Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kiruv VI - an embarrassingly shoddy attack on Aish HaTorah from Jerusalem Post

Jerusalem Post just published a very egregious example of a poorly done expose. It deals with the supposed "brain washing" dished out by Aish HaTorah and accuses it of intellectual dishonesty and failure to make any lasting impact of the lives of participants. The basic theme is that "I was strong enough in my lust for sex and secular values so that I was able to survive unchanged by their best efforts to break me."
The author also asserts from her personal experience that Orthodoxy is tiresome and an unrealistic lifestyle for normal people. I was shocked that a supposed newspaper reporter would naively generalize her feelings to the rest of mankind - in the name of objective reporting. She can perhaps be excused since she is only an intern - but what happened to the professional judgment of the editor who approved this hatchet job? If she is reading this, she is invited to visit some Orthodox Jews - who still have managed to retain not only their intellectual faculties but also their enjoyment and excitement of Judaism after many years of living in the real world.
I am only mentioning this article because it is an example of the secular/non-Orthodox propaganda which labels presenting alternatives to the secular world as brain-washing or producing cults. It is also a reminder that while the issue of how to deal with intermarriage in kiruv is problematic - it does not detract from the tremendous work that these organizations are doing and the dedication and talent their workers manifest.

You've been Aish'd...

by Danielle Kubes , an intern at The Jerusalem Post before returning for her final year in humanities and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

With a brand-new, floor-length skirt swishing against the linoleum tiles, I walked into school the first day of 11th grade to confused stares. Where had the graphic, midriff-baring T-shirts and sweatpants gone?

Three weeks of my summer vacation had been spent traveling the West Coast of the United States with an Orthodox outreach youth group. Alongside Grand Canyon hikes, I had been immersed in Halacha (Jewish law), and becoming "modest" seemed like a natural step.

How did a 15-year-old girl of the 21st century, who gave no thought to slipping tank-top straps, underage clubbing and kissing boys in camp cabins, end up considering covered elbows and knees a necessary virtue?

High school and university campuses have noticed this phenomenon for years: Their friends come back after school breaks from Orthodox outreach programs clutching Artscroll siddurs, imbued with a penchant for Zionism and an aversion to intermarriage.

"They've been Aish'd," is the commonly whispered comment, equivalent to "They've been brainwashed."

The number of Orthodox outreach programs for non-Orthodox youth, like those of Aish Hatorah and NCSY, have exploded in the past decade. According to the Aish Hatorah Web site, it alone entices more than 100,000 people in 17 countries to its programs annually. Many of the programs offer several week-long trips combining learning and traveling in Israel, Canada or the US. They are ridiculously low-priced, often up to five times less than other tour groups.

The participants pay through other means, though; they absorb a particular brand of Judaism that seems to be an extra ingredient in the twin hallot eaten every Friday evening.

"They overload you with free stuff, and then you work because you want it. You'll do anything," says Sarah, a participant on two Israel programs and several long-term programs in Canada by Aish Hatorah and NCSY.

IS JUDAISM so compelling, so inherently true, that as soon as youths discover it, they cannot stay away?

In fact, Orthodox Jewish laws are exotic and offer a reverse way for youth to rebel. Drugs, drinking and sex are all passé rebellions by now. But how many young people actually refuse to touch the opposite sex? These organizations are offering an exciting way to be different and get attention.

Still, it's a tiresome lifestyle to maintain - and after the programs end, most participants don't. As valuable as the Orthodox lifestyle may be, the methods used by these organizations are eerily cultish and the results often short-lived.

The organizations present their Judaism as the uniquely accurate one, the Halacha that the non-Orthodox have merely forgotten but that all their ancestors invariably followed. Their assumption that all our great-great-grandparents grew up in an Eastern European shtetl contributes to divisiveness among Jews, for it fails to acknowledge that Halacha has had a variety of interpretations across different times and cultures.

A fellow participant on my trip was ignored by advisers when she remarked that for some Sephardim, the only halachic requirement was to be more modest than one's neighbors, and that the stringent laws that guide current frum fashion (good-bye collarbones, elbows and knees) were unnecessary. Outright dismissal of alternative views may drive sales of skirt manufacturers, but it is not beneficial to learning about the history of Judaism.

SOME PROGRAMS make participants adhere closely to Orthodoxy, and others just introduce them to it. But all are extremely effective at what they do by using rudimentary indoctrination techniques .

