‘Outreach Is Absolutely The Major Focus Of Aish HaTorah’: A Conversation with Rabbi Steven Burg

Rabbi Steven Burg was recently appointed director general of Aish HaTorah, the worldwide Jewish educational organization. He has worked at the Orthodox Union as managing director and as international director of NCSY, the OU’s youth division. Most recently, Rabbi Burg served as the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

He will assume his new position on July 1.

The Jewish Press: What will be your basic duties as director general of Aish?

Rabbi Steven Burg: Setting the vision and direction of Aish HaTorah worldwide; creating unity and synergy across the global Aish HaTorah network; crafting new strategies to reach out and inspire world Jewry; building and overseeing an efficient management structure.

Some online commentators were surprised by Aish’s choice, and some by your acceptance. In the bifurcated world of stereotypes, some see Aish as more yeshivish and you as more Modern Orthodox.

In the past six months I have met dozens of employees, partners, and donors from the Aish global community. They have all been warm, welcoming, and incredibly supportive. I think they appreciated my background in NCSY, one of the premier outreach organizations in the world, as well as my strong experience in organizational structure and management.

I have never been a fan of labels. I think people pay too much attention to the things that divide us. Disunity was the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. I believe that the Almighty wants his children to come together and support one another. Nothing connects us more than the Torah. That is why it is so crucial that the crown jewel of Aish HaTorah is the yeshiva. If we view the world through the prism of Torah we will be able come together to build a strong Jewish nation.

Does your training make you the best person for the job?

I have been very blessed to have held jobs in the past that required diverse sets of skill. I spent much of my career in developing Judaic programming whose goal was to facilitate passionate and inspired Jews. I also spent a significant portion of my time on the business end of Torah institutions which required resource development and management skills. I look forward to bringing both of those facets to Aish HaTorah.

What was the selection process like?

It was an incredible and comprehensive experience. There was a search committee which was comprised of professionals from all over the organization. It was chaired by a wonderful lay leader named Jerry Lieberman who has an extensive background in recruitment and management. It was a six-month process where I got to meet board members and professionals from all over the Aish HaTorah world. Both sides wanted to make sure that it was a right fit.

Will you oversee all local branches of Aish?

One of our goals will be to work with Aish HaTorah branches all over the world to help them facilitate the mission of Aish HaTorah. In July there will be a conference in Denver put together by the branches themselves. The goal of the conference will be to share best practices and bond with fellow outreach professionals. Unity will be the key to realizing the vision of Rav Noach Weinberg, z”l, to inspire every Jew.

Will it be a tight or loose supervision?

One of the greatest talents of Rav Weinberg was to empower the Aish HaTorah talmidim. Aish HaTorah branches and programs are led by passionate Jewish entrepreneurs. They must be given space to grow and create. At the same time we want to avoid having to recreate the wheel. So our job will be to strengthen the branches and programs to allow them to reach the stars.

Aish HaTorah seems to have expanded its focus since its founding. Is kiruv still its focus?

Outreach is absolutely the major focus of Aish HaTorah. That having been said, Rav Weinberg was concerned about the physical safety of Jews as well as the spiritual. Moshe Rabbeinu not only received and gave us the Torah, he also saved us from slavery. When the rockets started to fall in Sderot and no one was paying attention, a young man from Sderot came to Rav Noach and asked what he could do. Rav Noach gave him money for a car and a video camera and told him to tell the story to the world. One of our most successful programs is Hasbara Fellowships, which brings students to Israel and trains them to be effective pro-Israel activists on campus. Ultimately, our goal is for every Jew to be safe and to fulfill their potential in growing closer to the Almighty.

Where do you see Aish’s place in the history of kiruv – in America, Israel, and worldwide?

Rav Noach Weinberg was a pioneer of the outreach movement. Today, it has become a valuable movement for the continuity of the Jewish people. Aish is expanding globally, especially in Israel. Last year, thousands of Israelis came to experience their heritage in our Aish World Center Dan Family Building. While Aish HaTorah has cemented its place in Jewish history, we will not rest until all Jews have experienced passionate and inspirational Judaism.

Considering how many different groups, organizations, and individuals are involved in kiruv, how can Aish differentiate itself?

I believe Aish HaTorah can play an active role in strengthening the outreach movement. Every day we have many different organizations utilizing our facilities in the Old City of Jerusalem. Aish HaTorah can be a unifying force among kiruv institutions. There is no room for competition when doing the Almighty’s work.

How would you and/or Aish view someone becoming religious for social reasons?

Every Jew has their own deeply personal reasons for becoming Torah observant. We have no right to judge any Jew’s motivation. Our job is just to help guide them on the path to the Torah.

What do you think of the critique that kiruv organizations are manipulating people into changing their lives?

I believe the Almighty gave us a gift called free will. Every person has a right to accept or reject their Judaism. I do not believe that showing someone the beauty of Judaism constitutes any type of manipulation. In the end everyone has a God-given choice.

What new and different programs or approaches can we expect at Aish?

We are in the beginning stages of collaborating with a team of world-class museum designers to develop one of Israel’s premier tourist attractions: the Western Wall Experience. It will be a highly-interactive, multi-media, 3-D, total immersion event. The Western Wall Experience explores the epic saga of the Jewish people (“the greatest story ever told”), conveys the Jewish people’s unique contribution to civilization, and connects it all to the very spot upon which people find themselves standing, the Western Wall Plaza.

Aish anticipates 300,000 visitors annually, making this the most significant construction project on the Western Wall Plaza since 1967.

As seen on www.jewishpress.com on June 3, 2015