VIENNA, Jan. 16 (JTA) — Every Sunday and Monday evening, some 90 Jewish university students in Vienna get paid to learn about Judaism from the Orthodox perspective. At first glance the Nefesh Yehudi, literally Jewish soul, program launched by Rabbi Nechemia Rotenberg sounds suspiciously like a bribe.
Paying students to attend religious classes? Is that kosher?
Running around his office trailed by several Chasidim helping him with Chanukah party preparations, a smiling Rotenberg is at ease with such questions.
“Most students need to do some part-time work to get through university,” said Rotenberg, 30, a Jerusalem native who is fervently Orthodox, or haredi, but not affiliated with any group. “So say you give them a small stipend to replace that work? That gives them time to discover or rediscover what being Jewish is all about.”
After attending Nefesh Yehudi lectures for four weeks, students qualify for the $120 monthly stipend.
“Of course we know they come for the money at first, but then they keep coming because they like the program,” Rotenberg explained.
Nefesh Yehudi was started several years ago in Israel by Orthodox Rabbi Eliahu Ilani, according to Rotenberg.
In 2004, Ilani and philanthropist Aaron Wolfsohn of Lawrenceville, N.Y., asked Rotenberg to start a similar program in Europe.
Rotenberg launched Nefesh Yehudi in Paris and several other French cities before coming to Austria, his wife’s native country. He began Nefesh Yehudi Vienna in October and, with the help of various rabbis, has brought the concept to Budapest. Rotenberg plans to launch a program in Amsterdam this year.
In Vienna, Rotenberg receives additional financial support from the Jewish community and Brazilian Jewish donor Elia Horn.
Nefesh Yehudi lectures and seminars are held in small but cozy premises in the Second District, the pre-World War II heart of Jewish Vienna. Experts on Jewish religion, culture and history present talks in English, a language all the students understand.
On Chanukah, for instance, the principal of the Vienna Jewish community school offered a humorous lecture on why people choose to keep kosher, poking fun at the many scientific explanations some Jews have come up with to explain kashrut.
He was followed by Austrian Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, who entertained a crowd of about 200 with his best rock-star renditions of popular Chanukah tunes.
The students then ignored instructions to clear out and wait for the buffet, instead attacking whatever food was already on the table behind them. Perhaps they were inspired by the kosher food lecture.
In between eating potato pancakes and brownies, students expressed enthusiasm for more than just their stipend.
“I am from Moscow and my parents were not religious,” said 17-year-old Evgenia Veselova, a student at Lauder Business School. “Coming here, I get to learn about my own culture that I didn’t get at home.”
Ilena Schadler, 22, is a Viennese Jew who attended a Christian high school because of its superior academic reputation. She now attends the University of Vienna and has become more interested in her roots.
“I really have no Jewish education, so learning about the life of religious Jews is very interesting for me even thought it’s never the way I would choose,” she said.
Following the lectures, the students are separated into groups for discussions with rabbis in Hebrew, Russian and German. At the lectures the young men and women sit together, but in the breakout groups they are separated by gender. Topics might include the role of women in Judaism, Talmudic lore or the many meanings of Shabbat.
Some of the students learned of Nefesh Yehudi through an advertisement in the Vienna Jewish community magazine, De Gemeinde.
Among the 90 students who show up regularly, 30 are native Austrians. The rest are primarily students from Israel, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who attend the Lauder Business School. Most of the students at the Lauder School, which is funded by philanthropist businessman Ronald Lauder, are Jewish and can take courses in Judaism along with their business studies. Food at the school is kosher, but men and women are not separated.
“We are now figuring out ways to getting more students from Vienna involved,” said Tamar Ehlers, a student who acts as the Nefesh Yehudi coordinator.
Rotenberg said 10,000 students are enrolled in Nefesh Yehudi worldwide, “but the donors have money for 100,000,” he added enthusiastically.
He also runs a program for adults called Identity that he started in Vienna in 2005.
Rotenberg holds three-day seminars at hotels, at discounted prices, where mostly nonreligious Jews and their families are exposed to Orthodox views on what it means to be Jewish.
“Plus we have magicians for the kids,” he said. “It’s fun. About 200 people are active so far.”
In his office Rotenberg showed off pictures of seminar attendees, many of whom looked relaxed in shorts and T-shirts.
If all this outreach sounds like the turf of Chabad, the Jewish sect most renowned for its work in that arena, Rotenberg says there are important differences.
“I have no political ambitions. Chabad comes and wants to start new things; we just want to complement what exists,” he said in a veiled reference to what some see as Chabad competing with established Jewish communities in Europe.
“Also, I think Chabad is very good at teaching the basics. But I think we try to go deeper,” he said.
Eisenberg’s wife attends Identity classes, and the Vienna community is trying to have Rotenberg teach at its community school. The Zwi Perez Chajes School, which serves from kindergarten to high school, provides a secular education but also teaches some Judaism.
Eisenberg also has been sending Rotenberg students to prepare for bar mitzvah.
“We hold Identity in high regard, they have a good approach, particularly to young people,” said Raimund Fastenbauer, general secretary of Jewish affairs for the Jewish Community of Vienna. “This is vital as we are trying to attract more Jewish immigrants to Vienna and keep our youth from leaving.”
Rotenberg’s friendly, nonjudgmental approach appeals to even the most secular Jews, according to several students who attend Nefesh Yehudi.
Rotenberg does have one distinct disadvantage in Vienna: He speaks neither German nor English. He relies on assistants to get some of his points across.
Nonetheless, Rotenberg has succeeded in drawing together Vienna’s Ashkenazim and Sephardim, a relatively unusual phenomenon.
About one third of the 7,500 Jews registered as belonging to the Vienna Jewish Community are Sephardi, with roots in former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
At the lively Chanukah party, socializing was as important for the students as listening to the lecture.
Albert and Betty Kluanjiev, brother and sister, are ethnically Russian Israelis who say Nefesh Yehudi is the one youth event in town that is not segregated according to ethnic lines.
“We come here to meet Jewish students from all the world,” Albert said.
Betty chimed in, “And I don’t know any place in Vienna where there is such mix of people our age.”