Essay

Radical Mission: What is Aish HaTorah Trying to Teach Young Jews?

By | October 22, 2013

(Courtesy of Aish HaTorah)

(Courtesy of Aish HaTorah)

On my first visit to Jerusalem, in the summer of 2011, I asked an ultra-Orthodox Jew for directions to the nearest ritual bath. The man shrugged and nodded his black-hatted head toward a pack of college-aged students. “Ask those brainwashed fellows over there,” he said before walking away, sidelocks swinging.

This was not the first time that I heard someone apply the term “brainwashed” to the educational efforts of Aish HaTorah (“Fire of the Torah”), an Orthodox outreach organization headquartered in Jerusalem. That summer, Aish’s students seemed to be all over Jerusalem’s Old City, lounging in the plazas, praying at the Western Wall, and sleeping in the same free religious youth hostel in which I was staying.

The boys, at least, were identifiable by their blend of casual American clothing and religious garments—a yarmulke, and perhaps some tzitzit, the fringed undershirts worn by traditional Jews. Inevitably, they were young diaspora Jews from non-Orthodox families. They came out of Aish classes talking about scientific proofs for the existence of God, and about the persuasive skill of their teachers. (I first heard the word “brainwashed” from an Aish student describing his classes.) I met a few students who, after spending time with Aish, were heading off to join the Israel Defense Forces. I met even more who spent much of their free time swapping slurs about Arabs and other non-Jews.

In March 2012, I traveled to Jerusalem again, this time to spend a week taking Aish classes. I didn’t find any brainwashing going on (whatever, exactly, that would look like). What I did find, though, was an educational operation skilled at projecting a moderate image, even as it espoused an immoderate, politicized form of Judaism. Aish may be Orthodox, but, I soon realized, its tactics are far from traditional. 

 

JEWS DON’T PROSELYTIZE non-Jews. But, starting in the 1960s, certain ultra-Orthodox groups began coordinated efforts to increase religiosity among liberal Jews—a category that includes Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews, all of whom are willing to interpret Jewish law broadly. Living in tight-knit communities, ultra-Orthodox Jews seldom interact with this side of the Jewish world. Organizations like Aish, and like the older, better-known Chabad-Lubavitch movement, are exceptions.

Noah Weinberg, an American rabbi, founded Aish in 1974. Early on, Weinberg decided that Jewish outreach was best practiced not by lifelong Orthodox Jews, but by those who had become religious as adults. Aish’s staff is unusual among Orthodox organizations in that it is composed mostly of ba’elei teshuva—Jews who switch to Orthodoxy later in life.

Since the 1970s, Aish has expanded from five students in a Jerusalem apartment block to an operation with outposts around the world, including gleaming headquarters in the heart of Jerusalem and offices in midtown Manhattan. Aish also has one of the largest Jewish presences on the web, with a million visits per month. Aish rabbis teach classes online, lecture at synagogues, and run programs at 27 permanent branches scattered across six continents. As a service to overworked Jewish executives, Aish offers a dial-a-rabbi program that sends Jewish teachers to corporate offices around Manhattan. 

Aish’s headquarters, though, best illustrate the organization’s influence. They overlook the Western Wall on what may be the finest piece of real estate in Jerusalem. The interior is wood-paneled and sleek, with white stone archways that pay tasteful homage to the architecture of Old Jerusalem, and a Dale Chihuly blown-glass sculpture in the middle of the atrium. Serious men in yarmulkes walk about. Their black suits speak “executive” more than “ultra-Orthodox.” I overheard one Aish rabbi with shaggy hair and foot-long sidelocks explain that he no longer taught in Aish’s introductory seminar because “you need to look more corporate.”

In Jerusalem, Aish rabbis teach free classes six days a week, on topics ranging from marriage to the Holocaust. As members of a missionizing organization, these rabbis demonstrate a concern with Truth and Testimony that often feels more Mormon than mensch. Aish would never use the word proselytize, of course. Understandably, though, students get confused.

During one class, I heard a young man ask, “If Jews are the 0.4 percent of the world population that are truth-holders, then why isn’t there a need to tell people?”

The teacher was bewildered. “There is.” 

“But Jews don’t evangelize,” the student pointed out.

The teacher changed the subject. 

