Jewish group stops student stipends after parent complaints

The Daily Pennsylvanian/September 15, 2014

By Eunice Lim

Meor, an independent Jewish organization at Penn, has offered students a $400 stipend to participate in its Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program since its founding in 2004. But this year, Meor agreed not to offer stipends after Chaplain Charles Howard raised concerns that parents have had over the practice.

The Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program was first introduced at Penn a decade ago with the goal of engaging Jewish students with the texts and concepts of their heritage. The semester-long program involves weekly meetings that last for two and a half hours, during which students listen to lectures from Jewish leaders, activists and rabbis, as well as have discussions about the larger purpose of life and self-identity in the context of Judaism. The program also offers well-subsidized trips to Israel, Eastern Europe and South Africa, among other places.

In the past, students were incentivized to participate and were given a check after completing the program. However, four to five parents brought up complaints about the program, focusing their scrutiny on the stipend, said a staff member from the Chaplain’s Office. Some of the parents — from both religious and non-religious backgrounds — expressed concern that the program was radicalizing their children and found the stipend suspicious. The Chaplain’s Office and Penn’s Meor chapter reached a mutual decision to end the stipend after discussing the concerns.

Howard declined to comment on the situation.

“Parents don’t know what their kids are involved in, and from afar, they can get very nervous,” said 2006 College graduate Jack Cohen, a rabbi and director of advanced programs at Meor. “It is all right for parents to have healthy suspicion, but it is unhealthy to stop kids from making their own decisions. As parents, we have to trust them and have open communication about the decisions they’re making.”

Chabad, another Jewish group on campus, also offers a $350 stipend for participants in its Sinai Scholars program. Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, of Chabad, said that the Chaplain’s Office has not contacted Chabad about the stipends it gives to students. Both Meor and Chabad are recognized by the University, but, like other religious groups, do not receive funding from Penn.

The Meor staff shared mixed feelings about the stipend even before the decision was reached, Cohen said. Meor staff has always hoped students would participate “without the perks, but the stipend was effective to get students to take the program seriously and attend consistently. It helped them edge out excuses.”

The money that would have been used for stipends will be redirected to provide participants with more texts and further subsidize the program’s trips.

“The ultimate goal of the program is to provide an unimposing space where students can grapple with important questions,” Cohen said. “The time to think about the kind of life you want to have is now.”

While this decision may mean the program loses some of its pull with students, Cohen said he does not expect student participation to take a hit. “The reputation of the program will continue to draw the substantive student,” he added.

Nursing senior Jillian Kaltman, a former participant of the Maimonides program, expressed similar thoughts regarding the stipend switch-up. “The types of students that the Maimonides program draws in are not in it for the money. It becomes very clear throughout the sessions that the students involved are there for the learning, connection and growth,” Kaltman said.

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