TEL AVIV, Israel — Instead of long beards and robes, they wear track suits and T-shirts. Their tablets are electronic, not hewn of stone, and they hold smartphones, not staffs. They may not look the part, but this ragtag group of Israelis is training to become the next generation of prophets.
For just 200 shekels, about $53, and in only 40 short classes, the Cain and Abel School for Prophets says it will certify anyone as a modern-day Jewish soothsayer.
The school, which launched classes this month, has baffled critics, many of whom have dismissed it as a blasphemy or a fraud.
On a religious level, Jewish tradition recognizes a few dozen prophets from the biblical era – from the monumental figures of Abraham, Moses and Elijah to lesser known foretellers of doom and tormented questioners like Micah the Morashtite and Habakkuk. Tradition says no one can be a prophet ever since the Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 and the era of prophecy can only be revived with the arrival of the Messiah and the temple's rebuilding. As one Talmudic phrase puts it, the only prophets now are children and fools.
But also, on a philosophical level, how do you learn divine inspiration in school? And can anyone learn?
"There is no way to teach prophecy," said Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish thought at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "It's like opening a school for becoming Einstein or Mozart."
That hasn't deterred the school's founder and sole teacher Shmuel Hapartzy, a follower of Chabad, a worldwide Orthodox Jewish outreach and worship movement that has come under fire because part of its membership crowned its late leader the Messiah. The Chabad movement in Israel has distanced itself from the school.
Anyone looking in the curriculum for "Parting the Sea 101" or "How to Predict the Future" or even "Principles of Proclaiming A Jeremiad" will be disappointed. Instead, students learn about the meaning of dreams, the classification of angels, the mysteries of the holy spirit. They learn how to discern a person's inner feelings from his or her external behavior and appearance.
Hapartzy can't guarantee his course will give his students a direct line to God. But, he says, the syllabus provides the essential tools to bring out the prophet in anyone.
"In the past there were prophets but even now, in our time, divinity is being revealed to everyone. We just need to open our eyes to it," said Hapartzy at his introductory course, which is held at a religious center in grungy south Tel Aviv, known more for its licentious street parties than piety.
And graduates do get a diploma.
There's little "profit" motive to the venture. Hapartzy said the token fee is to prove students' dedication and is donated to the religious center hosting the school. There's no application process – anyone who wants to become a prophet can do so by just showing up for the course.
The school's inaugural class this month welcomed a mixed bag of 12 students ranging in age from 18 to 50. One man had scruffy stubble and wore a blue track suit. Another walked in with a guitar slung over his back. Others fiddled with their phones during the lecture or stepped out to smoke. Two had long beards and wore Jewish skullcaps.
Darya Popdinitz, who drove in from Jerusalem for the course, wore a pink hat with dangling pompons. She said her knowledge of biblical prophets was limited, but she was "curious" about the course.
"It's a real diverse mix of people," said Hapartzy.
The class itself is a modest study group. In the small room, the men sat in a circle around Hapartzy, with the women separately in a corner, following Orthodox Judaism's segregation of the sexes. Hapartzy lectures and hands out study material – photocopied excerpts of holy books – and a question period follows. The students' homework is to conduct good deeds and pray.
The 34-year-old Hapartzy has a varied background. A software engineer and Russian immigrant, with a long beard and dressed in black ultra-Orthodox garb, he said he was originally an atheist. He dabbled in "sciences, mysticism, Chinese philosophy, astrology, black magic and Christian cults" until, he said, he turned to Judaism.
He compiled the study materials from writings he said could be found in any religious library – including, no surprise, the books of the biblical prophets. Since there's no traditional set course for becoming a prophet, Hapartzy used his own judgment for what subjects would be appropriate.
Like some in the Chabad movement, Hapartzy believes that the Messiah has already come and that the age of redemption is nigh, so it has possible to have prophets again. Claims by some that late leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was the Messiah split the Chabad movement and brought harsh criticism from other Jews.
Hapartzy said his school aims to prepare everyone for the new messianic era. The school is named after the sons of Adam and Eve – Cain was the first murderer and Abel the first victim. The name represents a person's different spiritual poles, which the school aims to unite, Hapartzy said.
The desire to open up the realm of prophecy to anyone has raised hackles in some circles.
"It's completely crazy," said Menachem Brod, a Chabad spokesman. Facebook commenters have accused the school of "charlatanism and blasphemy."
Roie Greenvald, a 27-year-old tennis instructor attending the classes, also showed some skepticism. While he expressed interest in the spiritual development the course offers, one crucial detail stands in the way of his religious elevation.
"I'm not going to become a prophet," he said. "I don't think it pays very well."