They remove participants from their normal environment and place them in a new, vulnerable context. Traveling is a mentally exhausting experience in any case. How much more so that is in Israel, where one suddenly finds oneself part of the majority - an intensely emotional experience that these programs capitalize on. Foreign ideas suddenly seem reasonable: Instead of lecturing someone with mostly secular friends to stop eating pork, it is easier to just stop serving it for a month in a completely Jewish environment.

Within such an environment, participants are made to feel guilty about a lack of observance. The organizations criticize the secular lifestyle as hollow so that young people, always in search of identity, undergo a crisis of confusion about which path to take.

A FALSE dilemma is presented: Be secular and remain in impurity, where life is merely a game played for fun - or move toward a purpose and filled with holiness.

When presented so simply, which road seems more attractive?

The organizations transmit these teachings through trip leaders who often succeed in making observance seem fun and relevant, at least for the duration of the program.

But the teachings are superficial and the Orthodox world they present bears not a trace of dissatisfaction: Never did I ever hear a speaker or trip leader discuss any problems within the Orthodox world. Apparently, as long as they follow proper Halacha, everybody is happy and fulfilled, with neither depression nor repression, money nor domestic problems.

The female trip leaders imparting the message of how wonderful Halacha is are born Orthodox, with a sweet, never-been-kissed, perky charm. Unfortunately, they are unable to relate to the secular world, where they have had no experience. Instead, they drivel out the same stock responses on subjects like why to refrain from touching boys: Everyone has heard "your soul is a diamond that should be kept in a special case" a hundred times.

Metaphors like those sound wonderful and make superficial sense, but falter in the face of hormonal reality. The counsellors shut their ears to truthful comments such as "I want sex as much as he does." Their simplistic response is: "But as a female, you really want him to love you and hold you instead."

By addressing issues from an archaic, non-scientific, pseudo-psychological perspective and refusing to believe that at times women can be just as sexual, forceful and unemotional as men, participants are left with beautiful-sounding concepts that prove unworkable upon return to the secular world.

PARTICIPATION IN these programs is similar to a summer romance, which is removed from reality through a heady mix of sun and beach. It lacks imposing obligations. Everything moves fast and intensely, yet rarely lasts.

"They make you some kind of fake family, that's why you feel all religious there. And then you get home and see your real family... and that's the way you have to live," says Sarah.

Many absorb Halacha like a sponge. But a few weeks back into one's regular routine in the secular world, the rational reasons for not touching boys, praying before meals and refraining from electricity on the Sabbath fade as fast as a dream.

Running into those who have remained Orthodox, unrecognizable from only a few years earlier, is an uncanny experience. They often work for outreach organizations and are as unsettling to me as Evangelical Christians.

As for me, was I "Aish'd"? Well, I'm spending this summer in Israel, but I'm wearing jeans.

7 comments :

  1. Christian leanings at the Jerusalem Post

    * Chris McGreal
    * The Guardian,
    * Thursday October 20, 2005


    The strange and uneasy embrace between the Jewish state and America's evangelical right is being tightened. At the beginning of next year Israel's oldest English-language paper, the Jerusalem Post, is to launch a Christian edition. The Post, a widely respected paper until it fell into former owner Conrad Black's clutches, is seeking to bolster its North American circulation by building on the blossoming relationship between the Israeli right and Christian fundamentalists.

    The relationship is not an easy one. Bush-backing evangelists are among Ariel Sharon's best friends in a hostile world. The politics mesh easily but underpinning them is a belief among the fundamentalists that the revival of the Israeli state is a precursor to the Second Coming. And with that goes a desire to get Jews to recognise the First Coming and save themselves from eternal damnation. Israel passed laws against that kind of evangelising decades ago, but these days the Jerusalem Post, like the government, is less concerned with the hereafter than the here and now.

    The paper is getting together with the International Christian Embassy (ICE) in Jerusalem - an organisation that says it exists to "comfort Zion" and "declare the purpose of God to the Jewish people" - to publish a monthly Christian edition from January principally aimed at American fundamentalists.

    "The content is going to be jointly put together by the Jerusalem Post and the International Christian Embassy," says the Post's editor, British-born David Horowitz. "It'll be things like archaeology and tourism and ideological arguments and dilemmas and so on. Obviously, when your predominant mindset is a Jewish audience there are different stresses that go into providing content, whereas if you're doing it for a Christian audience there are going to be very different emphases and different focuses."

    The Post's brand of politics should appeal to the targeted audience with its emphasis on the shortcomings of negotiations over tanks. But the paper even surprised some of its own readers last year with a leader calling for the assassination of Yasser Arafat. Its columnists spend a good deal of time insisting that there never was a country called Palestine, and therefore never should be, on the same comment page that each day states the paper is published by the Palestine Post Ltd.

