The Benefits of Buy In for the Newly Observant

Originally Posted on Orthonomics.

My husband brought home some reading material for me on Shavout. One of the pamphlets available at our shul was from a well known Kiruv group. The first column was regarding setting priorities. The scenario set up is as follows: A man’s tefillin are stolen and he decides to replace his tefillin with a $900 pair. Later that week he receives a call from an outreach yeshiva asking him to sponsor a pair of tefillin for a newly observant Jew through a subsidized program at the cost of $250. The man asked to sponsor the tefillin does not have extra ma’asser funds and if he were to sponsor the tefillin at $250 it would come at the expense of his own purchase.

I’m not interested in reprinting the methodology used to reach the conclusion that perhaps the man would indeed have a responsibility, or privilege, to underwrite his fellow’s first pair of tefillin even at the expense of his own higher level of performance.

The choice that was not given or discussed, is the choice that I think would be the best choice: enabling a newly observant man of limited means to purchase his own (discounted) tefillin.

I don’t believe I’ve ever dedicated a post to kiruv, but I do know that there is both kiruv and a kiruv industry. I’m not sure if it is a recent trend in kiruv to offer so much up “free of charge” or if it is a more recent development (when I was in college, the community kollel charged a small price for the lunch part of the lunch ‘n’ learns, today I am aware that there are incentives offered to students who attend courses), but I’m not sure that it is a particularly productive trend.

Now certainly I would expect a strapped student or even a strapped young professional who is just starting out to have the funds available for a pair of tefillin, especially where becoming more observant comes with some other costs. As such, it is obviously necessary that he have tefillin to don in the meantime. However, from a psychological standpoint, there is something extremely healthy about “buying in”. Chazal recognized this discussing na’am dekisufa [bread of shame] in which it is assumed that a free handout is enjoyed less than what is earned by one’s own labors. I’ve read more than one biography/autobiography of a competitive athlete who believes that taking ownership of his/her career (i.e. footing the bill) has been a great motivation and very transformative. In other words, there is a psychological difference between how something “tastes” when it was handed to you, gifted to you, or purchased by you through the “sweat of your brow.”

While I do believe that the reason a wedding band needs to be owned by the chatan is a legal issue, as opposed to a psychological issue, I think there is great value in a man giving something of value that he worked for and saved up for to his bride. Tefillin is symbolic of a marriage and I think there would be great value to the wearer of the tefillin to pay for his tefillin, perhaps through some sort of work-study or even a loan (yes, I did use the word loan although that wouldn’t be my personal preference).

To sum up this post, I do believe that all things worth striving for, religion especially, requires “buy in”. I have heard it argued that one cannot ask [American students] targeted for kiruv (for lack of a better term) to help share in the any of the costs of dinners or events, and that sometimes you have to attract them with other incentives. And perhaps that is true if you are looking to attract large quantities of students. But, I think that when the line has been crossed from experimentation to growing commitment, helping to facilitate “buy in” would be the best choice of all.

When given two options, I’ve been known to choose the 3rd option.

6 comments on “The Benefits of Buy In for the Newly Observant

  1. To Orthonomics #2: You’re welcome.

    I would add that paying people for outreach purposes can lead down a “slippery slope.” It’s one thing to give tasteful appropriate gifts to prospective BT’s. For example, I once gave a woman I worked with an eight dollar seder plate (big spender?) However, I truly believe that a more expensive gift would not have been appropriate, and that it was the right thing to do (something to help her with Jewish observance but not out of whack). Chabad has the right idea by distributing tin menorahs at Chanukah and tin candle holders for Shabbos, people who do use those items eventually deciding for themselves how much to spend on better tashmishei kedushah.

  2. The new BT will ultimately have to pay for the necessary Jewish goods and services, so phasing into that mode without undue delay is a practical necessity. Even at the outset, gifts should be given only according to the actual need of each recipient.

  3. Years ago, I heard a narrative from a member of our shul. He saw an outreach worker give free of charge a pair of Tefillin to an interested Jewish man. A few minutes later, our shul member found those same precious Tefillin discarded into a garbage can. The man had decided that he didn’t want his new “toy” anymore, and hey, he didn’t pay anything for it, so it isn’t worth anything to anyone, right? To prevemt such future occurrences, nowadays outreach workers make people pay something for tefillin, even if it’s only a small amount compared to full cost, so it has some worth to them.

    Likewise with a man purchasing a diamond ring for his fiancee. The diamond industry stated once in an advertisement that a diamond ring should cost two months’ salary. Now this is not halacha, these are merchants who want to make a sale. However, when a man gives something he has worked hard for to his intended bride, she herself gains value in his eyes, it makes her worth more to him because he worked harder to attain her, so to speak.

    One more example: the Taglit Israel (Birthright) trips, although free, do make participants give a $250 deposit (which is refunded after the trip). The $250 deposit helps participants understand that yes, somebody’s paying for this trip, otherwise a few of those applying wouldn’t take seriously the amount of effort expended to make these trips successful.

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