The Myth of Free

by David Cygielman

Whether we like it or not, through the programs we offer and marketing we present, the Jewish community has created a culture of “free” for youth and young adult programming. Philosophically, I have no issue with heavily subsidized or no cost programming, so long as the quality is high and we have data showing that it creates a trajectory of deeper involvement and increased commitment. This type of support continues from cradle to grave, but it changes its verbiage to things like, “scholarship”, “sponsored by” or even “all are welcome”. Any way we frame it, throughout our Jewish lives, things cost more than what we pay for them. Fortunately, this is possible due to the generosity of donors who want to ensure our religious and cultural opportunities are engaging and open to everyone. Organizationally, and personally, I am grateful to them. But is it really enough to just be thankful?

My guess is that the amount of support to reduce or eliminate costs to participate actively in Jewish life is fairly similar across the timetable, but the marketing and messaging is quite different. The messages that we send young people about FREE trips to Israel or FREE week-long learning trips or even FREE Shabbat meals are frankly, not true. None of these programs are free, they actually cost quite a bit of money for the folks underwriting them. Not sharing this information is a missed opportunity and a disservice if our communal hope is that the participants will become the same types of philanthropists that currently make these programs possible. By embedding this notion of “free”, we are convincing the consumers that there is no cost, rather than highlighting the incredible opportunity and generosity in front of us. If my peers, who do not work in the Jewish community, are being taught that everything is free, how can we then expect them to give back down the road?

At Moishe House, we recently launched a new campaign that is specifically targeted at our constituency base: our residents and alumni. It is as much about raising philanthropic support as it is about educating our community about the true costs of the goods and services they are engaged in. Last year, more than 2/3 of the residents contributed to Moishe House, a statistic that I think is built off of education, sharing our budget and being transparent. However, engaging participants in philanthropy once they have already become part of a program is too late. The same way we train residents to upload their photos and program descriptions, we should be training them on how Moishe House is possible through philanthropic support. When we promote amazing opportunities, why are we also not explicitly sharing how those opportunities are made possible? It does not necessarily have to be about the specific donors but also about philanthropy and how these programs are not actually free but made possible through generous support.

As I am now entering my thirties and was a thankful recipient of so many “free” conferences, trips, meals, etc., I am only now learning about, through my work in this field, the actual costs and work that goes into it. How can my peers be accused of not being philanthropic when we have been trained to think everything is free? I know we are making a conscious effort here at Moishe House, and I hope others will join in providing transparency and education about the cost of our programming and how we need their help in building long-term success and sustainability.

David Cygielman is CEO of Moishe House.