Free Is (Not) for Me

The Hidden Downside to Birthright Trips and Other Freebies

By David Bryfman

Published June 11, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

To use a metaphor that young people will surely understand, one could say that the challenge of Jewish educators today is to ensure that the songs they make available will be ones Jews are willing to pay to download.

In the music business, some downloads are offered for free because they exponentially increase audience size, providing valuable opportunities for advertisers. Other downloads are offered for free because they lead the consumer to purchase additional songs based on their initial positive experience. Either way, there is a powerful incentive to offering things for free.

Such is not necessarily the case in the Jewish world. The value of Jewish life and living has been, in fact, distorted by the increasing addition of free initiatives — programs that are, moreover, often heralded as being the most creative and significant contributions to 21st-century Jewish life. Think of the most celebrated advances in Jewish outreach, and “free” is a defining feature, from giving away Jewish children’s books to trips to Israel. While these initiatives might indeed be breaking new ground, they also might be leaving behind a trail of unanticipated and potentially devastating consequences.

Some prominent behavioral economists point out quite clearly how “free” distorts human actions and precipitates several side effects.

In almost all the examples from our general, consumer-driven society, when “free” exists in a broader context and directly connects to further engagement, it only adds value. If it is treated in isolation and simply given away, it invariably decreases the value of the product itself and anything else it might be associated with. And so, offering free Jewish books might ultimately devalue the significance of Jewish literacy, just as free trips to Israel might dilute the importance of connecting with the Jewish state.

We also need to understand that even though someone isn’t paying for something, someone else is. And when people are paying for one thing, it often means that they are not paying for something else. And so, because there really is no such thing as a free lunch, I believe that we need to constantly be asking: Who has made the decision in the Jewish community as to what should be free and what should cost?

And finally, in his 2010 book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” Dan Ariely argues that people do irrational things, often completely out of character, for free. When free comes into the equation, Ariely argues that people continually make decisions for a whole lot of strange, impulsive, instinctive reasons, very few of which are based on what they are actually interested in doing or on the inherent value of the decision itself. More often than not, “free” tells us very little about a person except that, like most people, he or she is willing to do something because it is free.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.