NEW YORK Jewish doctors, lawyers and business executives too busy for the formal study of their faith can now order in religious lessons, thanks to an organization whose rabbis make office calls.
Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish educational network based in Israel, has four rabbis on call in New York City as part of its Executive Learning Program, and similar outreach programs in cities around the world including Los Angeles and Washington.
One of the New York rabbis is Stuart Shiff, who was crisscrossing Manhattan on a recent wintry day to give free private lessons to clients including a partner in an accounting firm and a neuroscientist at a prominent hospital.
"If you don't have time, I tell them, I'll come to you before the stock market opens or after it closes!" said Rabbi Shiff, a father of six from New Jersey.
On Aish's Web site are names of people who have taken an interest in reconnecting with their Judaism, including actor Kirk Douglas and various executives of Bear Stearns, J.P. Morgan and other major financial firms.
One of Rabbi Shiff's students is Scott Levy, an assistant managing partner in the international accounting firm Grant Thornton, who was raised as an observant Jew but drifted in early adulthood and now has been getting reacquainted with Jewish Scripture.
"The Torah was meant to give you the information to help you become a better person," Levy said.
Rabbi Shiff has been visiting the executive's midtown Manhattan skyscraper each week for about an hour for the past year.
With an accountant's precision, Levy questioned the rabbi about the story of Moses disappearing to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, while his people despair that he'll ever return and start worshipping an idol.
"They didn't have like a PDA or anything to know where he was?" Levy asked with tongue-in-cheek.
"No, no text messaging then, 'I'm still OK!"' Rabbi Shiff said with a laugh, then explained why idolatry is forbidden for Jews. "Judaism believes that you don't need something to hold on to, to know that it's there," he said.
The two men probed the biblical story in all its minutiae, linking it to daily life in the 21st century.
"People say, 'The devil is in the details,"' Rabbi Shiff noted. "Judaism teaches, 'No, God is in the details.' When you care about something, you're meticulously involved with it."
Levy fits the target audience of Aish HaTorah meaning "fire of the Torah" in Hebrew as summed up on its Web site: "People with limited free time and limited background in their Judaism have finally found a way to fit Torah into their lives."
The rabbis on call at the New York center are all Orthodox, meaning they follow strict tenets of their faith like kosher dietary laws and not working or driving on the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week.
From Monday to Friday, Rabbi Shiff roams the city by bus and subway for meetings with anyone too busy for formal religious study. He meets most of his 18 students at their offices, but some at home or in a coffee shop.
Rabbi Shiff insisted he doesn't force any of his students to believe any particular teaching or engage in any ritual.
"I don't have any expectations," he said. "My whole job is helping them to stay connected."
While most of the rabbi's students aren't devoutly religious, many voluntarily contribute thousands of dollars to the organization, which was founded in 1974 in Jerusalem and has trained rabbis to lead outreach efforts all over the world.
Earlier on the day he saw Levy, Rabbi Shiff visited Michael Silverman, a neuroscientist at the Mount Sinai Medical Center who does research on postpartum depression in women.
In Silverman's tiny office, the rabbi and the scientist sat facing each other, pitching each other tough questions about the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
"This exodus of the Jewish people had to happen," Rabbi Shiff said emphatically, in response to a question about free will.
"God's ultimate plan for the world and the universe that has to happen. Whether you are part of it, how it'll look when you get there that's your decision."
"Gotcha," Silverman said. "That's free will."
A Harvard-educated psychologist, Silverman said the biblical story will come in handy in therapy sessions with women trying to leave behind post-delivery depression for a happy life with their new baby.
He drew a parallel: It wasn't necessarily easy for the Jews, slaves for centuries, to suddenly be free to leave Egypt for a better life. They walked into the desert, afraid of the unknown but only by taking this risk did they eventually reach the promised land.
"I like that, I like that!" he said. "You create opportunities by making a change, and you make a change by taking the risk."
In discussing his teaching sessions, Rabbi Shiff emphasized the collaborative nature of the exchanges, which he says are based on the question-and-answer tradition that is at the core of Jewish faith and culture. He compared the sessions to the kind of training that goes on in yeshivas, the academies of learning where young Jews study the Talmud."Just as God is infinite, and God's wisdom is infinite, so our Jewish learning is never-ending," he said. "It's a lifelong process. And there's always something new."
On the Net: Aish: www.aish.com