Studying Judaism pays off for young people
By Greg Bluestein
ATLANTA — AishCafe’s flashy Web presence makes it look more like a gambling site than the religious experience it is.
There are interactive animations, clickable icons and even a mock iPhone to lure in Jewish college students. And, like gambling, it could pay to play.
The site, run by Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish educational network based in Israel, offers students willing to learn about their faith a payout of up to $250 or a $300 subsidy for a trip to Israel.
AishCafe has shelled out some $300,000 to students since it launched a year and a half ago. Supporters see the approach as an effective way to reach young Jews at a time when a dwindling number have strong ties to their religious roots and community.
"There’s a sense today that college students are very busy with their schedules and their lives, and in order for them to take time out, they need to be incentivized," said Rabbi Raphael Shore, the program’s director. "It’s the same way colleges offer scholarships."
But some Jewish leaders are concerned that paying students to take the courses sends the wrong message.
"If you believe that Judaism is a viable religion for many different reasons — and you’re able to show it in a way that’s truly meaningful — that’s truly exciting," said David Katznelson, who organizes innovative religious and arts celebrations in San Francisco that attract many young Jews. "And I don’t think you need to pay people to do that."
His battle-tested advice? "Host something interesting and they will come."
Jewish leaders have been struggling for years to reverse the decline in religious observance among young people and stem the high-rate of intermarriage. Offering incentives to learn has become somewhat accepted, partly because of the popularity of the Birthright Israel program.
Since it started eight years ago, Birthright has sent 170,000 Jewish students on free 10-day trips to Israel. Participants must be Jewish, between the ages of 18 and 26, and must have never been to Israel on a similar group trip. Nothing is required of the participants in return.
By contrast, AishCafe puts students through a gantlet of tests on Jewish rituals and history, featuring a dozen classes with catchy titles like "Genesis and the Big Bang" and "Pleasure 101," each offering its own edgy take on Jewish rituals, morals and ideology.
The program isn’t easy. Participants must watch seven hourlong films, listen to three audio programs and complete two live, in-person classes with a rabbi. Each includes a separate reading and a test. Students only get a full $250 payment if they score high grades.
AishCafe also offers students a separate class called "Positive Psychology and Judaism" by Tal Ben-Shahar, a popular lecturer at Harvard University. The course costs $549 but can reward participants with three college credits.
So far, organizers say most of the 1,500 students who have participated in the classes have fared well. More than 90 percent of students pass their tests, and 97 percent would recommend the course to a friend, Shore said.
"We simply want to try to introduce young Jews who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about Judaism," Shore said. "They go to university and might be well versed about science, mathematics and literature, but their Jewish education may be very fragile."
Karina Grabovsky, now 24, was 6 when she emigrated from the Ukraine to Indianapolis, and in the U.S. she learned little about her Jewish identity.
"AishCafe was kind of the beginning of wanting to know more about Judaism and really identify with my Judaic roots," Grabovsky said.
She said he would have participated even without the payment — a $300 stipend that went toward a trip to Israel.
"To me, it was an avenue for religious growth. That was something I wanted to do for a while, and this was an opportunity to do it."
Jonathan Young, a student at York University in Toronto who works part-time at a liquor store to pay for college, admits feeling uneasy about taking money to learn about his religion.
The son of a Christian father and a Jewish mother — he calls his family a "Chrismukkah household" — he was eager to learn more about his Hebrew roots. He also received the $300 Israel stipend, but what he discovered was a deep longing to learn more about Judaism, he said.
"I really felt I had something I could relate to," said Young, 21. "For me and for a lot of people, there’s a sense that religion can be backwards, but this shows it in another light.
"And," he added, "the money doesn’t hurt."