Did you ever get a free sample of an energy drink or skin cream that you previously never tried, and now purchase regularly? How about signing up for a free trial — "cancel any time with no obligation!" — only to enjoy the magazine or gym-club membership so much that you now renew the subscription annually without thinking twice?
Conversely, have you ever bought a new car without first giving it a test drive?
There's a reason why businesses have offered free samples since commerce was invented: because it works. People don't want to make a commitment before first understanding the benefits. And the bigger the commitment, the more investigating most (prudent) people will undertake, especially in a down economy.
While Judaism is not a "product," there are lessons for the organized Jewish community to learn in lowering the cost barrier to Jewish life. Few will commit to big-ticket items like JCC or synagogue membership without fully understanding why they're doing it.
For better or worse, we are moving beyond the generations who may have found no real value but joined out of a sense of obligation or guilt, simply because "that's what Jews do."
Today, Jews take more of a consumer approach, even toward issues of spirituality. For example, if someone is a seeker, they're generally not going to join the closest synagogue first and then hope it meets their spiritual needs later. They will "shul shop" until they find what they're looking for, and consider paying membership only after feeling a sense of commitment to that place.
This represents both a challenge and an opportunity, requiring a change from the business-as-usual mentality of many communal institutions. Given the growing number of Jews who feel disconnected from the organized community, there is a new urgency to offer Jewish options at little to no cost. The goal is not membership per se, but active participation.
A more educated and engaged Jewish community is a larger "consumer base" for organizational "products." It's not just about changing consumer minds, though; our organizations need to do a better job listening to and serving the needs of their target audiences.
Perhaps the most famous practitioners to apply the free-sample business technique to Jewish life is the Chabad Lubavitch movement. It has been "giving away" Jewish substance for almost four decades, and now has a presence in even the remotest corners of the planet. Much of the organized world has looked on with chagrin, envy and begrudging admiration as Chabad moved into town and upended their own business models.
For example, instead of making the High Holidays the most prohibitively expensive three days a year for Jews to pray (because that's when Jews "have to" show up to synagogue), Chabad offers services for free, drawing hundreds of worshippers — many from among the same unaffiliated households that the rest of the community was sure had no interest in Jewish life.
More and more synagogues in the other movements are now reassessing their own fee structures and offering free services during at least parts of the High Holidays.
There have been other local and national organizations that understand outreach is about lowering barriers to participation, like cost. Earlier this decade, the Jewish Outreach Institute conducted a major study of such programs and has since codified an "outreach methodology" that can be used to better reach and serve Jewish households on the periphery of involvement.
Free events and programs generally reach a higher percentage of unaffiliated Jews because they allow for participation without first requiring a commitment. One successful example is the Reform movement's "Taste of Judaism" program, a three-session mini-course explaining the basics of the religion that draws thousands of participants annually by removing both the cost barrier and any expectations of prior Jewish knowledge. The challenge is what to offer next.
Some folks fear that if too many free offerings exist, then people will never become paying members. I don't buy that. If we believe in the meaning and value of our heritage, then we should be willing to give it away to anyone and everyone who is interested. Once people share our conviction, they, too, will understand the fiscal needs of our institutions and contribute as best they can.
The mistake Jewish organizations make all the time is asking for a monetary investment first, before men and women have invested their spirit and energies into Jewish living. Let's provide many more "free samples" so that more people can experience what's so great about participating in the Jewish world at large.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which is holding its national conference in Philadelphia June 7-9. For more information, go to: http://joi.org/conference.