The Unknown Value of ‘Free’

Tamar Snyder writing in The Jewish Week:

freeWhen it comes to attracting young Jews to Jewish programs and events, “free” has become the operative word.

… The problem is that once something is free, people balk at being asked to pay for it. Imagine, for example, if Birthright didn’t return the $250 deposit. Would there still be tens of thousands of applicants on its waiting list? Paying a small, affordable price for the trip may discourage some free-riders, but it also may motivate Birthright-goers to value the trip beyond a fun vacation – and potentially become more actively committed Jews who are concerned about Israel’s future.

I’ve been thinking about the ramifications of the “free question” ever since I moderated a panel discussion two weeks ago at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation on the topic, “Entitled or Enlightened: A Discussion About Young Jews and Philanthropy.” The panel, which was co-sponsored by ROI, PresenTense, and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, featured Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and founder of Brooklyn Jews, an outreach program that engages unaffiliated Jews “where they’re at”; Gali Cooks, the director of the Rita & Stanley Kaplan Family Foundation, and Rabbi Ari Weiss, the director of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice group.

One of our biggest challenges as a community is that we demand of our young innovators that their “big ideas” be sustainable, and yet the established Jewish community’s biggest idea of late – Birthright – is clearly unsustainable. (“You just can’t sustain the model, unless you buy an airline, frankly, which really should be considered,” Cooks remarked.)

Beyond the lack of sustainability, there’s the question of whether the byproduct of this obsession with all things free is the creation of a generation of entitled Jews, a generation that has never been asked to give – and may not even know how.

“What type of positive modeling that is for the next generation receiving [free food and free programming]?” Weiss asked. “Will they follow through when they are in the position to fund programs, when they are capital rich as well as energy rich?”

It’ll be decades before we know for sure whether the Free Generation will give back and deepen its commitment to Judaism as it grows into middle age. But there’s cause for concern. As we often lament, there’s a high cost to leading a Jewish life. From synagogue and JCC membership to day school and Hebrew school tuition, as well as the various costs involved in Jewish ritual, Jewish life is expensive. If we keep handing everything on a silver platter to attract young Jews, will they learn to make the sacrifice? And if they don’t, who will pick up the tab?

excerpted from To ‘Free’ Or Not To ‘Free’; posted with permission