My Gateway Drug: Groupon
Why does the Jewish community work so hard to attract the indifferent while taking others' loyalty for granted?
Special To The Jewish Week
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My teenage son calls Groupon my gateway drug.

What’s not to love? An unexpected adventure at a bargain price with a time deadline. It is addictive. We’ve painted pottery, done $40 of glow-in-the-dark bowling for $20 (the way we bowl, it can only help), and bought hotel vacation vouchers. I sent my husband off on a father-and-son fishing trip for his birthday. I have not, however, bought the tandem skydiving package with T-shirts yet, but am debating. Sadly, I have only 20 days to use my 10-class Jazzercise Groupon before it expires. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I spoke with a Groupon vendor who said that when she finally caved into the pressure to use Groupon for advertising, she had 1,200 responses within three days. Someone she works with had a similar story, and was so overwhelmed by demand she could not handle that she closed up shop, took the money and has not been seen since.

I am still waiting for the Groupon for Jewish education, kosher meat and shul membership. Sadly, they never pop up on my computer. Ever notice how most of what is sold at a discount online is usually something we never really needed. Luxury items and services like the hot stone, seaweed and motor oil massage done at a high altitude is not where most of our monthly household budgets go. Some of us would just appreciate a little break on the values-based services that cost us a fortune. Many of us who just want to be good people and good Jews would love a little help.

For a while, I was hopeful when I heard about Jewpon. There were occasional breaks on food and kosher restaurants, but you were more likely to find Dead Sea facial mud and designer modesty skirts there than anything you really needed. I came close to buying the 40-day prayer request at The Wall deal for $99. Someone will pray for anything you want for 40 whole days — the same amount of time that Noah was in the ark and that Moses was at Sinai. Not bad. It felt biblically authentic and was a considerable savings on the retail price. I stopped myself, however, when I saw that the exclusive prayer package was $399, and no coupons were available. When it comes to prayer, it pays to fly business class, not economy. I’ll just have to get a flight and take the summer off.

Someone is saying Kaddish for Jewpon today. When you click on Jewpon, it says “Oops. This site is currently unavailable.”

You can argue that Birthright, PJ Library and similar smaller partially- or fully-funded programs are the Jewish equivalent of Groupon today. Like Groupon, they give you something at cut-rate to induce you to become a regular. If we give you a free 10-day trip to Israel or free books every month, perhaps we can get you to take your own Jewish identity seriously. We have compelling research that indicates this method has garnered success. These are remarkable programs. If free is the right price, and we can make it cheap enough to get you to participate in Jewish life, perhaps you’ll buy into it.

But here’s the snag. The vendor I spoke with said that she has lots of Groupon addicts who she will never see again. They have no intention of paying full price. They’ll just move on to another coupon. Only a small fraction will take the inducement and come back regularly. The people who use services loyally tend not to get a break at all. They would come back even without a discount.

We are full-paying members of the Jewish community, and you can count on our commitment. We work very hard to send our kids to day school and live an active Jewish life. It does not come at a bargain basement price. I’m skeptical that rewarding those who are not willing to make the sacrifice creates true loyalty or deep participation across the lifespan.

I’m increasingly unsure we should keep giving coupons to people who may not need them but won’t join without them. When we reward those with Groupon-like addictions, we may be implicitly telling our loyal customers who pay full freight that they are not as important to us. It’s the difference between Groupon and frequent flier miles. Today you expect something for your loyalty; most businesses understand that. Where, Oh where, Jewish community, is the rewards program for your most loyal customers?

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

Last Update:

08/08/2013 - 14:11

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While Ms. Brown makes some valid points, she is sadly unaware of a growing sector that simply cannot afford to be "full-paying members" of the Jewish community, regardless of their level of commitment. I am not talking about those living at or near poverty level, but about people, particularly in large cities, that are being squeezed out of the middle class. I have a graduate degree, and have worked and volunteered for Jewish communal agencies for several years. Particularly as a single woman, I'd love more than anything to participate more actively in Jewish life in my city, rather than be relegated to the fringes, but I cannot do so without a subsidy. I can't envision the day when I'll be able to afford a membership to a local synagogue or JCC, to attend a "young professionals" networking event, or eat at a kosher restaurant without a coupon, let alone go on vacation to Israel. I certainly won't be in a position anytime soon to spend a hundred dollars in order to have someone else daven on my behalf. In fact, I'd be thrilled with a Groupon that allowed me the luxury of purchasing wine and challah on Shabbat, and I'd redeem it without an ounce of shame!

With respect (and a friendly throw-down to compare her stack of Available Groupons to mine), Erica Brown’s premise—that it’s unfair to the loyal to reward those who are not willing to make the sacrifice—is spurious. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Sacrifice implies a trade-off or cost to loyal Jewish engagement, and those not similarly engaged require an inducement of some type to participate. By extension, then, we should entice someone to enjoy a sunset rather than clean the kitchen. Or bribe someone to get lost in the beauty of a painting rather than change a tire. Or cajole someone to hear a symphony rather than get a root canal. The sunset, the painting, and the symphony are reward enough. Participation in Jewish life is reward enough. Those who seek or need an incentive to participate fully in Jewish life (and I don’t for a second suggest this is Ms. Brown’s contention), are the lesser for it. Judaism requires no discount.

Do you really not know about JDeal? There are often 'deals' for charitable donations, especially supporting Eretz Yisroel. And there are deals for Jewish books and educational material for kids. Yes, sometimes kosher restaurants and beauty deals are offered, but more substantive things as well.

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