By Greg Bluestein, Associated Press Writer
August 14, 2008
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."
So we know Jerusalem Online University (or, as it is is sometimes called, Jerusalem University Online) is part and parcel of Aish HaTorah. But that information is nowhere to be found on Jerusalem Online University's website or Aish.com.
Aish.com does have three mentions of AishCafé, two of which are for the above AP article. But it has no mention I can find of Jerusalem Online University.
Here are screenshots from Google's site search that show this:
Does the Jerusalem Online University site mention the word "Orthodox"? Only once:
What is the result of that search? A pulldown menu that asks for current religious affiliation with choices ranging from not Jewish to Orthodox:
Even Jerusalem Online University's donation information hides its Aish HaTorah connection, as you can see:
Donations are directed to:
150 West 46th Street
NY, NY 10036
Imagination Production's ruling year is 20088 and there are no documents available for it. It's contact is listed as Simcha Cohen:
And Jerusalem Online University contact information is a contact form that gives no information about the Aish HaTorah connection:
So, to summarize, Aish HaTorah changed the name of a missionary program, masked its connection to Aish, and uses it – and cash payments – to lure unsuspecting college students to Orthodoxy.
We would not tolerate this from Jews for Jesus. Why should we tolerate it from Aish HaTorah?
UPDATE 3:50 PM CDT – Rabbi Henry Harris of Aish HaTorah's Manhattan headquarters tells me Rabbi Raphael Shore – who, if memory serves me, at one point during the Obsession controversy denied being an Aish HaTorah employee – "resigned" from Aish HaTorah this Spring near Passover to "pursue independent projects."
You'll note that according to the WhoIs information posted above, AishCafé.com – a wholly-owned part of Aish HaTorah – became Jerusalem Online University in late April 2009.
In other words, Rabbi Raphael Shore's "independent" projects appear to include a wholly-owned division of Aish HaTorah.
Jerusalem University Online (and Jerusalem Online University). Rabbi Harris had not heard of either. When I explained Jerusalem Online University was founded as AishCafé.com, he directed my questions to Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
Here is Jerusalem University Online's About Us page. Note it claims to have been founded in 2007, but the site is copyrighted in 2009:
Here's the text:
Founded in 2007, JerusalemOnlineUniversity.com is the leading online portal for Jewish distance learning, offering a variety of stimulating college-accredited courses in an exciting and user-friendly forum.
To date over 2,000 students have graduated from JerusalemOnlineUniversity.com
Our mission at JerusalemUniversityOnlineUniversity.com is to educate and inspire our students, broaden their knowledge of Judaism and Israel, and cultivate Jewish identity and pride through engaging and interactive online content. Committed to educational excellence through innovation, we strive to develop future leaders and advocates for Israel.
I also asked Rabbi Harris about Imagination Productions. He seemed unsure and did not answer, instead referring me to Aish HaTorah's world headquarters in Jerusalem.
UPDATE 2:30 pm 8-26-09 – Marissa Brostoff of Tablet Magazine picked up this story and did a blog post on it.
Marissa spoke with Rabbi Raphael Shore:
…Shore, for his part, told Tablet Magazine that he’s not trying to hide anything. When the “About Us” section of Jerusalem Online Univerisy’s website is completed, he said, it will explain the former affiliation with Aish Cafe. He also said that he raised funds for both Aish Cafe and Jerusalem Online University independent of Aish HaTorah. “One of the reasons we separated was we were very interested in broadening the spectrum of presenters that are in the course and broadening the potential to reach people, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox,” he said.
But Shore's response makes no sense.
The Jerusalem Online University website was created in late April and early May of this year – after Shore had already "resigned" from Aish HaTorah. Mention of the site's origins is wholly missing, as is any mention of Shore's Aish HaTorah connection.
It strains credulity to think that is an oversight that will be corrected when the site is "completed, " especially because the site is very complete as it is. The site has full course listings, lots of graphics, movies and more.
Shore and Aish HaTorah have a long history of this type of deception. Jerusalem Online University is just the most recent example of it.
It's about time the Jewish community made it clear that we will not accept this dishonesty.
[Hat Tip: Shlomo.]