I spent my first day at Aish taking the Discovery Seminar, Aish’s five-part, day-long introductory course. Aish claims on its website that ten thousand students take the class every year. That day, an elderly couple and a handful of young, non-Orthodox men were in attendance, along with an Orthodox rabbi who seemed interested in observing Aish’s methods, and sixty or so young women, all of them students in a yearlong Talmud study program. “You don’t have a chance with them,” their program director warned me, unprompted, some ninety seconds into our conversation. “They’re all Orthodox.” He reconsidered. “But they haven’t seen a man in months.” 

The Discovery Seminar teachers emphasize that they have no interest in faith. “The key word today is knowledge,” explained Rabbi Aaron Neckameyer, who grew up in Los Angeles and has a degree in marketing. “If the Torah is what the Torah claims to be, we can know it. We can verify it.” To do so, Aish’s rabbis borrow a logical rubric from Mossad, the Israeli counterpart to the CIA. Nicknamed “Failsafe,” this method is designed to test whether the sender of a message is who he claims to be—or, in the case of the Torah, who He claims to be.

All of this is a fancy way of saying that Aish thinks it can prove God’s existence by analyzing the Torah very, very carefully. It’s “the science of belief,” according to Aish’s website, and the result is a surreal blend of Hebrew School and math class. One lecture, developed by a rabbi with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows, with the help of relativity, that the first six days of creation could have lasted 15 billion years or so, reconciling the Torah and the Big Bang.

Other lectures focus on mild coincidences of the kind that lead people to hum the Twilight Zone theme song and giggle nervously. The executions that followed the Nuremberg trials, for example, had a number of strange parallels to the executions that conclude the Book of Esther. The coup de grâce, though, is a lesson about hidden codes in the Torah. Aish bases this lecture on a paper published in a statistics journal 20 years ago, which claims to find predictions of current events encoded in the Torah with a greater-than-random-chance probability. 

Aish presents the paper pretty well, with little mention of the controversy that followed. Afterward, people seem a little dazed. One of the Orthodox girls tells the lecturer that the code research is “really freaky.” Honestly, I found it a little freaky too. I was perturbed not so much by the idea of a true and definite God, as by the idea of a God who, after a few thousand years of inscrutability, would let Himself be known with such mathematical certainty.

Near the end of the Discovery Seminar, one of the lecturers went on a tangent and tried to show that the German people were probably descended from the Amalekites. The Amalekites, for those not familiar with Semitic grudges, are an enemy of the Biblical Israelites. According to Jewish law, one must kill Amalekites on sight—children included, no questions asked. Fortunately, no one knows who the descendants of Amalek are. When the messiah comes, though, some religious Jews believe that the identity of the Amalekites will be revealed, and a slaughter will commence.

This lecturer, it seems, was convinced that he would be killing Germans, based on a rather elaborate bit of textual interpretation. The visiting rabbi, at this point, became confused. He thought he spotted a logical flaw in the argument—a flaw that might exonerate Germany. The visiting rabbi sounded disappointed. 

“So we don’t have to kill the Germans when the moshiach comes?” he asked, sounding disappointed.

“Why not?” replied the Aish lecturer, scrambling to reconnect Berlin to Biblical nations. They debated a while longer. It remains unclear whether the German nation will be spared.

 

IT IS THE CONDITION of the religious moderate to live with ambiguities. It is the condition of the radical is to expunge them. One can be deeply religious, but still a moderate. It’s only when pushing a religion to its extremes, twisting and dodging around potential contradictions, and following the results no matter where they lead, that one becomes a radical.

Plenty of people do just fine with the ambiguities. Each morning of Passover, my otherwise observant grandmother would sit down to a bowl of steaming oatmeal. Many Catholics go to mass, say the rosary, and use contraception. Plenty of Jews condemn violence, fight genocide, and chant passages of Torah rife with righteous bloodshed.

If you ask religious Jews about Amalek, most will dodge the question, unless they’re pressed to justify their tradition. But for an organization like Aish, committed to the absolute truth of Jewish scripture, that kind of ambiguity is unthinkable. After all, Aish is in the business of presenting truths, not confronting mysteries.

The modern world has a tendency to push people in those radical directions. It asks the questions that moderates are happy to leave unasked, forcing them to rationalize strange, ancient, and perhaps harmless traditions. It really shouldn’t surprise us that a literalist fundamentalism has accompanied the rise of enlightenment rationalism. Something about that kind of thinking, when applied to a scripture, can force people into places no sane individual ever really wants to go. 

A similar pattern, perhaps, takes place among missionaries. Aish’s rabbis don’t just live an Orthodox lifestyle. They explain Orthodoxy to other Jews. They make it understandable. They make it seem rational. The result is not just a kind of Orthodoxy that is accessible to Jews of all backgrounds. It is also an Orthodoxy with no place for ambiguities. It is an Orthodoxy that is ripe to radicalize.

