When Allyson Marcus arrived at the Jewish Awareness Movement's Shabbat afternoon luncheon near the University of Southern California, she wasn't expecting to return home in tears. That, however, is how things turned out for Marcus, then a senior at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. After talking throughout the meal with a group of male friends, Marcus was confronted as she left the table by Bracha Zaret, the wife of Moshe Zaret, a Jewish Awareness Movement rabbi. The rebbetzin, apparently incensed by Marcus' immodesty, asked her if she was on any medication. Marcus was puzzled, not realizing that the question was meant as an insult. Zaret then kicked her out of the house, telling her that she would never amount to anything and would be unmarried at forty.
Such stories are not uncommon in interviews with students who have interacted with the Jewish Awareness Movement, or JAM, an Orthodox outreach group active on five California campuses. JAM's aggressive techniques and single-minded focus on making students more observant distinguish it from more established outreach organizations. Interviews, coupled with reports on the blog kvetcher.jewschool.com and in the Daily Trojan, USC's campus newspaper, have painted a picture of a group that routinely practices high-pressure tactics, including deceptive advertising and persistent unwanted phone calls, and is sometimes rude and dismissive towards those who don't meet its standards.
Rabbis on JAM's staff did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
In September, the University of Southern California's Office of Religious Life disallowed JAM's rabbis from advising the JAM chapter on the USC campus. The expulsion was a direct result of an e-mail sent by one of the two JAM rabbis, Daniel Geffen, advertising that alcohol would be served at an event open to underage students. A November 2007 article in the Daily Trojan about the incident also reported that the University's Office of Religious Life and Student Affairs had received complaints from students who felt harassed by the JAM campus rabbis. Some had received repeated phone calls from rabbis after asking them to stop calling.
This was not the first time that JAM's activities had raised eyebrows at USC. An April 2006 article in the Daily Trojan describes an incident in which a JAM rabbi named Avi Wosner promised students an opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg on a film project. Students who signed on quickly discovered that Spielberg was in no way involved.
This pattern of questionable advertising is echoed in the experience of some of the students who attend the subsidized trips to New York, London, and Israel that are the cornerstones of JAM's activities. While the trips are advertised as Jewish educational experiences, one UCLA student reports that she soon realized that the sole purpose of her $99 JAM trip to New York was to pressure her into becoming more observant. She says that she felt like she was "on lockdown," and was shepherded from lecture to lecture. One theme of the lectures was that Orthodox observance of Judaism will lead to economic prosperity. In support of this point, the group was brought to the Diamond District, where the rabbi leading the trip asked a female participant, "Imagine one of those big rocks on your fingers - do you think if you do these things you might get one some day?"
The student says that her decisions to wear pants instead of dresses and talk to boys were repeatedly challenged. A rebbetzin on the trip warned her to stay away from one of the other girls, who she was told was a "bad seed." She was assigned a roommate who tried to convince her to rethink her lifestyle and encouraged her to read a book that advocated for more traditional observance.
There is some evidence that these tactics have made JAM particularly successful in its outreach efforts. A 2003 article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal cited findings by Rabbi David Refson, dean of Neve Yerushalayim College in Jerusalem, that JAM at UCLA turned a higher percentage of students religious than any other program in the country.
Many students report positive experiences with JAM. A JAM participant at UCLA's campus, Danny Hekier, said that he didn't feel pressure from the organization. He advised students who felt that JAM was being too pushy with its outreach techniques to ask not to be contacted again. Rachel Monty, the student co-founder of JAM's UCLA board, described the goals of the UCLA chapter of JAM primarily as getting students to go on the JAM trips. She says that she does not identify as Orthodox, and that most participants in JAM were secular, Reform, or Conservative. Allyson Marcus, the USC student who had the extremely negative experience with a JAM rebbetzin, said that she had positive experiences with other JAM rabbis.
And yet, instances of questionable advertising, bizarre harassment, and pressure to increase observance continue to mar the good the organization has done, and to jeopardize its place on campus.