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Monday, June 11, 2012

How Bad is Free (for Jewish Continuity Purposes)?

N.B., this post is a bit, um, Jewy though it raises some larger issues that might be of interest to Prawfs readers.

Over at the Forward, there's an interesting oped by David Bryfman about the danger of giving various things away for free to facilitate Jewish continuity in an age of assimilation. The Birthright trips for young Jews to go to Israel for ten days are probably the best example. But there are numerous other ones that Jewish communities are experimenting with. Last night, my synagogue decided to make religion school for free to 3/4/5 year olds in the community in order to spur folks to prioritize attendance and participation. We also benefit from an excellent program called PJ Library, which sends a book or music cd to young Jewish children every month. I love this program--to be sure not every selection is a winner with my boys, but I'm thrilled that we have this here in Tallahassee. And I'm generally unopposed to the idea that patrons in a community would want to make participation in Jewish life relatively free for others to do.

But Bryfman sounds a cautionary note: is there a problem when people have no "skin" in the game?

Yes, I can see some of the possible downsides. But the problem with the oped is that it assumes (like too many economists?) that money is only one way of putting skin in the game.  To my mind, time, enthusiasm, and support are other moral currencies that people may pay in, and not necessarily immediately but backward and forward over the course of their lives. Especially for young families and young adults who are still figuring out how to shape their lives, and what role religious and cultural affiliation will play, I see the subsidization of experience and ritual and education as an important link in the chain. It might not succeed for everyone--of course, what does it mean to succeed? -- but it will for some. Indeed, I continue to think of my year working on religious pluralism and studying philosophy in Israel after college (sponsored by the Dorot Fellowship) as one of the great gifts I have received from Jewish institutional sources. I view that year as having been as critical to shaping my adult life as my college experience or the sum of my childhood parochial education. Would it were so that everyone who wanted to do that kind of extended immersive experience could do so without fear of going into debt or penury.

Bryfman's oped says that "free" might devalue the experience of the books or Israel, etc. There are at least three things worth thinking about in assessing this claim, none of which are really addressed by Bryfman. First, as alluded to above, there is the basic distributive justice aspect to think about: how many poor or middle-income folks are shut out from some aspects of communal life because of these costs that are being borne by donors? "Free" creates access as well as a solidarity benefit, much like social security. I'm not saying we should never question the model, but it might well be that we want to create a common vocabulary of experience and meaning across the income spectrum and some of these free goods are able to do that thanks to donors willing to make that happen for all.

Second, think about who are the primary beneficiaries of the books or the religion school or the Israel programs? It's primarily young people or kids who would not otherwise be paying for these things anyway. So to the primary audience, the connection between the "benefits" of having skin in the game and the resulting value would probably never have been established.  For those who would not normally be paying, the value has to be realized independent of the financial sourcing anyway.

Third, let's assume arguendo that Bryfman is right that "free" devalues the experience or value that might otherwise be associated with a non-free model. Even if the value of the Israel experience or the books or religion school is devalued (say its value goes from 100 to 50 for the sake of argument) --  it does not mean it has no value. At least I don't take Bryfman to be claiming that there is zero good resulting from free books and cd's to Jewish kids or Birthright trips. If there is some non-zero value to the community that arises (and let's set aside the difficult questions of what metrics we use to measure that value) from these programs, we still have reason to prefer these mechanisms for generating the value if we don't think there are other ways of doing so that are more effective or more efficient. And I find it hard to believe that the model of Jewish life that dominated over the last forty years (outside of Orthodox circles, which frequently used significant subsidization models) is the paragon of effectiveness.

So, if Bryfman wants us to "pause" before we embrace "free," fine. Everything we do as a community should be mindfully done. But the arguments and evidence for "reset" based on the putative downsides and dangers of "free" seem quite speculative and not particularly persuasive.

Posted by Administrators on June 11, 2012 at 10:58 AM in Article Spotlight, Dan Markel | Permalink


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Having watched all episodes of Girls in one marathon viewing this week, I did some slate and other reading around it. and here is one that speaks about Birthright

Posted by: orly lobel | Jun 14, 2012 6:28:51 AM

I imagine that "free" membership sends certain negative signals. For example, "free" membership could suggest that a group is desperate for members, as could free trips, free goodies, etc. The presence of some gate (even a nominal fee) keeping others out makes the folks inside the group feel better about themselves. Moreover, a number of us have come to distrust anyone who says "X is free" because we often know that X is not free, or that X will inevitably be followed by Y, which is quite far from free. So a straightforward charge such as "$25 for attendance" allows us to stop thinking about the "free" part and instead focus on the service that is being offered.

Posted by: miriam baer | Jun 12, 2012 10:11:48 AM

coincidentally, an American friend visiting here at Tel Aviv University told me the century old joke, still alive today, about what Zionism is: one jew asking another jew to pay for a third jew to go visit Israel.

Posted by: orly lobel | Jun 12, 2012 2:50:23 AM

It seems that the underlying question is who are the beneficiaries of the gifts: Are they mostly people who would not have taken the trip or purchased the book on their own, or are they mostly people who *would* have done so on their own? In other words, is the proper comparison free versus paid, or free versus nothing? If the proper comparison is free versus paid, then Bryfman is right; if the proper comparison is free versus nothing, then Dan is right. That's my two shekels, anyway.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 12, 2012 12:36:13 AM

FWIW, I know that at least when I was in college many years ago, AIPAC required student attendees at its regional conferences to pay some nominal fee, maybe it was $25. I was told that the poobahs at AIPAC determined that people took things less seriously when they were free, and were also a lot less likely to show up than if they had paid something. AIPAC, of course, is a very effective organization. So I've always wondered whether Birthright, etc. should ask for at least something from participants.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Jun 11, 2012 6:28:44 PM

Danny, here's a view from our experience raising three Jewish children to adulthood. All three of them are grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor, and clearly identify as Jews. One was a Hebrew Studies minor in college (and the winner of the departmental award his senior year). My daughter is married, and both boys have pretty serious girlfriends. We love them all, children and others. None of the others are Jewish. It seems to me that ANYTHING the community does to enhance non-Orthodox identification is a plus, and that requiring people to have "skin in the game" is an artifact of the traditional custom of discouraging conversion until the potential "ger" (convert) says he or she feels unworthy.

Indeed, if my sons were to end up married to, and have children with, the women with they presently have relationships, both the Orthodox and Conservative positions is that the children would have to convert to be Jews. More "skin in the game" mentality. That bothers the hell out of me (I was raised in a Reform household.)

And even though your post is "Jewy", the meta-issue here is actually the same one that underlies constitutional debate: how does a religious, cultural, and social tradition evolve such that it stays faithful to some core commonality or tenet, and yet adapts to changing conditions. People are religious or constitutional foundationalists because they fear indeterminacy and "anything goes." People are religious or constitutional liberals because they fear the rigidity of fixed and inflexible rules.

I agree with your overall reaction, and think the fear that underlies the "skin in the game" position is over the kind of Jew or Jewish community that will result.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 11, 2012 3:40:22 PM

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