Campus groups offer students cash for Torah study


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 said. “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 Synagogue were uncomfortable from the start, Levin said, 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 developer Elie Horn.

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 said. “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, said they are glad they took part in the program, though they added 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 said 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 TLC television program, “Shalom in the Home,” said 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.”

Temple bingo — a gamble if it’s a good way to raise funds


The social hall at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks undergoes a major transformation every Thursday night. Television monitors and a flashing scoreboard are mounted on the walls, and a sea of cafeteria-style tables cluttered with small computer monitors, game cards and good-luck charms take up most of the room.

The Thursday nightlife at this Conservative congregation is all about bingo.

“It’s an excellent fundraiser,” said Michael Roberts, an Etz Chaim board member and the synagogue’s former bingo trustee. “[The players] are noncongregants, and they enjoy bingo like you can’t believe.”

Typically associated with American Legion halls, Elks clubs and churches, the sedentary game that caters to seniors is not often associated with Jewish houses of worship. But a few synagogues across the Southland have offered weekly bingo nights as temple fundraisers for decades.

While some shuls embrace the idea of opening their doors to the local bingo crowd, others are adamantly opposed to the idea of the increasingly popular game because of its gambling stigma.

Bingo’s origins can be traced back to 16th century European lotteries, but its modern equivalent was inspired by a carnival game called Beano, which was adapted by New York salesman Edwin Lowe in 1929. When Lowe organized a game for his friends, one of the players is said to have become so excited that she yelled out “bingo” instead of “beano” and the name stuck.

While the game is frequently looked upon as a fundraising tool for religious and charitable organizations, the proliferation of Native American-run casinos over the last 20 years has enabled commercial bingo halls with higher stakes to spread out beyond the state of Nevada. The new generation of players seeking bigger jackpots now comes armed with special markers, called daubers, and other paraphernalia in bingo bags that double as seat cushions.

Television has taken notice of bingo’s boom. In March, cable channel GSN launched “Bingo America” with host Patrick Duffy, a successor to ABC’s 2007 “National Bingo Night,” in which two contestants compete to win up to $100,000, and viewers at home can play along to win money.

For many, bingo remains a social game. The roughly 150 players — mostly female and above retirement age — who file into Temple Etz Chaim each Thursday night find time spent at the synagogue is a opportunity to visit with friends and share the hope of winning big.

Etz Chaim’s bingo fundraiser has been run entirely by synagogue volunteers for the last 23 years, and it generates about $100,000 a year for the congregation, with all proceeds going toward the temple’s preschool and religious school.

Roberts sees bingo as a win-win situation for the congregation and the community.

“It’s a community service, in a way,” Roberts said. “We’re providing a service of running games and helping students.”

He added that the games also help the surrounding non-Jewish community get to know the congregants and the shul. “They realize that we’re nice people,” he said.

At the synagogue level, Etz Chaim says it also enjoys greater involvement from congregants, because many of its bingo volunteers go on to participate in other synagogue committees and events.

But at a time when many synagogues and Jewish agencies hold casino-themed fundraisers, not everyone thinks gambling and shuls mix.

“I’m very ambivalent about a synagogue providing a regular gambling opportunity, especially for the population that tends to frequent bingo,” said Rabbi Rick Brody of Temple Ami Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Covina that halted its own bingo fundraiser three years ago. “At least from what I was seeing, [the players are] people who, to one degree or another, are addicted and are focused on wining as much money as they can, and I don’t think that that is what a synagogue should be focusing on.”

Brody was relieved when his temple did away with its bingo program due to poor revenue and lack of volunteers. But even if profits were higher, the rabbi doesn’t “think it really helps the spiritual bottom line of what the congregation is supposed to be about.”

Brody is not alone. In fact, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference for American Rabbis adopted resolutions advising rabbis and shuls to discourage their congregants from using gambling as a fundraiser.

Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation in Thousand Oaks, believes that a bingo fundraiser would conflict with his synagogue’s identity.

“Our vision of where we’re going and who we are is that we try to heal the world and open up paths for spirituality and draw community together,” Riter said. “Gambling doesn’t seem to fulfill any of those directions.”

A few Adat Elohim congregants, like Mitch Schwartz of Newbury Park, disagree.

“Why not get money out of the community at large if you can, instead of nickel-and-diming the congregation?” said Schwartz, a former Adat Elohim Brotherhood ways and means chair.

Schwartz said that if the temple adopted bingo, the shul wouldn’t have to raise membership dues on a yearly basis.

But without support from a core group of dedicated volunteers, many bingo fundraisers fail. Weekly volunteer positions include game sales, bankers, callers, game verifiers, food vendors and computer rental salesmen.

At Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Whittier, bingo volunteers are broken up into four teams of eight people, each of whom rotates their services. Temple Etz Chaim relies on 15 people a week.

While it’s hard to argue with the monetary gain (Temple Beth Shalom also made close to $100,000 in a year), many people feel that bingo fundraisers do not add much to the shul community itself, besides the friendships forged between volunteers.

Among the synagogues interviewed, only Etz Chaim had one bingo player affiliate with the synagogue.

And even some congregants at Etz Chaim are not entirely comfortable with game. Over the years, Roberts said a few board members and other active shul members have questioned the validity of the fundraiser.

“We said if you can think of another way to make this much money, we’ll close bingo,” Roberts said. “No one’s ever come up with another way.”

For more information, visit Bingo America.

But Is It Kosher?


In September 2003, Whole Foods quietly removed one brand of kosher chicken from its shelves and replaced it with a different brand.

The switch received little notice — outside of a Jewish Journal article — but it caught my eye. A representative for Whole Foods claimed the previous chicken brand didn’t meet the chain’s standard; its feed was not organic, and the chickens weren’t raised and slaughtered in the most humane way possible.

Up until then I’d assumed that kosher meant, well, kosher. It surprised me that a company well-known for its concern for animal well-being and food safety would deem anything kosher treif, or unfit. Long before Whole Foods was even a glimmer in the eye of the Prius-tocracy, hadn’t we Jews been telling ourselves and others that we were practicing humane slaughter and thoughtful animal husbandry — embodied in the very laws of kashrut? What did Whole Foods know that I didn’t?

It turns out Whole Foods was on to something seriously wrong with the kosher food industry, and the industry is due for a change.

I grew up eating meat of all kinds. One afternoon during my sophomore year at college, I found myself on an idyllic Maine isle, plunging a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. By dusk I was a vegetarian, and I stayed that way for the next 14 years. I wasn’t squeamish: I’d fished my whole life, and even hunted. As a cook in various restaurants, I’d gutted shoals of fish, whacked through sides of beef and deconstructed flocks of poultry. But at that moment I figured, if I could survive without taking another life, so much the better.

Then I met my wife, Naomi Levy, rabbi and carnivore.

I loved the woman very much, so I had to come to terms with two of her seemingly contradictory traits: She loved meat, and she didn’t cook. I still love her; she still loves meat, and she still doesn’t cook.

The thought of cooking two entrees a night for the rest of our lives didn’t appeal to me. I compromised and began eating fish. Then came the first of many Friday night meals together. I put a piece of grilled salmon on the Sabbath table, and Naomi put on her best game face: What’s Sabbath without roasted chicken? So I started eating chicken. And then came her pregnancies, when she expressed numerous times that a) she would kill for a big juicy grilled steak and b) she was carrying our baby.

So there was the occasional steak.

All along, I rationalized the meat on our table by its kosher pedigree. In my mind, and in the minds of most Jews, the meaning of “kosher” had long swelled beyond its strict Levitical denotation of permitted and forbidden animals and their prescribed method of slaughter. I believed that “kosher” meant a higher concern for cleanliness, for the health and welfare of the animals, for the sanctity of Creation.

And it wasn’t just me. The dictionary definition of “kosher” includes “genuine and legitimate.” If I had to kill to eat, at least the meat was kosher.

But the alarm bell that Whole Food rang was soon followed by a cacophony of criticism and investigation.

In December 2004, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released an undercover video taken at the AgriProcessors Inc. plant, a kosher beef abattoir in Postville, Iowa. The plant supplies kosher beef for the Aaron’s Best/Rubashkin brand. The tape showed practices that were obviously cruel and created a firestorm of criticism and countercharges. The Orthodox Union, which overseas the kashrut of the plant, said the offending practices would be corrected — they have been — and accused PETA of launching an assault on the institution of shechitah (kosher slaughter) itself.

The made-for-media PETA fracas birthed a larger, more thoughtful crossdenominational concern over current kosher slaughter practices. Earlier this year, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the best-selling novel “Everything Is Illuminated” (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) and last year’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Houghton Mifflin), released a PETA-produced video over the Internet that condemned modern kosher slaughter practices, calling them anathema to the spirit of the kosher laws.

The author’s calm, well-reasoned arguments are buttressed by on-camera interviews with Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the Orthodox founder of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The video, titled “If This Is Kosher …,” is available for download at www.HumaneKosher.com. It interweaves Foer’s and the rabbis’ comments with footage from the AgriProccessors plant and from kosher egg and meat suppliers in Israel. In one scene, egg industry workers fill a plastic-lined, 55-gallon garbage can with live male chicks, superfluous to the process. In another shot, the bags are sealed and dumped.

