The Benefits of 'Free'

People Still Pay for Freebies With Their Time and Energy

Free’s For Me: Money doesn’t have to change hands for things to have value to us. Trips to Israel and using the free library involve spending moral currencies like commitment, not to mention valuable time.
thinkstock
Free’s For Me: Money doesn’t have to change hands for things to have value to us. Trips to Israel and using the free library involve spending moral currencies like commitment, not to mention valuable time.

By Dan Markel

Published June 25, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Recently in these pages, David Bryfman warned about the danger of giving away various things in order to facilitate Jewish continuity in an age of assimilation.

The Taglit-Birthright trips, which allow young Jews to go to Israel for 10 days are probably the best-known examples, but Jewish communities are experimenting with numerous other ones. Two weeks ago, my synagogue decided to make religious school free for children ranging from 3 to 5 year old in order to spur folks to prioritize attendance and participation. We also benefit from the amazing PJ Library, which sends a book or music CD to young Jewish children each month. I love this program. To be sure, not every selection is a winner with my little boys, but I’m thrilled that we have this here in Tallahassee.

Bryfman, by contrast, seems unnerved by the fact that donors and institutions might want to eliminate the cost of participating in Jewish life. Isn’t there a problem, he asks, when people have no “skin” in the game?

I too can see some of the possible downsides. But the problem with this argument is that it assumes (perhaps like too many economists) that money is the only way to put skin in the game. Time, enthusiasm and support are other moral currencies in which people may pay, 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 what role religious and cultural affiliation will play in their lives, I see the subsidization of experience, ritual and education as an important investment that may pay off in the future. Freebies might not succeed for everyone, but they will for some. Personally, I continue to think of my year working on religious pluralism and studying philosophy in Israel after college (sponsored by the Dorot Foundation) as one of the great gifts I have received from Jewish institutional sources. I view that year as having been more critical to shaping my adult life than the sum of my college experience or childhood parochial education was. If every Diaspora Jew who wanted to do that kind of extended immersive experience in Israel could do so without fear of going into debt or penury, what would be so wrong with that?

There is the worry, which Bryfman articulates, that giving things away for free might devalue Jewish experiences. But there are a few things worth thinking about in assessing this claim.

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 Jewish communal life because of the cost?

Second, when a resource is given away to all for free, it creates the possibility of a solidarity benefit. These are benefits that can establish a common vocabulary and set of experiences for Jews across class and geography. That solidarity benefit is not likely to accrue in the absence of donors and institutions willing to make that happen for all.

Third, ask yourself: Who are the primary beneficiaries of the free books or religious school or the Israel programs? It’s young people who otherwise would not be paying for these things anyway. Inasmuch as children and young adults are the primary audience, the connection between the “benefits” of having skin in the game and the resulting value would probably never have been established. In any case, if we assume that these kids would never have paid for these services to begin with, the value of the Jewish “good” being distributed has to be realized independent of the financial sourcing.

Next, let’s assume Bryfman is right that “free” really does devalue the experience or value that otherwise might be associated with a non-free model. Even if the value of the Israel experience or the books or religious school is devalued (say, for the sake of argument, its value goes from 100% to 50% ), it does not mean it has no value.


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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.