Is ‘free’ Judaism a good idea?

Is ‘free’ Judaism a good idea?

Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

NEW YORK — Maybe I’m just jealous of the free offers being made to young Jews today, but part of me worries that down the road, these well-meaning programs and proposals — like trips to Israel, High Holy Day services, books for children and Shabbat meals — may have a negative effect on a generation that is being coddled and spoiled Jewishly.

The fact is that college students and Jews in their 20s are being showered with a variety of opportunities of engagement from a Jewish community deeply concerned about its future and believing that the best way to attract the next generation is to provide benefits at no cost.

A young woman in her 20s who is actively engaged in Jewish life in New York told me she enjoys going to synagogue but would never consider paying for membership or for High Holy Day seats. It’s just an alien concept to her and she doesn’t have to make the choice because free services are available.

Surely, free offers have appeal for the targeted audience, but is this a sign of strategic planning or desperation?

Should limited resources be focused on young people who have shown little interest in Jewish engagement rather than, say, parents who want very much for their children to have a day school education but are struggling mightily to meet increasing tuitions? And who is to make these major decisions? Have communal leaders and organizations relinquished their role to the philanthropists and private foundations with the funds to generate these programs?

There are no simple, across-the-board answers, but it’s a discussion the community should be having.

When we think of “free” in the American Jewish community, Birthright Israel is the first program to come to mind. For more than a decade now, this bold project, conceived by a few mega-donors and now supported as well by Jewish federations and the government of Israel, has brought Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for 10 days free of charge. The results have been incredible.

Not only have more than 350,000 diaspora young people participated, but studies show that the impact of the trip on their attitudes toward Israel and their Jewish identity have been significant and positive.

An early skeptic, I now am a major believer in the program, having gone on two trips myself and seen the transformation that takes place among these young people. But it doesn’t have to be completely free.

Some Birthright programs, like those for South American Jews, have established a practice where participants take the modest $250 deposit they put down for the trip and return it to the program when they come home. And that seems to be working just fine, with “a very high rate of participants” giving back, according to a Birthright spokesperson.

I was pleased to learn this week that North American participants now get an email about a month after their return from Israel with directions on how to get the refund of their $250 deposit and asking if they would like to donate it, or a portion of it, back. Fifteen to 20 percent of alumni donate a portion or all of their deposit, the spokesperson said.

If everyone donated the deposit, it would increase the coffers of the costly program by about $10 million a year. Perhaps more importantly, it would create a model for Jewish giving for young people who have conditioned to expect things for free, from pop music to news online.

The Torah provides us with a paradigm here. When the Israelites were in the desert, God commanded that they each contribute a half shekel, in part for census keeping and in part to maintain the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. The overarching message was that everyone is counted by being a contributor, even through a modest amount. It’s a lesson that still applies.

We need to recognize that the prevalent notion in our society is that cost equals value. In our daily lives as consumers we’ve come to believe that we pay for what is important to us and see “free” offers as a come-on with hidden expenses down the line.

David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project in New York focused on the “free” issue in an ELI talk (the Jewish equivalent of TED talks) and in his writings recently, suggesting that “the value of Jewish life and living has been … distorted by the increasing addition of free initiatives,” which he believes can have unintended but “potentially devastating consequences.”

He argues, “free adds value only if it is connected to something else.” Because someone else is paying for it, it isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t really free. “And when [donors] are paying for one thing, it often means that they are not paying for something else.”

David Cygielman, the CEO and founder of Moishe House, an international organization that subsidizes rent for single young Jews in return for their promise to host events with Jewish content, recently wrote a piece on the eJewishPhilanthropy website saying it’s a mistake and missed opportunity to downplay the significant cost absorbed by funders underwriting these “free” programs.

“If my peers … are being taught that everything is free, how can we expect them to give back down the road?” he asked.

In his essay, called “The Myth of Free,” Cygielman said Moishe House launched a campaign that makes its budget transparent so residents and alumni can see the level of philanthropic support the program receives. More than two-thirds of Moishe House residents contributed to the program last year, and Cygielman suggests that “sharing our budget and being transparent” was a key factor.

“Free,” in and of itself, is neither a good or bad policy, according to Mark Charendoff, former head of the Jewish Funders Network (and a Jewish Week board member). He says the key is the rationale and intention of the donor. Citing the Birthright program, he suggests that the donors’ goal is not simply to give young people a free trip to Israel, but to lead them on a path where they come to appreciate the values of Jewish life.

“If they get a taste of it [through the Israel experience], they may become lifetime consumers,” says Charendoff, noting that the donors “have confidence in their product,” which is Jewish life.

Chabad has been remarkably successful around the world in providing free services and courses and, once their consumers are pleased, asking them for donations. That formula, and raising large sums from wealthy donors, the vast majority of whom are not ritually observant, has made Chabad the envy of every Jewish organization.

But with a number of major foundations concentrating on young people, many other segments of the community are finding it increasingly difficult to raise funds for their projects.

One frustrated rabbi seeking support for a major adult Jewish education program told me this week that “people over 40 in our community are the walking dead,” virtually unnoticed by significant funders.

Of course it’s the funders’ prerogative to decide who and what to support, but that brings us back to whether the community as a whole has a say as to which programs are free and which aren’t.

A final note to Jewish leaders: Don’t judge the Jewish commitment of our young people by whether or not they join synagogues and longstanding Jewish organizations. They are of a new generation, with multiple interests and identities, and they tend to express their Jewishness by rolling up their sleeves rather than pulling out their wallets.

They will give of themselves if they believe in the authenticity of a cause. It’s our job to show them that Jewish life is a cause well worth investing in.
So take my advice. It’s free.

(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at This column previously appeared in the Week.)