NEW YORK (JTA) – Several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Levin hit on a new way to attract students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to classes at his nearby Orthodox synagogue. Instead of spending money on eye-catching advertising, Levin reasoned it would be simpler just to give the money directly to the students in exchange for attendance.
Though the sums involved were relatively modest, the initiative was a success.
“My thinking was very, very practical,” Levin told JTA. “Instead of spending all that money on elaborate publicity, just give the money to the people who come to the program. They’ll be happier.”
Not everyone was happier. Some board members at the rabbi’s Lake Park Synagogoue were uncomfortable from the start, Levin says, and after the local newspaper reported on the project, the synagogue shut it down.
But the idea of paying college students to attend Jewish studies classes has not only survived, it has expanded to more than 70 campuses across the country and attracted support from major Jewish philanthropists.
And though the programs are justified in terms similar to birthright Israel, the massive philanthropic undertaking that provides young Jews with all-expenses-paid trips to Israel, they provide not only a free service but cash rewards to students who complete them.
“This was an idea to get students involved in learning Judaism, learning about their heritage, and as an incentive, in order to give them the amazing knowledge and to give them right mind-set, it’s to lock them in,” said Fully Eisenberger, an Orthodox rabbi at the University of Michigan who runs the Maimonides Fellowship program on the Ann Arbor campus.
The program, which was launched in 2001 by Jewish Awareness America and is supported by the New York City-based Wolfson Family Foundation, offers participants $400 or a free trip to Israel.
In exchange, Eisenberger said, students “have to commit to 10 classes and come to weekend getaways,” including a trip to Toronto – all expenses paid.
Providing financial support to students who engage in Torah study dates back more than a century. In Europe, kollels provided an annual salary to married men who studied full time, a practice that has continued among the Orthodox in the United States and elsewhere.
Organizers of the college student fellowships describe their programs in similar terms – as “stipends” to enable Torah study free from the pressures of earning supplementary income. But payments are being used increasingly to attract unaffiliated Jews who may not otherwise attend a Jewish class.
“I had a friend who was doing it,” recalled Elise Peizner, who participated in the Sinai Scholars Society, a program run by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, as a sophomore at Boston University. “But to be quite honest, I heard there was a $500 check that went along with it. So it sounded intriguing – the check.”
Founded in 2005, Sinai Scholars will be offering students at more than 40 universities $500 to attend classes in the upcoming semester. The program is supported by the Rohr Family Foundation and Elie Horn, a developer of luxury real estate from Brazil.
One of the leading non-Chasidic Orthodox outreach programs, Aish Hatorah, also has adopted the pay-the-participants approach. In an article last week, The Associated Press reported that AishCafe, a Web site run by Aish Hatorah, offers students $250 cash or $300 toward an Israel trip for completing its program and passing two tests.
Rabbi Avraham Jacobovitz, who started the first Maimonides Fellowship, at the University of Michigan, said he screens participants in his program to weed out financially motivated students.
“The financial offer was only an additional incentive,” he told JTA. “Someone that comes only for the financial benefit is not really the quality student we’re looking for.”
Still, Jacobovitz acknowledged that the payments have boosted participation in his programs. Indeed, that was precisely why he founded the fellowship after noticing that a federation stipend program was drawing students to a combination of Jewish studies and leadership classes.
Andrew Landau, a sales representative for Google who completed the Maimonides Fellowship during his sophomore year at Michigan, said he was looking to advance his Jewish education and meet new friends. The money, he said, was not a prime motivator.
“It’s sort of like a coupon,” Landau said. “Why does a pizza place offer a buy one, get one free? It’s to get them in the door, and then if they like it they’re going to stay.”
Both Landau and Peizner, neither of whom are Orthodox, say they are glad they took part in the program, though they add that they haven’t made any lifestyle changes as a result.
Eisenberger, the rabbi running the initiative at the University of Michigan, said that alumni of his fellowship program have become more observant, and he believes he has even prevented some intermarriages. He also claims that about a third of students donate the money back to the program.
“This thing works,” Eisenberger said.
Defenders of the programs note that the payouts are not that different from college scholarships, which also provide cash incentives unrelated to financial need. They also note that providing free food is a time-honored method for attracting hungry college students.
“God forbid you give them cash, that’s very, very bad,” Levin said sarcastically. “But if you give them this gigantic food thing, like some of the organizations bring in a Chinese food chef and have a whole Chinese thing, that’s not seen as unseemly or a bribe. I really don’t understand totally the difference.”
Neither does Randy Cohen, who writes The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine. Cohen told JTA he saw little difference between offering food and offering cash.
“Ethics, like most law, makes no distinction between incentives in the form of cash or cash equivalent,” Cohen said. “Some corporations, for example, forbid employees from accepting gifts from suppliers above a certain cash value. Some campaign law does likewise. When it comes to food, I’d be particularly wary of any diamond-encrusted chicken legs.”
But Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox author and host of the television program “Shalom in the Home,” says that while providing refreshments is an accepted social norm, money crosses a line.
“It trivializes Judaism and it portrays secular Jews as people to be bought off,” said Boteach, who once ran a popular campus outreach program at Oxford University. “It’s insincere. It sends all the wrong signals, that we don’t think the material alone would be compelling, that we need to buy you off.”