    But Horowitz recognises that an overt relationship with the evangelists is a tricky one. "The International Christian Embassy has been operating in Israel for many years and they are very aware of the framework. There are laws in Israel against giving inducement to people to convert and that organisation has operated within the framework to the satisfaction of the Israeli government. That is actually very important to me."

    The Israeli government has good reason to be pleased. The ICE today launches a campaign against the growing support within the Presbyterian and other churches to divest from Israel in protest at the occupation. A couple of years ago, the vice president of the World Jewish Congress, Isi Leible, pondered the meaning of the newfound relationship between Israel and the American religious right in an article for the Jerusalem Post. He said many Israelis would have been appalled at ties with people regarded as "anti-Semites obsessed with a fanatical urge to convert us".

    Politics has overcome - as has the Post's dire financial situation. But Leible concluded it is better that some things remain undiscussed. "Their [the evangelists'] support for Israel is based upon the belief that the Jews must be sovereign in their land as a precursor to the Second Coming. These and other theological issues should never be explored".



    This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday October 20 2005 on p2 of the Comment & features section. It was last updated at 07:26 on October 20 2005.

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  2. A bet on Christian readers for The Jerusalem Post
    By Doreen Carvajal
    Published: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2004

    The Jerusalem Post, an English-language newspaper born in Israel in 1932 as The Palestine Post, is about to get new owners who are betting they can rebuild its circulation by reaching an international readership of Jews and fundamentalist Christians.

    CanWest Global Communications in Winnipeg, Manitoba, joined with the Israeli media company Mirkaei Tikshoret last week in the $13.2 million purchase of the newspaper and its sister weekly magazine, The Jerusalem Report. The Post was one of the high-profile papers that made up Conrad Black's media empire, which has been sold in pieces by Hollinger International's new management in the wake of financial scandals.

    Under Hollinger's management since 1989, The Post itself endured unrest as the newspaper's editorial voice shifted from left to center-right, prompting an exodus of journalists. In September, a new editor in chief replaced Bret Stephens, who was 28 when he started more than two years ago as the youngest top editor in the newspaper's history. Stephens returned to his former employer, The Wall Street Journal, where he is on the editorial board.

    The new editor, David Horovitz, 42, a veteran of The Jerusalem Post who was chief editor of The Jerusalem Report, said that the newspaper's staff was cautiously optimistic about the ownership shift and he was "pleased that several months of instability are coming to an end." He added, "I'm hopeful that The Post will now have stable and savvy ownership."

    He said he did not think that the editorial voice of The Post would change "because the first indication is that they bought the paper because they think it's excellent and they can do some great things."
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    Within the Israeli press, there has been speculation that the new owners would demolish The Post's office building in the Romema neighborhood of Jerusalem and sell the pricey real estate in an area of high demand among the city's Orthodox population.

    Geoffrey Elliot, vice president for CanWest's global affairs, cautioned that "no decisions will be taken right away" with regard to the building, but noted that "it has a value that is a significant part of the purchase price."

    "There is considerable potential," he added, "to build circulation, ad revenues and influence of The Jerusalem Post because of the sales, marketing, circulation, promotional and other capacities CanWest already has in North America."

    Elliot said CanWest believed that it could attract new readers among the Christian right, who live mainly in the United States and have a strong interest in the Middle East. "Those demographic numbers in middle America are very significant and we believe they represent a potential, largely untapped market," he said.

    The Post is CanWest's first newspaper outside Canada, and the company's executives have ambitions to increase The Jerusalem Post's print circulation in particular in Montreal, Toronto and New York and to expand its reach through its Web site. The paper's rapidly growing online version, which is the most frequently visited Israeli web site with 14 million page views a month, accounts for almost 20 percent of The Post's advertising revenues.

    In 2003, the Post's circulation in Israel was 11,486 for its daily editions and 24,832 for its Friday weekend version, according to Elliot. Its international edition, which circulates largely in the United States, was 25,978 and the weekly French language edition was 3,083.

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  3. I wonder whether or not this reporter has ever visited an Aish Hatorah seminar or knows any of its Rabbis. This is not a complicated issue like writing about the president of the United States.

    Aish Hatorah is very accessible. Especially for the media. It is not some organization full of weird inside secrets.

    Writing about a phenominon without interviewing the participants is very bad form.

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  4. Recipients and PublicityJuly 21, 2008 at 8:40 AM

    AISH HATORAH AND CONTROVERSY ARE NOT NEW TO EACH OTHER!

