Is Cafe Midrash a completely new formula for bringing people closer to religion, and will it work? Dr. Adam Ferziger, vice chairman of Bar-Ilan University's Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry, saw some new elements and some familiar ones after viewing a Ynet Web clip on Rabbi Binyamin Shachar's establishment.
"The American haredi world went from focusing on their enclaves and cultivating their own camp, particularly in the last 15 years, to becoming very outreach oriented and extremely creative and hi-tech, and they are very much using cultural icons and popular culture to engage and facilitate their ability to expose Jews to Judaism," says Ferziger, noting the parallels here.
Calling it "an evolution in kiruv" in the US, Ferziger says "it may apply here as well."
Using football terminology, he says that "in America, they call it getting to the end zone - which means getting people to keep Shabbat. Once upon a time, getting Jews to the end zone was the only goal. These days, however, there is much more recognition that getting them to the 30-yard line or 50-yard line, however that manifests itself, is valuable too. Because intermarriage is so high in America, anything that engages Jews is considered valuable. That's a very big step, because it's recognition that there are renditions or versions of being Jewish that may not be ideal, but have meaning, and that if their resources can be used to advance that, then that has value in itself."
On the clip he saw of Cafe Midrash, "people weren't saying: 'I'm becoming frum.' They were saying: 'Well, I like this, I like Judaism being a part of my life.' And I'm sure that these rabbis running this place would like to get these people to get to the end zone, but it seems as though that's not their only purpose."
Ferziger says the secular Israelis going to the cafe are making a statement that "I can live in contradictions. I can live in multiple spaces. So they've created a space. There's not the expectation that if you go that space, it will be your dominant space, but that there is value to that being a space in your totality of existence."
He also notes that the cafe "offers an alternative venue for Jewish expression from the synagogue." He said many secular Israelis, especially Ashkenazim see the synagogues as "closed clubs" or are turned off by the religious establishment. "You don't feel comfortable because you don't really know what you're doing, people aren't being friendly, you're taking someone's chair... But you want Judaism. So in this way it's similar to how now you have secular synagogues, secular study halls, special minyanim for the secular on Yom Kippur. So this is another opportunity for an alternative to the scary synagogue in which Jews can engage Judaism."
Overall, Ferziger finds "a very interesting synthesis between entertainment and Judaism. It's very creative... It's trying to create a setting where people are actually having fun, and that's why there's such an emphasis on taking very charismatic people with a lot of sense of humor who are in on cultural discourse," especially ba'alei teshuva, whose increased numbers have provided figures who draw the crowds to such places. "It would appear to me that 30 years ago, it would be much less likely for such a club to come into being," he says.
Chabad has been running similar programs for years, he says, and the haredi world had looked down upon them for this, "but here you have the haredi world adopting Chabad tactics." While he doubts the club could be a "springboard for lots of people to become observant," nonetheless he believes that through its activities, "a lot of other people will enjoy it and it's going to enrich their Jewish lives."
He also notes the cafe's "interesting" location - "not Bnei Brak but close to Bnei Brak" - and praised the noncoercive nature of the program, calling Cafe Midrash "a very interesting idea; I think it's something worth noticing."