In 2008, an organization called the Clarion Fund, founded “to alert Americans about the threat of radical Islam,” began distributing millions of copies of a documentary called Obsession. The distribution effort targeted swing states in the 2008 presidential election. Despite a brief disclaimer noting that not all Muslims were violent extremists, Obsession quickly develops into a full-blown polemic about the jihad fermenting in our suburbs. Outraged by the documentary’s Islamophobic tone, one prominent American rabbi compared it to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 2012, a New York Times investigation found that the New York City Police Department had shown trainees a different Clarion Fund documentary, The Third Jihad, with a similarly Islamophobic message.

Aish, an ostensibly apolitical organization, denied any connection to the Clarion Fund back in 2008. The Clarion Fund denied any connection to Aish. But, as journalist Sarah Posner observed, Clarion’s president and two vice-presidents were also on Aish’s staff, and the Fund shared an address with Aish’s New York offices (the Clarion Fund has since moved its address).

In the classes I took with Aish, I didn’t hear any Islamophobic language. I did, however, hear racist remarks about Arabs and black Americans from the director of the Heritage House, a hostel in Jerusalem that works closely with Aish. And, as the Discovery Seminar’s material on Germans and Amalek makes clear, Aish is not opposed to violent commentary about large groups of people.

The Clarion Fund is not the only case of an Aish spin-off concealing its connection to the organization. JerusalemOnlineU, which offers web-based courses on Judaism for college credit, has also seemed eager to conceal its relationship with Aish, and with Orthodox Jewish outreach in general. JerusalemOnlineU was founded in 2009 by Raphael Shore, a former Aish employee, as a rebranding of Aish Café, an online course portal. 

When Tablet magazine asked Shore why his program’s promotional materials did not discuss any affiliation with Aish, Shore assured them that the website would soon acknowledge the connection. It took three more years, though, for JerusalemOnlineU to begin disclosing the connection. 

It may seem strange that Aish should be so circumspect. But the role of an Orthodox outreach organization is precarious. By its very nature, Aish targets a demographic far more liberal than itself, both religiously and politically. Aish does well to adopt as moderate an image as possible. In the case of the Clarion Fund, that means concealing its connection to controversial political activism. In the case of JerusalemOnlineU, that means creating a spin-off that, for a long time, avoided any reference to Orthodox Judaism at all. 

Despite its immoderate approach to religion and politics, Aish draws much of its financial support from the liberal Jewish world. On the Internet, Aish offers little information about its donors—and, as a religious organization, it is not required to disclose them. Judging by donor information at Aish headquarters, prominent backers include Canadian pharmaceutical magnate Leslie Dan (of Novopharm fame), someone named Steven Spielberg (probably he of Jurassic Park fame; the filmmaker has publicly endorsed Aish’s work); Jordan Slone (a real estate mogul from Virginia), and Shelton Zuckerman (another real estate developer, from the Washington, D.C. area, and president of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, a non-denominational Jewish community center there).

With its ultra-Orthodox roots and liberal Jewish donors, Aish straddles two worlds. Few other organizations could get an endorsement from a popular icon like Spielberg, yet route most of its funds through a foundation based in Lakewood, New Jersey—an Orthodox enclave that strictly censors its members’ exposure to the outside world, and a place in which Spielberg films are almost certainly taboo.

As part of its effort to appear moderate, Aish also solicits the support of politicians, actors, and other luminaries of modern culture. Online, Aish publishes endorsements from, among others, Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel, Larry King (a former Aish board member), former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Robert Hormats, an Under Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. It may seem strange that an organization that worked so hard to defeat Obama in 2008 would receive endorsements from a member of his administration. But this too is part of Aish’s strategy: build a web of connections so wide that your radicalism seems improbable. 

  

BACK IN JERUSALEM, Rabbi Motty Berger is lecturing in his Baltimore accent. “Ladies and gentlemen, the world does make sense. Crusades, the Holocaust: it really does make sense. You just have to figure out what’s going on in the world.” The lead-domed al-Aqba mosque—the world’s third-holiest site for Sunni Muslims, constructed atop the world’s holiest site for Jews—is visible outside the classroom windows.

Berger’s lectures are among the most popular in Aish’s Essentials Classes, the next step after a Discovery Seminar. March is a quiet month; attendance at each class ranges from four people to 20, nearly all of them young men.           

