In a recent issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller poses the question “Why does it cost so much to be Jewish?” She asks:
At a time when American families are tightening household budgets, does it really make sense to continue to charge thousands of dollars to participate in Jewish life? … Wouldn’t the central challenge of American Jewry be to encourage the broadest range of people…to identify as Jewish and to raise Jewish kids?”
The 2007 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community Study (completed before the financial turmoil of the last two years) supports that question. Newcomers and those at the lowest end of the household income scale were the least likely to belong to synagogues. It is hard to imagine that the statistics could have improved since then. As we approach the High Holidays this year, is this the community we want to be?
I came across the Newsweek article just after learning (via Twitter) about interesting programs in two cities, Washington DC and Boston, both of which have a mechanism for providing discounted and complimentary tickets to help newcomers or young adults find a place to go for the High Holidays. It’s an interesting approach – essentially the “freemium” model that is common among internet startups and iPhone apps.
Give your service away for free . . . acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc., then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base.” (Fred Wilson, 2006)
One might say that Shabbat services are open and free year round, and the High Holidays are in fact the Jewish world’s “premium priced value added services.” But really, if you were going to “try before you buy,” wouldn’t you want to try the High Holiday service? How we treat the newcomer when the ark is open until the end of Yom Kippur – isn’t that what we would want a newcomer to see? The time when people most want to be in community with us is the time we as a community put up the gates – the financial barriers to entry.
Imagine if there were free High Holiday tickets for newcomers, young adults and anyone in need in our community. Imagine if our messages were “Pray with us. Come back in. Reconnect.” Imagine a few decide to stay and become members. Perhaps they become teachers. Maybe they become volunteers. Maybe they tell their friends. Maybe for the rest of the year, they have a good feeling about the community that was brave enough to say “Times are tough. Our door is open. No charge.” Do you expect a flashmob? Would that be so terrible?
As always, we look forward to your comments.