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.
Playing with Fire- published by the Jewish Socialists

October, 2006

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.' [1]

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.

Ferziger adds:

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.[2]

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.' [3] 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.' [4]

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 ( 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.' [5]

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.' [6]

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.[7]

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.[...]


  1. Professional kiruv is ruining Orthodoxy by presenting it to secular customers as something they will benefit from if they adopt the lifestyle.
    Yet Chazal said that mitzvos were not for benefitting from!
    There is a parallel article on this in the Jpost which shows the damage that happens when someone sees through the glib, "it's good for you" Aish/Ohr act.

  2. Twenty, thirty years ago when a young person became religious via Ohr Sameach, Aish or Chabad, the proud parents would marvel that they had somehow raised a child who was "better" than they were.

    In those days, young people were drawn to kiruv programs because of the influence of their observant grandparents.

    Todays Baalei Teshuva don't have it so easy; their highly secular parents' beliefs are entrenched not only in being non religious but more often than not, also in elements of other religions. These parents will often (as in this article) reject their own children for observing the religion of their great grandparents.

    Aish's programs are good overall. I just wish they would be more careful to discern "who is a Jew" before admitting people to their programs.

    We have a number of competent missionaries who studied Judaism at Ohr Sameach or Aish.

  3. garnel ironheart said...

    "Professional kiruv is ruining Orthodoxy by presenting it to secular customers as something they will benefit from if they adopt the lifestyle.
    Yet Chazal said that mitzvos were not for benefitting from!
    There is a parallel article on this in the Jpost which shows the damage that happens when someone sees through the glib, "it's good for you" Aish/Ohr act."

    Ruining orthodoxy? Have we decended to a farther rung of tumah because of kiruv? Please!

    Also if you are going to makarve people, you have to make a sales pitch. Are we to start a dialogue with secular people by opening up all of are dirty laundry? G-d had the privilege of holding the mountain over our heads. We don't.

  4. garnel ironheart said, "Professional kiruv is ruining Orthodoxy by presenting it to secular customers as something they will benefit from if they adopt the lifestyle."

    Perhaps it's ruining Orthodoxy, or perhaps it's not - I don't know. What I do feel is that the type of kiruv that focuses on selling Judaism primarily as a system of living that leads to the "good life" - stable families with low divorce rates, happy children that respect their parents, a strong sense of community and purpose among its adherents, etc., etc. - feeds right into the conundrum that the blogmaster and others have presented here of modern kiruv professionals de facto engaging in the proselytization of non-Jews. Regardless of whether or not non-Jews are attending Eish seminars, presenting Judaism as a lifestyle that any sane, family-oriented person would want to engage in is going to get the attention of non-Jews looking for that sort of message just as surely as it would get the attention of non-practicing Jews.

    Perhaps selling Judaism primarily as a powerful, demanding, and sometimes even scary system of ancient teachings that is designed to mold its adherents into servants of the ineffable and inscrutable source of all Existence would be a better way to go.

  5. Having done Teshuvah and been involved in "Kiruv", I get incensed by the Kiruv groups that sell Judaism as the best possible lifestyle. They bait and switch. The young kollel couple with a 2 million dollar apt. and tons of guests for shabbat, the successful businessman who has a lexus but still learns Daf Yomi, are paraded in front of young students to convince them of the truth. Yet, where is this same kiruv group when the young individual is having trouble paying their day school tuition.
    The reality is that Yiddishkeit is hard. I am glad I am frum. But, I don't think it is the easiest way to live. Let's do kiruv, but, be honest. S'char limud is not mentioned in Aish's 48 paths of pleasure

  6. WHY is day school tuition so high?

    Catholic school tuition is $4,500, other Christian schools charge about $5,000, Islamic schools average about $4,000 and Yeshiva Day School tuition is 12-20k per year.

    Public schools in the US spend 6-8k educating a child and this includes science labs, art, music, phys. ed equipment, full time school nurse, guidance counselors, school psychologists, libraries, school buses etc, etc.

