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For a while now, a number of Jewish day schools have used “free” (and seriously discounted) tuition as a way to attract new families and grow enrollment. Offering incentives to first-time JDS families seems an interesting idea; the schools bet that the experience will be so satisfying that the families will, afterwards, convert to paying customers.

Turns out, schools aren’t the only ones thinking about “free.”

For those of you who are new to “free” thinking, you’ll find some good background material in Chris Anderson’s 2008 Wired article “Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business” and there’s quite a bit about the subject in Dan Ariely’s great 2010 book Predictably Irrational. More recently—and more Jewishlyon June 4, the AVI CHAI Foundation posted David Bryfman’s great talk on Jewish America’s abundance of “free” programming. The Forward thought it significant enough to write about it not once but twice!

So we thought it would be an appropriate time to talk about the concept of “free” as it applies to Jewish day schools.

The idea of “free” seems to bump up against the demands that Judaism requires of its students. It suggests that there is no cost to Jewish life; an idea which we, as an org focused on day schools’ financial sustainability, can hardly endorse.  To understand the challenge posed by “free,” consider a recent article in The Jewish Week, which asked with a kind of nuanced panic:

How can federations and other Jewish organizations inculcate a sense of responsibility in the next generation of Jews, many of whom have been raised on ‘free Judaism’ (think Birthright)? How can we cultivate a sense of gratitude so that the next generation will support summer camps, Israel trips, Jewish day school education, synagogues, as well as new types of innovative engagement we have not yet even imagined?

Ultimately, our students, our families, and the general community must learn that Jewish education comes at a price, and that the best way to meet it is to share the burden.

So should schools resist giving new families a discounted taste of JDS? Not necessarily. The fact is, most Jews have no idea what they’re missing by not sending their kids to day school, and to truly illustrate the value of the experience for these families, school leaders need to make the first step in the door as easy as possible. “Free,” here, helps.

But, as Dan Ariely tells us in our must-hear audio interview, going “free” requires a sustainable follow-up plan. Take a listen to this thoughtful Israeli-American thinker—won’t cost you a dime.