Can Jewish Engagement be Bought?

We spend most of our time at JOI focused on expanding Judaism’s Big Tent. Whether that means engaging intermarried families, recent Jews-by-choice, or anyone else who might feel they are on the periphery of the community, our goal is to let them know that we welcome them, and we want them involved. We do this through a variety of initiatives: Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth, and Public Space JudaismSM to name just a few. One thing we have yet to try, though, is simply offering cash as an incentive to get people through the doors of Synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions.

According to a piece in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, cash incentives are becoming more and more popular among college based Jewish organizations. We have blogged in the past about financial incentives (Jewish families who move to Dothan, Alabama can apply for hefty, interest-free loans to help with relocation), and generally they seem like a good idea. Home loans or a reduction in synagogue dues can be powerful tools of attraction, and we are strong supporters of such practices. But with those examples, the incentives are directly related to ongoing Jewish engagement – cash offers no guarantee that once the person is paid, they will continue their involvement in the Jewish community.

While cash is a common theme in the article, not all programs mentioned take the same approach. In one program, called the Maimonides Fellowship, students who agree to take the money ($400 or a free trip to Israel) are obligated to commit to 10 weeks of Torah study courses. In another, called the Sinai Scholars Society, there is no such commitment, only required attendance at a three events. One college student said she was interested in participating because she was intrigued – by the check for $500.

Of course it’s impossible to say what kind of impact this will have on Jewish engagement. The article cites a cash-for-study program at Lake Park Synagogue in Wisconsin that was shut down after some board members became uncomfortable with the process – but doesn’t mention if any of the students continued to gather and study Torah when they weren’t being paid to do so. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is quoted as saying a cash payment “trivializes Judaism, and it portrays secular Jews as people to be bought off.” Perhaps, or maybe it will light a fire in someone who otherwise would never go to a Torah study course.

It’s an interesting method for encouraging Jewish involvement, and we will be watching closely to see how it “pays off.”

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