Judaism as a Consumer Good?

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Writing for eJewish Philanthropy, I react to two Forward articles this summer by David Bryfman and Noam Neusner. Excerpt:

Bryfman argues that giving away major Jewish experiences for free devalues those experiences. “Why would people want to pay for a Jewish experience,” he writes, “if… they can get Jewish products for free? And for a community that prides itself on wanting people to become more responsible, invested and committed, the very notion that we are prepared to give away things sends a mixed message…"

But what is it, exactly, that we want Jews to value? Is it specific “Jewish experiences”, or the Jewish experience, writ large? If the latter, then we shouldn’t fear devaluing individual programs; they’re the means, not the end...

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, whom Bryfman quotes regarding the strange things people will do when something is free, also writes about a different problem which perfectly describes the trouble with Bryfman’s approach. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely writes: “we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms… are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required… The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different… The exchanges are sharp-edged … When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.” Ariely illustrates the absurdity of confusing these worlds with the example of paying your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryfman’s article makes this mistake, consigning Judaism to the world of market norms, when social norms are better-suited to meaningful Jewish commitment. Social norms do not preclude financial contribution, but Jewish communal contributions should be more like a married couple pooling their salaries for groceries, and less like a crowd of strangers ordering their own lunches. If this vision seems naïve, that’s because too many Jews lack a familial commitment to the Jewish people. Trying to change that by charging more fees is like trying to get kids to appreciate family dinners by having grandma collect admission at the door.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

 The question of whether or not it's a good idea to treat Judaism as a market commodity is (naturally) not new. Here are some other publications of interest on this topic:

Understanding the Jewish Community Center Marketplace: A Celebration of Volunteerism and the Voluntary Process (1982) David Esekenazi:

Our agencies are heading into a very difficult period, largely because there are (and will almost certainly continue to be) fewer Jews. We will be going after a shrinking and a changing market. We will increasingly compete with other vendors who (in the minds of many of our potential customers) offer similar products.

Esekenazi changed his mind somewhat six years later, in Revisiting the Jewish Community Center Marketplace:

Some years ago in this Journal I argued for the need to redirect our normal noncompetitive perspective and move more in the direction of competing with "other vendors . . . [who], in the minds of many of our potential customers, offer similar products." In that article, I embraced the field of marketing as one of the most promising means of helping JCCs to better compete in the increasingly competitive and open marketplace. While I have not shut my eyes to the marketplace reality, I now wonder about the wisdom with which input from the field of marketing is being incorporated by many not-for-profit agencies. With hindsight, I would counsel more caution today in terms of how marketing ought to be used in a JCC. Unfortunately, I did not adequately consider at that time the effects of marketing upon basic institutional purpose, nor did I adequately distinguish in my own mind the fundamental differences between what I refer to in this article as "method" and "purpose."

Markets and More? (2001). Shari Cohen:

Surely any discussion of religion in public life needs to address the inexorable reach of commercialization into every aspect of human existence. We need to consider whether shopping and working are replacing social activism, civic duty or religious ritual as the boundaries between the roles of the customer, citizen, congregant and employee shift... By looking at five main areas – the market’s monopolization of our time and attention, its increasing role in creating our loyalties and identifications, its shaping of our modes of thinking about individual choice, work’s place in our lives, and the ways in which business might involve itself in critical aspects of social change – we can begin to sketch the crucial implications of these trends for independent thought, ethical sensibilities, collective action and human expression.

The Jewish Marketplace (2004). Chava Weissler

As we know, American Jewry is struggling with the decline of traditional loyalties to congregation and community. Like other Americans, Jews live in a commodity culture, in which consumption is the main means of self-expression. There is a realization that Judaism resembles other leisure commodities offered to consumers in the marketplace, and is judged by similar criteria...

Missing: the Vision and the Values (2004). Andrew Silow-Carroll:

[D]espite experience with marketing, Jewish communal institutions don’t seem very good at it. While some individual advertisements and campaigns have been clever or appealing, they always seem to address short-term goals: How do we get you to come to this service? How can we entice you into enrolling in this course, or give to this campaign? This exemplifies a “product-driven” model of Jewish life, as if our institutions offer only discrete services to consumers. What is often missing from Jewish communal marketing is a reflection of the bedrock vision of the institution behind the ad — the core values and purposes that the institution hopes to share with its members.

