Considering “Free Is Sometimes Too Expensive”
Last week, Rabbi Eric Lankin wrote a piece at Times of Israel concerning a couple of issues in Jewish communal life. The first issue with which Rabbi Lankin deals in his piece is his lament over considering attendance at programs to be king:
As non-profit leaders, both volunteers and professionals, are our goals so limited that we only judge success by attendance? Education is defined by changed behavior and yes, a change in the rates of participation is a measure of changed behavior.
I was very glad to read that, since that makes me not the only person who believes we should consider quality of programming and not just quantity of attendees. This matter is something about which I wrote a couple years ago (and cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy) and further explored last year, so I’m glad I’ve got someone agreeing with me 🙂 Rabbi Lankin, having written about the Jewish communal professionals only measuring success by the amount of attendance, also refers to lay leaders in their focus on attendance:
I have also been to countless non-profit board meetings including synagogues and I hardly have seen a board measure the success of their organization by the change in the behavior of its members inspired or educated in its religious services or programs.
While I am super glad to read that, I wonder how many lay leaders will consider this – sure, even if one is able to convince the professionals in the field about the importance of the quality of the programming, how is one able to do that for the lay leaders? Especially since their funding motivations are often simply along quantitative lines….
His second point in “Free is Sometimes Too Expensive” is that free programming all the time can be deleterious to how [young] people perceive Jewish programming, essentially echoing Dr. David Bryfman (whom he cites), causing devaluation of Jewish content in programming. This issue is, indeed, a matter of huge concern for all. Strikingly, this points up a broader meta-issue, about which I have had conversations with other people in the field: debating a tension of offering Jewish content and allowing people easy (no financial commitments) access to it (because, after all, maybe they’re not interested in it and why should we turn them away due to money?) versus charging people for a service (a good?).
One challenge that exists is “About whom are we talking?” One constituency with which I work is college students, most of whom are working and just scraping by – there is no way that they are paying to come to Hillel events. Another constituency, however, is young adults (20s-30s) and they often (though not always) have some financial capacity to give. In my work, I haven’t mandated payment at events, with one or two exceptions (and I have been pushed by young adults, themselves, to charge(!)), and have struggled with this – I want to show them that I am not after their money – I want them to be able to access the wisdom of our tradition to help improve their lives and am not after their money. On the other hand, it’s hard to put a price on spiritual content and meaningful educational opportunities. I suppose that we would be creating an elite cadre of young adults who – beyond having the desire to attend a Jewish event (what a small percentage of young adults), they want to come to something with spiritual content and meaningful educational opportunities (even smaller percentage), that want to pay to attend such a thing (even smaller(!)) – then what?
I get that we want to provide quality Jewish programming and want to make sure that young Jewish adults value it – these are great values – but what about spreading the ideas embedded within the programming to a broader audience?