    While Aish HaTorah is arguably the most successful young adult kiruv program in the world (not inclusive of Chabad, or of NCSY with is for teens), starting from a handful of students in the mid-1970s its empire has been built up by its founder, guide and rosh yeshiva, Rav Noach Weinberg, from a dream he had and a handful of students to a worldide multi-multi-million empire that has recruited billionares, and the likes of Hollywood directors and moguls like Steven Spielberg and has spawned programs that have promoted the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Bibi Netanyahu and Micheil Gorbachev and many others.

    It is well known that in the USA, Rav Elya Svei, the rosh yeshiva of the Philadelphia yeshiva, had often levelled public criticism's of them and that it was part of a rivalry of Hashkofas between the very yeshivish Rav Elya Svei and Rav Noach's brother and Aish's mentor the more eclectic Rav Yaakov Weinberg, late rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore MD.

    The Haredi world in America is never sure what to make of Aish HaTorah and how to react to them.

    Essentially Aish stays clear of all major yeshivas and their leadership in America.

    They have there own internal leadership system with the most successful Aish rabbis (meaning those who have raised the most millions or better yet, tens of millions each for Aish) and they answer to noone but Rav Noach Weinberg and a few carefully chosen close assistants that act like a "ruling council" based mostly in Aish Jerusalem. All Aish rabbis have their own internal confernecin Jerusalem at least once a year and they all the skills and tools of the modern technological and business age.

    The Aish HaTorah phenomenon ties in with the second phase of the age of kiruv in the world. The first Golden Phase of Kiruv from the early 1950s to the 1980s was an idealistic age with Baalei Teshuva returning for idealistic reasons and few old-time Aish rabbis come from that time, but they are a tiny minority.

    Most Aish rabbis were hand-picked and groomed from the 1980s onwards, they are Yuppies - with a "Y" - (short for "young urban professional" or "young upwardly-mobile professional") http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuppieand Generations X-ers (a term used to describe generations in many countries around the world born from 1965 to around 1982) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X who are "operators" and businessmen with the attitudes of investment bankers and hedge fund speculators, products of the rise of the age of the "Masters of the Universe" types, as described in the Tom Wolf novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bonfire_of_the_Vanities when Wall Street greed and materialism were the order of the day and the age of the Hippies (with an "H") was finally buried.

    Aish HaTorah understands the age of materialism and the shallowness that is the outcome of the comfortable lifestyle and it has adjusted its calling card and signal to that frequency and thereby gets its audience's attention, but at the same time, many of its cadre of activist rabbis also come from this same milieu and while that may make them superb kiruv professionals, but to some looking in from the outside they can come across and are seen for the shallow, power hungry, manipulative and GREEDY lot that they often are.

    So that rather than knocking the writer of this article and saying "well there go the secular again" try to stop a minute, take what it says with a grain of salt and not get so self-righteously upset that only looks like a smokescreen for honest debate and analysis, and tune in to the inner core of what is being said and it is not a flattering picture because the truth in this case is not flattering.

    Now of course making people frum is a great thing and it is what kiruv is ultimately all about, but it is known among all reliable kiruv circles that Aish HaTorah plays loose with lots and lots of things to achieve its own goals and it is well-known in the kiruv world that Aish will facilitate with shady conversions if they have to, and it cannot be otherwise because they are so connected to the intermarried young generation X-ers and many of them are just not Halachic Jews. Like for Chabad, and for Rabbi Leib Tropper and his EJF, it's tough for Aish because so much BIG money, prestige, power and jobs are at stake!

    So it's a tough call for them and for the frum world that is expecting positive fruits from all this kiruv activity and hallabaloo, but to resort to knee-jerk defenses of Aish on this blog is not required because Aish has it's own websites and propaganda machines that are supported by tens of millions of dollars that are meant to go to kiruv and "outreach" so let's see how they react it and not shed crocodile tears for them.

    There is much more to be said about Aish and how it has both helped and corrupted the world of kiruv. They want to have their cake and eat it so that sometimes that can lead to indigestion and vomit.

    To be continued...

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  5. wow....that was an impressive amount of loshon hara about a surprisingly large number of people.
    kudos.
    (looks like you could use a dose of kiruv yourself)

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  6. Recipients and PublicityAugust 5, 2008 at 4:06 PM

    Aish HaTorah finally gets around with its own official reply to "You've been Aish'd..."

    http://www.aish.com/jewishissues/jewishsociety/On_Being_Aishd.asp

    4 Av 5768 / 5 August 2008

    "On Being Aish'd

    by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

    What is the secret of Aish HaTorah's success?

