Free food and beer

Free food, beer and some extra cash in exchange for some Jewish learning. It’s a recurring theme.

Last year, I studied abroad at the Hebrew University. During my time there, my friends and I would go to weekly free meals at the Jeff Seidel’s student center. After receiving our free meal, we were expected to sit and listen to a lecture about Judaism. Most of the time, my friends and I would tune out the lecture. However, I remember seeing some of the students who attended the meals change. Slowly they became more religious.

Jeff Seidel is not the only educator out there. Aish HaTorah, a Jewish Orthodox organization that, according to its website, “provides opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage.” At first glance, it seems like a wonderful mission. The organization educates Jewish youth about Judaism and even sends some off to Israel completely free to connect with their history.

What’s the catch? The organization tends to reflect a Religious Zionist philosophy, and in order to promote Israel and make Jewish youth more “religious,” it employs smart, but slightly unsettling tactics, to draw in vulnerable teens. While some of my peers blame the organization, I see it slightly differently. Perhaps we, as vulnerable young Jews, are to blame.

The moment you mention that you’re less religious, organizations like Aish snatch you up. Here’s how the process goes: a vulnerable or indifferent Jewish teen attends a lecture on Judaism in exchange for a free meal. Suddenly, all the free meals and stipend trips turn into sometime much more intense. I’ve seen this scenario time and time again.

In some cases, I started to question my beliefs. Was what they were telling me really true? It wasn’t until some time after did I reflect on what I had actually been taught.

While it would appear that organizations like Aish and Jeff Seidel bribe Jewish youth like myself in exchange for open ears, I argue that they have good intentions. At the end of the day, the teachers I encountered at Jeff Seidel’s student center never forced their opinion upon me. Instead, they extended me offers I could not refuse.

For some reason, this still seemed slightly unsettling to me. A couple of weeks ago, my roommate and I were on the streets of Jerusalem as an Orthodox American woman approached us with flyers. She asked us to sign up for an online class about Judaism in exchange for $100 we would later receive in the mail. Immediately, my roommate and I signed up, but as we walked away from the woman, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

I shouldn’t be wanting to learn about my religion just because I want free money (or even food for that matter). I should just be excited to be offered a free class. My initial reaction was to blame the woman for trying to bribe me, but then I realized that it was my fault. She realized that Jewish youth would not sign up for such classes unless they were being offered something in exchange. Trying to beat the system, she turned to the only tactic she knew would work.

As much as I find the tactic unsettling, organizations like Aish and Jeff Seidel aren’t necessarily “brainwashing” Jewish youth. They are providing them with the opportunity to learn. It’s up to the student to determine what they believe. Indoctrination can only be blamed on blindly following as a result of keeping an eye on something much less important: free food and beer.

About the Author
Sarah Sheafer is a student at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, studying political science and international studies with a focus in the Middle East.
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