Advertising Judaism (2004). David Nelson:

Why do so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the “commercialization” (by which we mean the selling) of Judaism? Some people feel that “selling” and “advertising” connote cheapness and lack of inherent worth. Should we sell Judaism like potato chips? Wouldn’t that cheapen and commodify our sense of Judaism? People don’t give up their lives, or stake their children’s future, on commodities. But there are also ads for universities and hospitals, ads to discourage drug use, or smoking, or to encourage people to use public libraries. These ads represent institutions and causes that affect our survival and our ultimate welfare. And they advertise because we live in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, images, and products.

Marketing Undermines Judaism (2004). Jay Michaelson:

To “market” Judaism, as Andrew Silow- Carroll and David Nelson suggest, contradicts exactly what makes Judaism worthwhile. Consumption co-opts our loves and energies to enhance our selfish desire (the yetzer hara), but Jewish practice reins in our selfish desire so that we can love and serve better. Marketing asks us to sublimate yearning into consumerism; Judaism asks us to restrain our consumerism and open up to yearning...

I know that some say we have to be “realistic.” We live in a society of constant marketing, they say, and to not participate will make Judaism a religion without adherents. And Judaism has always marketed itself, from the original purpose of the Hanukkah menorah to Chabad’s use of it in American public squares. But we undermine Judaism by dumbing it down, dressing it up as “cool” or oversimplifying what Silow-Carroll calls the Jewish vision of “success.” We can and should invite Jews to learn about and love their tradition. But to treat Judaism as something to be consumed is to start down a spiritual path on the wrong foot. A real religious life is not something that one buys or sells. If Judaism is to transform, it will require full participation, a yearning heart. If you can buy it, it’s not holy.

Most relevant to Neusner's article is this Sh'ma article from just this February: Synagogue Membership: What's the Deal? Sara Moore Litt:

[I]f you are a Jewish consumer looking for value in any traditional cost/benefit sense, don’t join a synagogue. It is expensive and you can get almost all the benefits synagogues purport to offer members either for free or at a much lower cost if you buy them a la carte... But what keeps all of us renewing our memberships despite the complaints is that we have found a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence. When that happens, the synagogue becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience. If you join that kind of synagogue, membership dues are a bargain and not a burden. They become, in consumer language, a value proposition. These intangible benefits of membership are the only ones that make the high dollar cost of being a synagogue member “worth it.” Anything less is a bad deal.

What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? Jewish and Non-Sectarian Social Services

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"In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, now New York, received a promise from the Jews who came to settle there that they (the Jews) would care for their own poor. Ever since then, the Jews of this country have prided themselves that this sacred promise which the first Jewish settlers in America made has never been broken."

With this quote I.M. Rubinow opens his discussion of the relationship between Jewish social services and the broader social and economic trends, questioning whether the story reflects "good history", and, more importantly, challenging the notion that it reflects "good sociology, good social ethics or good social work."

From the J-Vault: What Do We Owe to Peter Stuyvesant? (1930)

Speaking at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, Rubinow asks: "Have we made a promise? Just what kind of a promise did we make? Have we fulfilled the pledge? And is the promise still binding?" The original promise not to be "a burden" was originally a concession to "Stuyvesant's bigotry", according to sources Rubinow quotes.

If this be a promise, evidently it was obtained under duress, under threat of expulsion... It would be funny if it were not so sad. For as a matter of fact, this whole misconception, supported by a curious mixture of holy tradition, race pride, and a typical Jewish sense of group guilt, has definitely colored both the theory and practice of our work, and much of the social philosophy of the American Jewish community. No more tragic illustration may be found of the truth of the statement that necessity may be made into a virtue...

In any event, Rubinow explains, this "promise" has not really been kept:

non-Jewish contributions have been made to Jewish drives and campaigns. They have been diplomatically solicited in secret. Just why do we find a situation of this nature so very damaging to our pride? Is it because we are still a "chosen people" ? Is it because we still live in a ghetto and must not disclose our sores to the enemy? Is it because we are so proud, or because we are afraid to admit the ugly truth?