    What does it mean to "be Aish'd," a term recently discussed in the Jerusalem Post ("You've been Aish'd...," July 17)?

    With the Jewish world experiencing rampant assimilation, intermarriage and apathy, it's hard not to be surprised by the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of secular Jews getting turned on to traditional Judaism through one of the myriad of programs offered by Aish HaTorah and similar organizations. What is the secret of their success? For starters, let's look at the wide variety of Aish HaTorah's programs and ask: What is the common denominator?

    Since 1983 - long before Birthright came on the scene - Jerusalem Fellowships has brought thousands of college students to Israel on subsidized programs to tour the land, learn about Israel and get a taste of the depth and meaning of their Jewish heritage.

    Hasbara Fellowships, which started in 2001 in partnership with the Foreign Ministry to combat anti-Israel propaganda, has become one of the leading pro-Israel networks on campuses in North America, bringing 1,450 students from over 200 campuses to Israel.

    Honest Reporting, the popular media watchdog organization, was initially launched by Aish HaTorah (it is now an independent organization).

    The SpeedDating phenomenon was started by an Aish rabbi and students to promote Jews meeting Jews.

    Some 100,000 people attend live Aish HaTorah programs in hundreds of cities, and Aish.com, the world's most popular Judaism Web site, attracts 2.5 million monthly visits and has 260,000 unique e-mail subscribers.

    What's going on here? Actually, it's simple. Aish HaTorah and other outreach organizations have the most powerful "product" in the universe - the Torah. Torah is the Almighty's instructions for living. The Torah teaches us how to maximize our pleasure and potential in life. It's the owner's manual, the blueprint of creation and the most revolutionary book in history. As the Talmud says: "Turn it over, turn it over -- everything is in it."

    Torah sells itself. For the first time in their lives, many young Jews see Judaism as a basis to answer the most important questions: How can I live a meaningful life? How can I build successful relationships, deal honestly in business and fulfill my personal potential? How can I really make a difference in the world?

    Who knew that Judaism was dealing with such important questions? Everything Aish does stems from this. Give Jews who haven't had the opportunity to explore the relevance of Torah, to grapple with Judaism's approach to some of life's thorniest issues, and they will come away from the experience with a newfound pride in their heritage. Many of them will want to continue expanding their knowledge and nurture their commitment to Jewish values and practice. Aish's approach is that every individual must go at the pace that is comfortable.

    One of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish people is apathy about Judaism and Israel. Apathy stems from ignorance: Can we expect intelligent men and women to care about something they know nothing about, except negative stereotypes, misconceptions and "Holocaust Judaism"? Only with an understanding of the meaning of being Jewish can a Jew make his or her own choice about their Jewish identity. It can't be made in a vacuum.

    The Torah emphasizes building a rational basis of belief, to engage one's mind, stimulate the intellect through questioning and debate, and thereby nourish the soul. It does not endorse leaps of faith, all-or-nothing decisions or disengagement from the world. Jewish life requires both the mind and heart, but the mind must lead the heart.

    Aish HaTorah gives Jews from all backgrounds, in a language they can relate to, the chance to deepen their education and taste the beauty and meaning of their heritage. While Judaism introduced its values to the world millennia ago, young Jews today realize that Judaism isn't about archaic ritual but about profound wisdom that is important today as ever.

    Young Jews are attracted to the idea of tikkun olam - the Jewish people's history and destiny to serve as a light unto the nations. Once inspired, they become motivated to take an active role in tackling the main challenges of the day and bettering the world.

    So what does it mean to be Aish'd? It means to become educated, to strengthen one's Jewish pride through knowledge and understanding. It means to grow Jewishly, one step at a time. It means replacing apathy with idealism. It means standing up for Israel and respecting every Jew. It means taking responsibility for the world, using the Torah as our guide, because that is the mission of the Jewish people. And most of all, being Aish'd means to love being Jewish.

    This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

    Author Biography:

    Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith is the co-editor of Aish.com and director of Research and Development for Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. He is the author of Shmooze: A Guide to Thought-Provoking Discussion on Essential Jewish Issues."

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  7. Recipients and PublicityAugust 6, 2008 at 11:25 PM

    The New Times get's "Aish'd" with some positive PR as some kind of deliberate counterbalance to the critiques it faced in the "You've Been Aish'd" article in the JP.

    With it's balatant appelas to elitism, it seems like some business folks, note who Aish targets and appeals to, like to be "Aish'd" and will pay top dollar for that privilege. This is something that Aish rabbis get taught and that they don't teach in a regular Bais Medrash program:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/nyregion/06rabbis.html?em

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