“To be Jewish,” Foer says in the video, “is to strive to make the world less cruel and more just — not only for oneself and not only for one’s people but for everyone. One doesn’t have to consider animals as equal to humans — I don’t — to give them a place in this inspiring idea.”

Wolpe and Greenberg — both vegetarians — signed on to a letter, along with dozens of rabbis, calling on the Orthodox Union to do more to promote humane treatment of animals in the kosher facilities it oversees.

In the midst of these criticisms came the results of another investigation by The Forward newspaper last month charging the Rubashkin factory with unfair labor practices, unsafe working conditions and labor intimidation. “AgriProcessors’ final product — sold under the nationally popular Aaron’s Best brand — is priced significantly higher than standard meat,” reporter Nathaniel Popper wrote. “Its kosher seal gives it a seeming moral imprimatur in an industry known for harsh working conditions. But even in the unhappy world of meatpacking, people with comparative knowledge of AgriProcessors and other plants — including local religious leaders, professors, and union organizers — say that AgriProcessors stands out for its poor treatment of workers.”

The manager of the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, denied the charges, but the plant has been subject to half the violations in all Iowa meatpacking plants so far this year, according to The Forward’s analysis of OSHA statistics.

“The bottom line here is that I’m not sure these devout Jews are using Jewish ethics to treat their workers,” one critic said.

I don’t know if Rubashkin is the exception or the rule in an industry that is increasingly concentrated in a few large hands, and whose imprimatur of kashrut comes from a handful of rabbinic authorities.

But I do know my definition of kosher is now much more narrow. In marketing terms, the brand has been tarnished. Kosher is not necessarily clean, or humane, or just. Long synonymous in our hearts and minds with good and pure, kosher is in danger of meaning just one small group’s interpretation of what’s legal.

What happened?

The purveyors of kosher goods became prey to the same market forces that have undermined the integrity of the entire American food chain. The food industry has fed America’s insatiable appetite by disregarding health concerns and riding roughshod over animal welfare and environmental welfare.

The demand for meat has led to the industrialization of farming, to feedlots holding up to 100,000 cattle, to the rapid and often sloppy dispatch of thousands of animals per day.

Kosher slaughterers piggyback — so to speak — on this industry by sending rabbis into nonkosher slaughterhouses to kill selected animals. Rubashkin itself noted that it slaughtered 18,000 cows in a seven-week period, which it said inevitably leads to error.

Kosher food, which we had always taken to stand apart from and above from the larger culture, has acquiesced to some of the industry’s worst practices.

Strictly speaking, the laws of kashrut do not address issues of responsible, ethical food production and healthful eating.

“The nature of kashrut is thus at once mysterious and obvious,” scholar Meir Soloveichik wrote in a penetrating essay in the journal Azure’s winter issue. “While God does not explain the importance of cud-chewing or leaping, of split hooves or scales, the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.”

The exact meaning of these laws may remain obscure, but they are clearly meant to set us apart and elevate our souls.

For someone who loves both to pet animals and to eat them, the laws of kashrut speak to the tension between our higher and lower impulses, between the hunter Esau and the shepherd Jacob; between the carnivore wife and the conflicted husband.

Perhaps no religion better understands this eternal and inherent contradiction than Judaism. The laws of kashrut help us shuttle between our hungry selves and our compassionate ones, between the sanctity of all God’s creatures and their deliciousness.

If the kosher food industry is interested in retaining the deeper meaning of the label it bestows, its manufacturers and rabbis must figure out how to restore the spirit of kashrut to kashrut. The Jewish teaching of tza’ar ba’alei chayim — forbidding cruelty to animals because they are part of God’s creation — is the obvious place to start.

Kosher certifiers should cooperate with organizations like Animal Compassion Foundation, founded with a grant from Whole Foods, which are in the vanguard of conscientious animal husbandry and slaughter. The kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.

 

Humanistic Judaism Trods Different Path


Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham Temple in Detroit founded
Humanistic Judaism in 1963. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews involved with
Humanistic Judaism in North America, including 1,000 in the greater Los Angeles
area.

He was named Humanist of the Year for 2003 by the American
Humanist Association in recognition of 40 years of professional service that
have benefited the Humanist community. Past recipients of the award include
Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Margaret Sanger. He spoke to The
Jewish Journal about Humanism.

Jewish Journal: What is Humanism?

Sherwin Wine: Humanism is a philosophy of life which
believes that the basic power for solving human problems lies within human
beings. And Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life which maintains that the
basic power for solving human problems lies within human beings and is enriched
by the history and culture of the Jewish people.

