weeks ago, I was caught off guard when a friend who enrolls their toddler in the daycare program at the congregation where I work seemed to shrug off my suggestion that they join the synagogue, responding “why would we pay to be members when we can just go to the free family programming which is all we’re interested in?”

Like me, this friend is a millennial who has been actively engaged in Jewish community throughout their life. For the last ten years or so, many of us have found the locus of our Jewish community in engagement programming outside of the traditional centers of Jewish life, and much of it has been offered to us at a highly subsidized price if not totally free.

It makes sense therefore that after years of not being asked to pay for anything and encouraged to select Jewish experiences al la carte, that Jews in their late twenties and early thirties are taken aback by the sudden emergence of price tags on the menu, and even moreover by the suggestion that they make a commitment to Jewish life beyond periodic consumption of individual programs or opportunities.

A New Communal and Programmatic Paradigm

In seeking to understand the trends and fundamental characteristics which animate this generation’s participation in and commitment to Judaism and Jewish community we have learned a number of valuable things. Simply put, Millennials are doing Jewish differently. We aren’t looking to join a single institution which will serve our Jewish identity, spiritual and communal needs. As Rabbi Kerry Olitizky notes, “even those [millennials] who are active Jewishly have episodic connections with numerous institutions.” As a result, many traditional centers of Jewish life have begun to position themselves as curators of Jewish experiences rather than communities to which an individual belongs.

Even though rates of formal affiliation, and possibly even theological affinity, are on the down slope, millennials maintain a strong desire for connection both spiritually and communally. As Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile point out, millennials “are [still] decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t live a meaningful life without it.” And so, as the new social and religious tendencies of the next generation of Jewish adults have emerged programming to match has followed.

Engagement Strategy

In response to millennials’ low rates of religious affiliation and rising anxiety amongst communal leadership about their long-term fidelity to Judaism, a host of programs and initiatives with low barriers to participation have emerged throughout the Jewish world. From Birthright, One Table, Moishe House, and free synagogue memberships, our community has invested heavily in eliminating cost as a barrier to Jewish engagement between the ages of 20-30.

In many respects these programs have been extremely effective. Birthright has sent tens of thousands of young adults to Israel, and their data suggests alumni cultivate stronger relationships with Israel and their Jewish identity as a result. Moishe House has now established more than 100 residential sites and supports additional programming attended by thousands each year, and there are hundreds of funded Shabbat dinner tables filled with millennials thanks to One Table. However, because of the relative youth and subsequent lack of longitudinal data available, one can’t help but wonder what the enduring effects will be of creating an exemption from having to contribute financially to one’s own Jewish experience during the formative years of emerging independent adulthood?

Budgeting as a Values Exercise

Though the Jewish community’s approach to engaging millennials has been to reduce or eliminate costs, it is not as if we are a generation that avoids spending money on things we view to be improving our lives. From the comforts and conveniences of lattes and Ubers to gym memberships and social experiences, studies show that millennials are actually more likely to spend money on the things they think will enhance their lives than the generations that came before us.

Free will always offer a PR bump to any program, and likely make it easier to get people in the door the first time. The question we need to be asking in our assessment of these programs though is not how many people came in the door, or even how connected they feel as a result, but how will the experience translate into commitment to Jewish life down the road?

My concern is that in an effort to get people in the room we have disincentivized financial commitment and the prioritization of Jewish life later on. That in the years when people are beginning to construct the outlines of the budgets they will base their financial lives on, they are not planning for Judaism to be a part of the equation in the future. As a result, when the subsidies eventually end, and they are no longer receiving a Whole Foods gift card to cover the cost of Shabbat dinner, they will decide that doing so isn’t a priority – that it isn’t on the list of things they spend money or budget for.

There is no question that there are cost-prohibitive realities in many areas of Jewish life that demand radical restructuring if we are to take seriously what it means to build accessible and inclusive communities. Furthermore, the rising cost of college education and the overwhelming burden of student debt with which so many young people are entering the workforce only increases the barrier that membership and programming fees create to participation in Jewish life.

While economic accessibility must remain a high value within the Jewish world, if the goal of Jewish engagement is to help young adults transition into Jewish adulthood, not providing them with a knowledge and experience of a financial commitment to their own Jewish lives is setting them and the community up for failure. It is certainly much easier to fill a room for a free program than to get people to commit to paying synagogue membership dues, but long-term commitments aren’t established through giveaways, they are built through meaningful encounters that invite individuals to make real personal commitments to their own Jewish life.

While there may not be one tried and true path for extending this invitation, there are certainly things we can do to help foster a deeper connection and even financial commitment to Jewish life. First, let’s not be afraid to ask. I think we have the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised if we just start asking young people to make more significant financial contributions to their own Jewish experiences.

Our invitation, like our programming, needs to be built on a foundation of Jewish education that, as Dr. Bill Robinson writes, “help[s] Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives.” When this happens, like that latte they can’t start their day without, millennial Jews will be far more apt to pay for those programs they experience as improving their lives.

Lastly, we need to invite young people to the table in leadership positions. Whether it be in tech start-up board rooms or political organizing, our generation wants to lead and has proven time and again they have something powerful to offer. Our community has done a tremendous job creating engagement opportunities for young Jews, let’s not miss the opportunity in front of us to really transform those experiences into long-term relationships that include financial commitments.

Ari Witkin is a graduate of the Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program at the University of Pennsylvania and a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.