Playing with Fire- published by the Jewish Socialists
by Clifford Singer
Are young, thinking Jews being targeted by a new Jewish fundamentalism?
'What are the key values needed to perfect our world?' asks the voiceover. A good question deserves a good answer, and it is provided by the words that float across the screen: 'Social Responsibility ... Women's Rights ... Environmentalism ... Activism ... Equality ... Freedom of Speech.'
Chanukah: This Is Your Light is one of 20 introductory films on Aish HaTorah's website, and presses all the right buttons for the young progressive Jew. Aish (as it likes to be abbreviated) is a success story of Jewish outreach, with its mission to 'stem assimilation by reaching out and building bridges between Jews of all persuasions'. It boasts 2 million web visits each month, a mailing list of 170,000 subscribers, and offers programmes in 80 cities around the world. Aish is also the inventor of 'speed dating', and hosts popular evenings where Jewish singles meet each other in quickfire succession.
The organisation has been praised by Bill Clinton, Michael Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Al Gore, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Elie Weisel, Larry King and Steven Spielberg, who is quoted as saying: 'Thank you Aish HaTorah for the good work you do and the message you put out. I could have used you in my life about 25 years ago.' 
The breezy prose on Aish's website, with its tales of personal growth and acts of kindness, suggests an organisation that is liberal and broadminded, with a dash of Californian self-help therapy. But the values that guide Aish are not those of Liberal, Reform, or even Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its credo is that of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi movement. Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah) insists on the inerrant truth of the Bible, which it believes was dictated by God to Moses.
However, Aish differs from traditional Haredi groups in three ways. Firstly, its outreach work, which aims to convert secular Jews to Orthodoxy, is its overriding priority, not merely a spin-off. Orthodox converts – or ba'alei teshuvah (those who have repented) – make up most of its membership, and its yeshiva programs combine traditional Talmudic studies with intensive training in outreach and leadership skills.
Secondly, it has hitched its social conservatism to an aggressively neoconservative stance on the Middle East. Its donors and well-wishers may include liberals and conservatives, but the political voices on its website extend from the right to the far right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, Natan Sharansky, Melanie Phillips and Charles Krauthammer.
Third, it advocates a 'one step at a time' approach to Judaism, allowing members to develop their observance at their own pace. For Aish, this is testimony to its openness and tolerance, and it has certainly succeeded in attracting those who would be otherwise repelled by the 'black hat brigade'. But critics say Aish uses this approach to hide its true aims from prospective recruits. Aish's outreach work is focused mainly on the under-30s, who it attracts with slick advertising and hip graphics that give little hint of its ultra-Orthodox agenda. Some parents have accused it of having a cult-like influence on their children.
How has Aish overcome such controversy to become a multi-million dollar operation, occupying a prominent place in Jewish life? The organisation began life as a small yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1974, founded by US-born Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Weinberg came from a non-Hasidic tradition – known as Lithuanian Judaism or Mitnagdim – but was influenced by the success of the Hasidic Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who pioneered Orthodox outreach in the 1960s.
Schneerson was part of a generation of Orthodox Jews that had fled to the US to escape the Holocaust. At first, the community was inward-looking, keen to insulate itself from the 'treyf' (unkosher) state that was now its home. But as it grew in confidence, Schneerson's followers began to recruit among other Jews. At the same time, there was increasing concern among Jewish leaders over out-marriage and assimilation rates. By the late 1960s approximately one in six US Jews were marrying non-Jews, a three-fold increase on the previous decade. And many Jews were leaving the community, in some cases to join new religious movements like Hare Krishna and the Unification Church (Moonies), which had disproportionately high Jewish memberships.
For some Jews influenced by the counterculture, Schneerson's Hasidism, imbued with celebration and mysticism, provided an alluring alternative to the dreary ritual of mainstream Judaism. Others took their spiritual search to Israel, where they found a welcome in institutions such as those run by the charismatic Weinberg. Four years before founding Aish HaTorah, Weinberg had established the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, which was also dedicated to kiruv (orthodox outreach). But his split from Ohr Somayach heralded a more far-reaching vision. Adam Ferziger, Fellow in Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, writes:
Ohr Somayach felt that success was determined by whether a newly observant student dedicated himself to a life of learning. Rabbi Weinberg, in contrast, hoped that once a student had adjusted to religious life, he would either become a kiruv worker or join the secular workforce. Through his interaction with other Jews, he would have the ability to help the weakly affiliated become observant.
Aish Hatorah has developed an entire ideology and system of outreach. In order to make sure that its approach is properly implemented, its leaders foster an 'Aish culture' among their students, who are viewed as the future of the institution. It is, indeed, this 'Aish culture' that is the most distinctive characteristic of Aish Hatorah’s Rabbinical Ordination/Leadership Program (ROLP). Even the more traditional classes on subjects such as Talmud and Jewish legal codes focus on that which one needs to know in order to become an effective outreach rabbi.
A particularly unique aspect of ROLP is the significant amount of time spent training the students to deal with questions that they will be asked when they are out in the field. The students practice simulation games in which they debate their position against rabbis who assume the roles of non-affiliated Jews, reform rabbis, potential donors, and so on.
Underlying Weinberg's zeal is his belief that 'if 20,000 Jewish kids were being killed each year, you'd be jolted into action and launch a movement to save them. Today, we're losing 20,000 Jewish kids each year through assimilation.'  Aish rabbi Daniel Mechanic is even blunter: 'The Jewish people are currently experiencing a spiritual Holocaust. That is why Aish HaTorah stands at the front of the battle against rampant assimilation and intermarriage.' 