JJ: How does Humanistic Judaism differ from regular Judaism?

SW: On a practical level, it means that our services and
instruction of both adults and children is different. Most of traditional
Judaism and even liberal Judaism is a God-centered Judaism, and we are a
people-centered Judaism. So the conventional prayers that would be said in
traditional synagogues are not part of our services. Our services consist of
different writings, poetry and music that are consistent to a people-centered
Judaism.

JJ: What sort of tenets does Humanistic Judaism have besides
these services?

SW: The heart of a good philosophy of life or religion,
whether it is Orthodoxy or Humanistic Judaism, is ethics. So for us, the
foundation of our teaching is ethical, and those are the same ethical norms
that all the great philosophies of life and religions of the world maintain.
Character training is the most important thing that we can do, and that is the
heart of it. All the other rituals are secondary to ethics. In addition, since
the history and culture of the Jewish people is for us a reinforcement of our
Humanism, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but we celebrate them in
accordance with our people-centered philosophy. We do not believe these
holidays were announced on top of a mountain. We believe these holidays were
created by the Jewish people over many centuries, and the themes of the
holidays are not about miraculous power, but the themes are, for us, about
human ethical values.

In addition, we have the full panoply of lifecycle
celebrations, which are birth ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings. We
have all of that, and we spend a lot of time studying the history and
literature of the Jewish people. For us, the literature of the Jewish people
includes the Torah, but not only the Torah. It includes all the literature of
the Jews until modern times.

JJ: Was Humanistic Judaism established because traditional
Judaism did not have enough focus on ethics?

SW:  The reason why Humanistic Judaism came into existence
was surveys indicated that close to 47 percent of the Jews in North America
identify themselves as secular, which means that they don’t find any meaning in
a God-oriented Judaism. Their main orientation to Judaism is cultural and
ethical.

We are trying to reach out to Jews who are not Orthodox,
Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, but who want to connect themselves
to the Jewish community, but haven’t been successful in doing that, because
they haven’t found a community where their beliefs and their desire to be Jews
come together.

We are not saying that traditional Jews don’t have that [ethical]
emphasis. Rather, we are saying that we don’t want to be part of saying prayers
we don’t believe in and asking for divine power that we don’t believe in.

Our job in life is not to train ourselves to depend on
divine power — for us, our job in life is to make ourselves strong in order to
deal with a difficult world.

JJ: What are the five main points of Humanistic Judaism?

SW: 1. Humanistic Judaism believes that Judaism is the
historic culture and civilization of the Jewish people.

2. It believes that the highest ethical goal of life is the
creation of dignity for all human beings.

3. That the basic source of power for solving human problems
lies within human beings

4. That the culture of the Jewish people — its literature,
its holidays — are the creation of the Jewish people over many centuries

5. That the meaning of Jewish history, given the experience
of the Jews in particular over the last few centuries, means in the end, we
Jews, like all people, have to find the power within ourselves and to develop
our own strength to meet the challenges of life.

Rabbi Wine will address Adat Chaverim on Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Center, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills and will also speak on
Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,Los Angeles.
For information, call (818) 623-7363.  

Turn Off the TV


What’s the biggest problem facing today’s high school graduate? Separating fantasy from reality. And television is the culprit.

That’s the view of Steven Carr Reuben, the rabbi of Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades, who specializes in teaching parents how to raise ethical children and who travels the country, giving parenting workshops.

Cynical and shockproof, they’ve seen horrific behavior every day of their lives, he says. By immersing themselves in an imaginary world, they have become desensitized.

“By the time kids are 18 years old, they have vicariously experienced everything — death, destruction, exploitation, all the things that make television shows interesting,” he says. “This has to have an impact on their emotions. If psychology has taught us anything, it’s that emotions and our physical body can’t distinguish between what is real and what is vividly imagined.”

Personal responsibility, respect and civility all have declined in American society, he says. The Class of 1997 is graduating into a world where an attack ad has replaced belief in principle as the preferred strategy for winning a political campaign.

“Someone wrote a book several years ago, asking what ever happened to shame. I don’t know the answer. No one blushes anymore. Isn’t there anything to blush about?” Carr Reuben says.

At a recent workshop in Boston, several parents told Carr Reuben that they’re exhausted from frustration at seeing how cynical their children have become.

The problem isn’t what the entertainment industry has done to their children, says the rabbi. He believes the cause lies in the home, with Mom and Dad, who have become too passive.

“They have ultimate responsibility for their children,” he says. “So they need to exercise their control. They can turn the television off.”

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