    Yeshiva day schools provide fewer services (ie labs, arts, phys. ed, counseling), pay their teachers lower salaries with fewer benefits and yet charge on average twice as much as the public schools spend to educate a child. Why?

    If your kids are in yeshiva day school, you are also paying thousands of dollars a year in property taxes (even if you rent) for schools that your children cannot use. In Great Britain, for example, the Jewish schools were traditionally free.

    In our community, the yeshiva day school tuition is double the cost of the education which is used to subsidize a significant percentage of Gentile children of Jewish men with the hope that they will eventually convert. This is as equally true of the Mizrachi schools as the "black hat" yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs.

  7. Jersey girl says: "...In our community, the yeshiva day school tuition is double the cost of the education which is used to subsidize a significant percentage of Gentile children of Jewish men with the hope that they will eventually convert. This is as equally true of the Mizrachi schools as the "black hat" yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs."

    While it might be true in your day school and others it is definitely not true about the big black hat Haredi, Yeshivish and Chasidish communitues, where tuition is actually much lower the Modern Orthodox day schools, and there are almost NO children of non-Jewish mothers in the haredi/Yeshvish/Chasidish set up (while there are always a handful of gerim around they are very tiny in muber and almost never known). You can't really mean it that half of the Mir, Chaim Berlin, Ner Israel, Satmar, Chabad, Lakewood, Bais Yaakovs etc are made up of half a gentile student body. Must the summer heat that's getting to you!

  8. Take a look at this article by the Rabbi of the Thornhill Community Synagogue (former Aish Hatorah), on the lack of acceptance and warmth within the Orthodox community and the success of Jews for Jesus who provide this warmth to Jews that have not found a place to belong. Might be an interesting read.

  9. If Aish is so open minded, how come everyone who is integrated successfully into their stream of Judaism comes out looking the same as all others in it, speaks the same as all others in it, wears a black kippah, swims with the tide of the social norms and is unable to think critically against anything that its rabbi's preach?

    Upon attending one of their events in London, I asked a question that went against and challenged the thinking of the lecturer and what she was trying to convince her audience of. When the lecture finished and everyone was givent he opportunity to mingle and socialise with others in the audience, I was taken aside by one of the rabbis so as not to be able to mix and be a 'bad' influence on the others who perhaps may have become drawn to the lecturer's way of thinking. I was shocked.

    Although my dislike for Aish is large however, I cannot help but feel my anger should be more aimed at those who should have been providing decent Jewish education to our children in the first place - that being the mainstream Jewish communities that run cheder curriculums and Jewish leadership as a whole. Aish and other kiruv groups like it are simply picking up the shattered pieces of Jewish identity and education which were left lying on the ground by the crappy education these teenagers (mainly referring to the UK) received as children.

    It may be too late for there to be a solution to this organisation now as it would indeed be very hard to challenge the millions of kiruv dollars that are pumped into Aish and Ohr Sameach (students in London are now offered $600 to simply attend a 6 week lecture series during which they are fed the offers for free trips etc). I'm not saying that kiruv is necessarily bad but there is a long term way of doing it which requires foresight, strategy and leadership to carry out, and not a blizkrieg of Bible Codes and other nonsense to 'Wow!' someone into drastically change their whole lifestyle and thinking that more often than not backfires to return them to a similar, if not worse, position than they were in before.

  10. I had a warm loving secular family. My child went to college, was Aish'd, married off by the cult & now doesn't speak to me. There were no underlying problems prior to his becoming involved with religion. I was blindsided by this. I had no idea that nice Jewish rabbis deceptively sold religion to barely adults away from home for the first time. I had no idea that "just Judaism" was in fact an ultra orthodox fundamentalist group. I knew my grandparents, my child's great grandparents, and I can tell you certainty that they did NOT live this way! Aish, Meor and Chabad destroy families to create their own whacked out version of what they think a Jewish family should be. How dare they insert themselves into peoples lives!!


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