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You get what you’re paid for

The summer after college I bought a Eurail pass, loaded up a backpack, and flew to Israel. My plans were to volunteer on kibbutz, tour the country, and then spend the rest of the summer in Europe.

Toward the end of phase two, however, I decided I wasn’t ready to leave Israel. That’s when I ran into a college friend who suggested that I move into a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City for as long as I wanted. Room and board were free; all they asked was that I commit to taking their beginners’ classes during the day. It turned out to be a pretty good deal — for me, at least. If the yeshiva was hoping to turn me into a newly Orthodox Jew — a ba’al teshuva — I was a disappointment. But I found it an intellectually stimulating month that inspired me to take my Judaism more seriously. Most of the Jewish decisions I made as an adult — from sending our kids to day school to how I make a living — can be traced to that month in yeshiva.

The idea of paying kids — or bribing them with free food and a bed — sounds a little cultish, and there was some of that to my yeshiva experience. Most of the teachers were gentle and respectful, but there were strong hints that we separate from our past lives in order to fully appreciate the “Torah lifestyle.” When after a few weeks I showed signs of moving on, a yeshiva handler attached himself to me, trying to convince me that I was making a mistake. On the day I packed my bag, he handed me a stack of mail — letters from my girlfriend, parents, and friends back home — that somehow had got “lost” in the yeshiva office. 

Some of the students ended up Orthodox Jews. A handful of others succumbed to Jerusalem Syndrome — crazed episodes during which all that religious fervor, and perhaps a few pharmaceuticals, triggered a range of psychiatric symptoms. One night they’d be sobbing or laughing nonstop; the next day they’d be gone. 

But most of the kids I met took the classes, ate the schnitzel, and left after a week or so.

My yeshiva experience came back to me when I read an article about Meor, a Jewish outreach group that offers a $400 stipend to college students who complete their semester-long Jewish studies course, the “Maimonides Leaders Fellowship.” According to JTA, Meor’s University of Pennsylvania branch agreed to suspend the payments after a few parents complained to the college chaplain’s office. 

No parents were quoted in the article, but I can guess what they were worried about. Paying students for religious instruction sounds creepy and coercive, especially when those doing the paying — Meor is Orthodox — live a lifestyle so different from your own. (Or as one commenter put it on a Penn website, “Only professors are allowed to push their beliefs on students — and you have to pay for that!”) If my kid had a genuine impulse to learn more about Judaism, why would she need a bribe to act on it? 

And yet the free or subsidized model has become a standard tool in Jewish outreach. Birthright’s free trips to Israel are considered the most successful Jewish identity program in decades. Chabad-Lubavitch (which also offers stipends on some campuses) regularly “undercuts” the local Jewish competition by offering free or low-cost Hebrew schools and summer camps. Federations advertise free High Holy Days tickets to unaffiliated Jews. PJ Library sends free Jewish books to young families.

Such programs are meant to remove a major obstacle to Jewish involvement: the relatively high cost of Jewish living. And they are also an acknowledgement that Jewish “consumers” need a little nudzh to get them to engage. Insiders like to think that Jewish study and the chance to travel to Israel are so intrinsically attractive that we shouldn’t have to “incentivize” people to do either. Or they worry that Jews who get used to “free” will never develop the habit of supporting Jewish institutions.

Meor says it has given out 850 stipends over 10 years at Penn, with few complaints from students and parents. On their website, they justify their stipends this way: “In today’s world of escalating college costs and financial pressures, Meor recognizes that the time you are committing to the program is significant, valuable, and not eligible for academic credit.” My PR instinct says, “Well done.”

And then I recall my yeshiva experience. If it hadn’t been free, I might have missed an experience that proved life-changing in so many essential and positive ways. But if I hadn’t been the person I was, I might have been vulnerable to coercion, or to making choices I would later regret. Years later I learned that the ba’al teshuva yeshivas, probably responding to complaints and a few lawsuits, were addressing the mental health issues of seekers who wandered into their classes and synagogues. 

Paying Jewish kids to study doesn’t bother me, so long as those doing the paying respect the students and the families they come from, and so long as the students don’t trade their identities, self-confidence, and natural skepticism for the price of a few textbooks.

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