1 The Ethics of Taking Free Stuff | The Billfold

The Ethics of Taking Free Stuff

My synagogue, like many others, participates in a program that provides free Jewish-themed books to Jewish children. Recently I got an email about it.

Reading to your child at bedtime is one of the great joys of parenthood, and getting read to is one of the highlights of childhood. You can add high quality Jewish-themed books to your child’s library for FREE.

[Program] is a remarkable, easy-to-access program that will deepen your child’s Jewish identity and provide some very pleasurable bedtimes. Synagogue is a sponsoring congregation of [Program], and I encourage you to sign up. It is open to families with children from 6 months to 8 years old. Your child will be mailed a new book each month. At young ages the books are board books, then fantastic storybooks and finally at the oldest levels chapter books

This made me feel … complicated. Every element is fine on its own (synagogues, emails, family values) or better than fine (free stuff! books!). Put them together, though, and it becomes a bit squicky.

The families I know who belong to the synagogue are generally middle class. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other families; despite what some people might think, there are plenty of poor / working class Jews. But overall my shul is a pretty posh community in a pretty posh neighborhood of a pretty posh borough. And these emails are going out to the population at large, not merely the folks in need.

It’s not the best use of philanthropic funds to give people like me free books. Is it an acceptable use? Given that the  Jewish community is pretty reading-oriented to begin with*, isn’t Program the less messy equivalent of lugging coals to Newcastle?** I get what the donor behind this program is doing, and I’m all for increased literary and love of learning — but, like, ideally in the places where it can do the most good, and that’s not in my piles-of-novels-on-every-surface brownstone apartment.

Am I being a bleeding-heart, guilty liberal who should take what’s offered and say “thank you”? Or am I right that there’s something weird about prioritizing giving books to people who don’t have the greatest need?


* “Jewish history has survived, thanks to its people’s intense literacy. ‘From the beginning of the culture’s own self-consciousness, to be Jewish was to be Bookish,’ Mr. Schama writes.”

** “Jews have high levels of educational attainment. Most Jews are college graduates (58%), including 28% who say they have earned a post-graduate degree. By comparison, 29% of U.S. adults say they graduated from college, including 10% who have a post-graduate degree.”


7 Comments / Post A Comment

ruth_zweig (#7,436)

I think they’re trying to indoctrinate the babies, not educate them! I don’t mean it in a bad way. I think the program isn’t about creating readers but about creating Jews connected to being Jew-y, which I’m guessing the donor sees a need to do at all class levels.

Meaghano (#529)

Maybe take the books and make a book or money donation to a literacy program, too?

I think you’re right to be suspicious when someone gives something away for free to someone who can afford to buy it. Usually means it’s ADVERTISING. Which it kind of is, right?

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

Yeah, they’re not giving your kid free books because they think you can’t afford books. They’re giving your kid free books because they think that, if left to your own devices, you won’t give your kid Jewish books. If you feel pretty confident that you can pick out your own Jewish books (and will do so), then I would skip it. If you think it would be helpful to have someone pre-select some Jewish books for you, then go for it. The point of this thing isn’t to help the underprivileged.

I agree with Meaghano that you could donate to a literacy program if you feel weird about it.

theotherginger (#1,304)

@WhyHelloThere or donate to a synagogue or Jewish charity so that all the children can be literate? Indoctrinated? I mean that in the best possible way. I was religiously indoctrinated as a child (not into Judaism) and I turned out fine.

Aunt Scar (#5,377)

@WhyHelloThere It’s also books, which by their nature have a life of their own. Your daughter will outgrow them and you will put them out on the stoop so someone else picks them up, reads them, becomes inspired and converts. All because of All-of-a-Kind Family and Harvey the Hanukkah Latke.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Maybe they’re giving them away because they feel like a house can’t have too many Jewish books? It’s kind of a “we feel like this is important enough that we’ll give them to you despite your income bracket” situation, maybe?

This kind of reminds me of the school breakfast/lunch program here in Davidson County. Instead of giving free breakfast/lunch to those who need it because of income, they’ve decided to blanket the whole county in free breakfast/lunches even to the families that can definitely (DEFINITELY) afford to feed their kids themselves. The school year just started, but I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about wasted food because people who can afford to feed their kids aren’t going to feed their kid school lunch (I certainly wouldn’t if I was a parent).

@fo (#839)

Yep, agree with everyone else–it’s not that they are giving you books, it’s about books with a certain theme, that they want to promote. You want to spread the wealth, make a donation to another similar program that gets books into underserved hoods.

Curious if “Program” is so clearly middle of the road that the possible ideological bent (I mean, aside from the obvious ‘pro-Jewish’) is completely unworthy of note or concern. Because lots of these sorts of things come with a healthy dose of pre-indoctrination . Of course, not saying that Program is, but curious why no mentioned thought of that aspect.

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