Rubinow argues that the truth is that the Jewish community cannot continue to conceive of its socioeconomic needs as existing in a vacuum:

Jewish poverty is not a result of intra-group conditions. It is a part and parcel of the whole economic and social problem of wealth production and wealth accumulation of the country as a whole. The expectation that the problem of Jewish poverty can be met individually, may be hoped to be eliminated irrespective of those general economic forces, is an expression of excessive group pride uncontrolled by scientific research and thinking. The sermon of independent group responsibility becomes a definite anti-social force if it destroys Jewish force—if it destroys Jewish interest, and Jewish participation in national progressive social movements.

Jewish communal and social service should not therefore be subsumed into larger social movements, however:

Jewish social service... has largely grown for at least three reasons: (1) To perform functions which, otherwise, would have been left undone. (2) To give expression to the need and desire of communal co-operation. (3) To enable the Jewish minority to make its contribution to development of cultural, ethical and even social values and concepts in the community in which we live.

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Why Do Jews Cluster in Certain Jobs?

...We know perfectly well, judging from experience in New York and other cities, that the Irish make very good policemen and firemen. The Scotch have more than their proportionate share of excellent engineers, the Norwegians predominate in navigation, and the Italians and Germans have had more than their share of musical leaders. Why may not the Jews make good lawyers? Why may not the Jews indulge in scientific research and do very good work in the field of medicine?

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This week, from the J-Vault: Jews in Commerce and the Professions (1934)

In 1934, a City College professor of philosophy named Morris R. Cohen addressed the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service in an erudite and wide-ranging discussion of American Jews' employment patterns, dwelling on the area he knew best: the professoriate.

I was once lecturing at one of the eastern universities, and was staying overnight with a friend, a dean of the university. The next morning, in the intimacy of the breakfast table, he turned to. me and said, "Why do you Jews crowd so much into the professions? Why don't you go into industry and agriculture?" Well, as a Jew, I naturally answered by asking him, "Is that what you think of my lecture last night?"...

...The conversation changed, the way it will, but a little later I asked my host: "By the way, what is your boy doing at Princeton? Has he decided whether he is going into the teaching of philosophy or into the ministry ?"My host replied: " No, he has decided to take up law. You see, his mother's father, and his uncles are in this law firm, and the family has been in that firm for quite a while. His mother thinks it would be a good thing for him to continue.in the family tradition." Whereupon I asked: "Well, have you ever thought of sending him into industry or agriculture?"...

...how can you ask a Jewish college graduate to become a stevedore or a truckman or to go into any of those occupations which non-Jewish college graduate do not enter? Why should you expect, that Jewish college graduates will enter into those occupations which non-Jewish- college graduates do not enter? It is absurd to expect it and it doesn't seem to me that we should urge it. It is true that in the old world you will find Jewish scholars who are also workingmen. I have known a tailor who was regarded as one of the most learned men in his town. That is undoubtedly frequent, in Europe and to a certain extent it may even be true in this country, until we become thoroughly Americanized. The delight in learning for its own sake enabled the Jews to bear their hard economic lot in the Ghetto without being degraded by losing their self-respect. And even in this country I have known a Jewish peddler who wrote a book on Spinoza in Hebrew—I don't know whether he ever had it published or not...

...Those things are much more common, I think, among Jews than among other people, although I think you will find similar situations among the Scotch and among the modern Greeks. I once met a modern Greek who was selling peanuts and also had a copy of Sophocles in the ancient Greek in his pocket, occasionally looking into it when he thought his customers wouldn't notice it...

...[S]o long as we have our present democratic system of politics, where the Jews have any considerable vote there will be no open discrimination against them and they will get some opportunity, and that I think is the fact today. With regard to college teaching it seems to me the situation is different because the traditions are different. The tradition of teaching in the public schools is the feminine tradition, that is to say, public schools were regarded as the place where the children were to be taught and generally the men were too busy with important things to do and the women had to teach the children. In the colleges the American tradition is somewhat different. The colleges were never run by women, but they were run by clergymen, the next best thing.