The Aish armoury of tools to reach the uninitiated includes: Discovery seminars (one-day crash courses offering 'scientific' proof of the Torah's divine origins), Shabbatonim (Friday night discussions hosted by a rabbi), subsidised trips abroad (destinations include Israel, Australia and South Africa), and the Aish website (www.aish.com) translated into five languages.
The organisation tailors its message to niche audiences. Its New York website has the slogan 'Adventures in urban Judaism' and is full of attractive, clean-cut twentysomethings who look like a Gap advert. The UK site uses rave-type graphics and music to advertise its summer trips, entitled 'Ozzy Hip Hop', 'Israeli Trance' and 'New York Vibe'. 'Israeli Trance' promises white-water rafting, quad biking and beach barbecues along with an opportunity to 'thrash out' major issues such as 'Judaism meets science', 'Does God exist?' and 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'
Aish Los Angeles targets 18-22 year olds with a $99 'Paradise Adventure Tour' to Costa Rica. It is a tempting offer but the devil is in the small print: 'This program is heavily subsidized. Participants agree to participate fully in all events and activities on the schedule to receive the advertised price... Failure to attend may result in the participant forfeiting his or her subsidy for that day (up to $250 per day).'
Like the evangelical Protestant Alpha Course and Catholic Opus Dei, Aish has a particular penchant for the young and affluent, and restricts many of its activities to 'YJPs' – Young Jewish Professionals. New Yorkers can join the Aish MBA Community, a 'group of Jewish business leaders and students who are exploring their heritage while advancing their business acumen,' while London professionals can attend Aish in the City lunchtime meetings, hosted by media and telecoms corporation IDT.
Aish also offers an Executive Learning Program, providing personal tuition by a rabbi. Participants have included corporate executives and Hollywood stars. 'Learning one-on-one with a rabbi is what's "in" these days in the States,' Rabbi Ephraim Shore, a former Aish HaTorah executive director, told Ma'ariv in 2000. 'Celebrities will come, learn for an hour a week and then visit Israel – and they become our international ambassadors. Some may donate to Aish HaTorah and help the organisation with forming further contacts.' 
Following a flattering full-page profile of Aish in the Jewish Chronicle in 2003, one mother wrote to complain: 'Aish prides itself on being dedicated to preventing intermarriage, something which I uphold. What I do not uphold is the way in which it attracts young Jewish men and women to take part in a cheap holiday and then, little by little, as they attend their events and educational study groups they become "Aished". My son did exactly that... Aish has completely changed his life and mine.'
She added: 'I agree with [Aish UK joint executive director] Rabbi Schiff that "God would prefer 50,000 proud Jews" to "50 frum [religious] Jews". My son was a proud Jew and has now become a frum Jew. Many would applaud that, but not me. His life is ruled purely by the Torah. He will not eat in my house and adheres to every single mitzvah.'
Another parent wrote: 'Despite Aish’s modern marketing methods, and what Rabbi Schiff claims... in reality Aish has no regard for the 21st century. It takes people born Jewish and turns them into extreme Jews, with no thought for their families. Aish would argue that its mission is to stop assimilation, but the reality is that it creates fanatical Jews, with little regard for the fallout effect.'
Similar views are expressed by a mother on Rick Ross's cult-watch website: 'Although I am resigned to my son choosing a very different lifestyle than mine, I feel it is a loss. My child can never travel with me, eat in my home – or really be a part of the rest of our family and friends. The hardest part is now I know that this is not what my son actually planned for himself, but rather the direct result of how he was influenced through what began as a vacation trip to Israel.' 
In his 2002 paper for the Jewish Journal of Sociology, Aaron Tapper concluded that Aish exhibited each of the characteristics of a new religious movement (a term he preferred to 'cult'). He defined these characteristics as:
a charismatic leader; submission to authority; a rigid ideology, including a fundamentalist approach to theology; a promotion of apocalyptic beliefs; a communal lifestyle; isolation from one's family; hate and/or fear of outsiders; active missionary work, including attempts to convert outsiders to its way of religious life; an an excessive focus on fundraising.
Noting the contrast between the organisation's public and private face he added:
Aish HaTorah is much more open and candid about its ultra-Orthodox perspective in the environment of its yeshiva, whereas in other venues – such as in its outreach centers and the programmes offered there – Aish HaTorah advertises itself as a pluralistic, all-inclusive environment.
In Aish's defence, many former members testify to having benefited from their time in the organisation, and Tapper possibly overstates his case when he compares the Unification Church's strategy of 'love-bombing' (enveloping recruits in feigned love) to the 'extremely warm environment, in both [Aish's] outreach centers and its yeshiva'. However, Tapper should be commended for asking the right questions when so few others have. Mainstream Jewish institutions and media outlets have fawned over Aish HaTorah while failing to offer any scrutiny of its outreach methods. Even if Aish's activities have divided only a minority of families, that is a troubling record for a 'pro-family' organisation, and at the very least community newspapers like the Jewish Chronicle have a responsibility to follow their readers' concerns.
One reason Aish is given such an easy ride is that many Jews share its obsession with 'marrying out'. Even the mother who despaired of her son's transformation felt compelled to preface her letter by proclaiming her opposition to intermarriage.[...]
Monday, July 21, 2008
Kiruv IX - Aish HaTorah as viewed by secular Jewish critics
The following is an article written by someone who is antagonistic to kiruv and Orthodox Judaism and kiruv in general. Despite that it is well written and researched. It not only concerns itself with making people Orthodox but also the attitude towards science and evolution as well as the right wing political views that Aish supports.