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.
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:
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.