Few adequately realize the significance of that and I think it rather important to dwell on it for a moment or two... You see, the American colleges were founded as ancillary to the theological seminaries, and were originally intended to train ministers... Up to the year 1900, almost every professor of philosophy in an American college, outside of a few exceptionally enlightened institutions in the East, was a clergyman...

...What, now, has happened in recent years? Some years ago Mr. Carnegie, who was an old fashioned radical, believed that it was a good thing to separate religion from education, and he devised what he thought was a very shrewd scheme. He said that he would give certain moneys for pension funds for teachers in non-denominational colleges or universities. Whereupon a great many denominational colleges became overnight non-denominational.

But while you can change the denomination of a college, you cannot change its traditions overnight, and the result is that these colleges and universities are still largely dominated by the old traditions. I will not say that there is discrimination today against Jews as teachers in all colleges. Let us leave that out of the discussion. But it is quite obvious that all other things being equal a gentleman who belongs to the denomination which has fed the college from its beginning, which has supplied the college with all its distingushed professors and presidents, will get preference, and according to the prevailing mores quite rightly...

There is much more worth reading in this fascinating speech.

See other installments in our J-Vault series here.

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Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

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On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

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Fun in a Financial Funk

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Worldwide stocks tumbling... A showdown at the UN over a Middle East conflict that appears ever more impossible to solve... Heavy stuff. How about a little fun?

This week, from the J-Vault: Leisure Time Activity in the Depression Period (1932)

"Leisure," writes Samuel J. Rodman, "has been defined as 'the time-surplus remaining after the practical necessities of life have been attended to'":

One's leisure time are those periods in which one is free to do as he wishes or as his interests dictate, it is a period in which one plays. With the above definition as our guide it is quite obvious that it is entirely wrong to call the time liberated by unemployment as leisure time. Picture, if you will, the leisure time of the "true gentleman of leisure" on board the Europa on his way for an extended holiday to the Riviera, as compared to the supposed leisure time of the worker who by 3 P. M . has given up his futile attempt in search for a job—and you have two distinct varieties of leisure time.

The unemployed have special emotional needs which ideal leisure activities should address, Rodman notes. He quotes a report from the Welfare Council of New York City:

"As a result of the economic conditions of the past two years," the report continues, "the family affection has been sorely tried, conjugal and parental ties have been weakened, family groups have disintegrated, the source of income has shifted from the husband and father to the wife and children or to public, paternal authority has lost force, home discipline has suffered, personality difficulties and family problems have been precipitated, instability and insecurity have increased."

I present these excerpts in an attempt to picture the clients for whom leisure time activities are to be planned so that "he may drown his sorrows and divert his mind from his condition."

One of my colleagues in the Jewish center field recently referred to himself in discussing his work as "running a human repair shop." What busy mechanics we should be at this time in repairing the wreck by which we are confronted...

...To keep the Roman unemployed happy and amused, history records that the government presented free circuses and public displays of butchery.

(An aside: I can just see a new kind of government stimulus package: Roman-style gladiatorial games. It has the added advantage of killing off those who lose the games, so... fewer mouths to feed, with no need for a death panel, or a Texas prison, or a Ron Paul health care plan. But back to Rodman:)

Let us boast of a higher civilization, provide civilized outlets for our unemployed by offering public courses in economics, labor history, sociology and other social sciences...

Through tactful guidance and encouragement and influence on our part, we may actually turn this enforced idleness into a golden opportunity for an adult education program which will prepare for the leisure which is bound to come when our economic house is ultimately set in order...

...In Europe, adult education, cultural pursuits and even political study and activity are considered recreational use of leisure. A cultural program, therefore, for our working group, definitely falls within the realm of our program of activity. I am definitely of the opinion that our community centers ought to play an important role in the reconstruction of society. Will we fulfill our responsibility to our community in this national emergency?

So... all you unemployed folks out there: feel like sitting in a Jewish community center and learning socioeconomic theory all afternoon for no money or college credit?

Actually, if I were unemployed myself, I would be happy to spend some time taking social science courses for the sheer fun of it. But I am an inveterate nerd, so let's not make policy based on me.

Interested in the excerpts above? Download the entire publication.

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