Pool, hypnotists and poker nights are helping to boost Britain's Jewish population

What makes a teenager give up clubbing and turn to God? Archie Bland hears how pool, hypnotists and poker nights are helping to reverse decades of decline in Britain's Jewish population

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:14

From the ferociously sculpted shark's fin of black hair to the bold T-shirt and pristine, fat-laced trainers, Dan Rickman looks every inch the party boy. When the 22-year-old lists his interests, he includes clubbing, and "drinking like a fish!".

Which perhaps makes it all the more surprising to learn that Rickman has recently chosen to devote his life not to partying, but rather to encouraging his Jewish peers to appreciate the value of living an Orthodox lifestyle by re-engaging with their spiritual lives and studying the tenets of Judaism.

In February 2006, aged 20, Rickman took a weekend trip to Spain that was different from his normal holidays. This trip was heavily subsidised by Jonathan Faith, the Jewish multimillionaire behind the Faith shoe-shop chain. In exchange for the subsidies, Rickman agreed to attend classes in Judaism.

"I had always gone on holiday with my boys before," Rickman says. "We'd go out and get slaughtered every night and have an amazing time, then play videogames all day and go out again. With this, you still get to go out and have fun, but there's meaning, too. And to have done something you care about with your day makes a huge difference."

Rickman is one of thousands of young Jews involved with Aish, an organisation devoted to the religious and cultural lives of young people. Groups like this don't generally appeal to people like Rickman. In an attempt to solve that problem, and to boost the numbers of Jews in Britain and reconnect an increasingly secular young population, Jonathan Faith has pumped a considerable portion of his £50m fortune into the group. Aish's popularity is partly about its "down with the kids" approach: learning is buffeted by events including hypnotists and poker nights.

Aish is by no means the only organisation devoted to young Jews – among others, the B'nai B'rith Youth Organisation and Habonim Dror command significant memberships – but its approach to frequently secular and sceptical young people is unique. This is the group that invented, and trademarked, SpeedDating. And employees of the Hendon branch drive around in specially branded Smart cars ("Think Smart, Think Aish"), making a radical offer: come to our talks, they suggest, and we'll set you up with a social life; even if you're not interested in the culture or the faith, maybe you'll find yourself a Jewish partner, and help turn the tide of people marrying out of the religion that has seen the number of Jews in Britain decline from an estimated 450,000 in 1950, to around 280,000 according to the latest figures.

Aish executive director Naftali Schiff believes this approach is the best way to secure Judaism's future. "You are 18 years old and you're going clubbing," he says, by way of example. "Instead of doing that, would you like to come to a lecture on the 13 principles of faith, beginning with the concept of the infinite and how it interplays with the finite? Are you coming? No. But if you come along and meet other young people like yourself and you have a good time, that in itself is an achievement."

The wider impact of that achievement is indisputable: Aish estimates that about half of the general Jewish population marries outside of the religion; among Aish alumni, the figure is just three per cent.

Rickman, for his part, now considers himself well and truly Aished – a slang term used among the community for anyone who has come to Jewish orthodoxy through the organisation. He has started to follow the complex rules and rituals that shape the Orthodox Jewish life, works at the Hendon branch of Aish as an event organiser, and lives with another Aish devotee, Josh Steele.

On first impression, the two friends make an unlikely pair: Rickman's slacker chic is quite a contrast to Steele, whose serious demeanour belies his 24 years. Steele describes himself as shtark, a term deriving from Yiddish that suggests intense religiosity. He has several years of commitment to Orthodox Judaism on his flatmate, and will soon move to Israel to train as a rabbi; nevertheless, even he has moments that seem less than rabbinical. On the same social-networking profile where he describes himself as shtark, he's pictured riding a bucking bronco in a skullcap at an Aish wild west night, and fast asleep cradling a bottle.

So, if the occasional teenager on the same path vomits in a nightclub toilet – or, as one young man admits in an upcoming documentary about Aish, does so during a seminar on the meaning of Judaism – Steele can live with it. "It's not the worst thing anyone can do," he says. "If someone's not coming on one of our trips, they're probably going to Magaluf or Tenerife or something and there'll be bathtubs filled with the stuff."

Jonathan Faith, who was raised in a secular family and became more religious when his first child was born 20 years ago, is similarly philosophical about the rowdier aspect of what his money buys. "We have hundreds of kids who start off that way," he says. "You see these boys in a year or two. They might be wild now, but they learn from Jewish ideas, they see their benefit, and they naturally change and become better human beings."

The effect Aish has had on Steele and Rickman provides a perfect example. Steele used to want to be a corporate lawyer; now, when he's finished his rabbinical training, he'd like to work for NGOs and charities. Rickman, meanwhile, has abandoned a long-held ambitions of a career in advertising or PR in favour of charity fundraising. "I've always been materialistic," he says, "and I always saw myself as making lots of money. But these days I just feel like there's a lot more to life."

For Faith, who is faced with a daunting mixture of apathy and what one leading Jewish scholar called a "demographically unviable birth rate", those must be heartening words. And beyond any spiritual impact, there is tangible evidence that his efforts are worthwhile: last month, after decades of decline, researchers found that Britain's Jewish population had actually increased. It was only by 5,000 and the growth was mostly down to very high fertility among ultra-Orthodox families. But it was the first rise since the Second World War. It's better than another drop. It's a start.

Aish's teenage kicks: Teaching and treats

Aish's mission is to help young Jews find a meaningful commitment to their religion and culture. It also aims to bolster a population that is in decline. Since neither of these goals might sound like an awful lot of fun to the average teenager, Aish does its best to speak to its target demographic in a language that they will relate to.

As such, it runs events including the Roller Rink Party, with the persuasive catchphrase "Skate Your Way into Oblivion!", and Giant Games Night, which features giant Connect Four (below), giant Jenga, and normal-sized backgammon. Or there might be a show by "professional regurgitator" Stevie Starr, who ingests lightbulbs, billiard balls and nails – then throws them up again.

But it's not all high-jinks for the sake of it: some events have a message too – there is the charity casino night, at which young Aishers play roulette, blackjack, and poker immediately after a talk entitled "Gambling Your Life Away", while the Shvitz in Switzerland ski trip invites holidaymakers to "Scorch on the Slopes". Sure, you can combine Alpine exhilaration with après-ski discussions about Judaism – but perhaps the real point is in the small print: "Exclusively for single young professionals". Scorching on the slopes indeed.

'Jews: Keeping the Faith', a documentary, will air on BBC 4 this Wednesday at 9pm

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