The Essentials Classes, Berger’s in particular, expand on many points covered only briefly in the Discovery Seminar. These points may be reduced to three key ideas: The modern, Western world has a rotten core; there is a good chance that Gentiles will destroy Judaism through violence or, worse, assimilation; and, yes, God is there, and His ways make sense. If I had to identity a fourth point, it would be this: it might not hurt to vote Republican.

Berger goes after Reform Judaism with particular zeal. “Being modern means checking with everyone else to see what goes,” Berger says. Jewish reformers embody this principle. “Once the Gentile does it, that’s what they do. When in 40 years people have marriages with their pets, then they’ll do that too.”

I come from a liberal, Reform Jewish household. Like other Reform Jews, I grew up understanding the Torah as a metaphor, the commandments as suggestions, and American culture as an unmitigated boon. I’m inclined to reject what Berger is saying. But it can be hard to find a response. Where is the unassailable Reform core? What do we have that will never change, no matter what everyone else does? To explain my positions, I can speak about universal ethics, try to trace the concept of human rights back to a Biblical origin, present a novel interpretation of the Ten Commandments, develop a heuristic for selecting among the laws which I will keep and which I will not, defend the worth of non-Jewish culture, or return to the religious hostel in which I’m staying, where I’ve artfully concealed a book on postmodern Jewish theology under a blanket.

All Berger has to do is point at a Torah.

Berger would claim that the difference between us is one of eras: my modern Reform jumble versus his pure and timeless faith. That claim is suspect. There’s not much in traditional Judaism quite like Aish, with its corporate headquarters, scientific lectures, and marketing mission. I doubt that my ultra-Orthodox acquaintances in Brooklyn would understand much of what goes on in a Discovery Seminar. Aish’s closest relative is Chabad-Lubavitch, the Hasidic missionizing juggernaut. But despite the shtetl trappings, the Orthodox outreach model is about as traditional as frozen yogurt or the Peace Corps (a Kennedy Administration innovation, and an inspiration for Chabad’s pioneering efforts, which in turn influenced Aish).* 

I’d say that the difference between Motty Berger and me has more to do with scale. Berger’s form of Orthodoxy takes the world in broad sweeps: the Jews are x, the Gentiles are y, and the Amalekites are just plain bad. The Torah is binding in its entirety, and the tradition is a unified thing, to be accepted all or naught. Liberal Judaism, like other manifestations of liberal religion, approaches the world in pieces. We do not evaluate entire peoples, but the individuals who make them up. We take the Torah commandment by commandment, and evaluate the tradition part by part.

Is that approach a more precise way to approach the world? Sure. Generalizations are riddled with error. But is it more compelling? My sidelocks are shaven, and I eat shrimp with gusto. Take my word, though. Radicalism is seductive.

For young Jews traveling to Israel, the most welcoming organizations tend to be radical. Flush with cash from wealthy Diaspora supporters, and completely devoted to outreach, they offer free classes, lodgings, meals, and trips—things liberal Jewish denominations provide more sparingly. If a moderate alternative exists, it’s not nearly so public.

Aish’s students are mostly young, American, and a little lost. They come to Aish hungry not only for a free lunch, but hungry to learn about their heritage. They want answers. They want rabbis who care. Aish offers both. It provides not only a Jewish education but a particular brand of certainty, a vision of the world in which science justifies Judaism, Judaism upholds truth, and truth is understandable and unambiguous.

To its donors, Aish offers a response to the perceived threat of assimilation—a way of keeping Judaism relevant and appealing; a way of bringing unaffiliated Jews back to synagogue. I don’t think that Aish can make good on that offer. Sure, radical ideologies have proven, time and again, their ability to survive and grow in the modern world. But Aish’s presentations, like many flashy things, don’t seem to have much substance. And the kind of certainty Aish offers is unstable: quick to bigotry, quick to defensiveness, quick to make its uglier side known.

That’s not to say Aish is harmless. Many Jews hate to show any discord in K’lal Yisrael—the greater Jewish community—but when we direct money toward an organization like Aish, or even give it our tacit support, we allow it to lay claim to one possible Jewish future, in which the most forceful, most public expressions of the faith are also the most radical. All religious groups, of course, have to figure out how they’ll survive into the next generation. But, as Aish illustrates, survival alone is not the goal. It’s important to know what kind of faith it is that you’re helping to keep alive.

Michael Schulson is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina.

*The sentence has been changed to reflect the fact that Peace Corps was “an” inspiration for Chabad, but not “the” inspiration. 

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