Dear Aish Family,
Week after week for over four years I have written to you about Aish HaTorah. The words have been words written from my heart and I hope they have entered into your heart. Today I want to write to you about a historic event taking place at Aish in a few weeks. These are my thoughts on this momentous occasion and should be taken as such. Many may have other feelings but these are mine and mine alone.
When I came to Aish HaTorah to become the CEO over four years ago there was a concurrent search process operating to find an Aish Rosh Yeshiva. After Rav Noach Weinberg’s passing over ten years ago there were a few attempts to establish a new leadership structure. Unfortunately for various reasons these attempts did not succeed. I don’t believe anyone specific was at fault. It was hard to replace an iconic and dynamic leader like Rav Noach.
So when I came to Aish we immediately started to revamp and rebuild all the different pieces. The mandate was clear. We had to institute structure to what had become one of the largest educational and inspirational organizations in the world, while not losing the entrepreneurial spirit that had brought us to such outstanding success.
Our numbers and capabilities have increased tremendously over the past few years. Our Dan Family Aish HaTorah World Center went from foot traffic of 30,000 people a year to almost 200,000. Our Yeshiva, where enrollment had become anemic, soared to over 600 students. Online Aish.com is not only teaching millions but has started to live chat with so many Jews around the world connecting them to local sources of Judaic knowledge. We have increased the number of Aish branches and stepped up the interconnectivity in an unprecedented fashion. In plain speak, Aish is strong and getting stronger.
There was only one void that remained unfilled. That was the position of Rosh Yeshiva (Chief Rabbi). The question begged itself, if we had experienced such success was the position still necessary. I believe the answer to that question is a resounding yes and I’d like to explain why.
There are many reasons why the Jewish Nation has survived through 3000 years of the most tumultuous history known to man. The first and most important reason is because the Almighty looked after us. Our Father in heaven was always there for His children. Through every expulsion and every antisemitic attack, the Almighty has been there to hold our hand and place us on His shoulders if necessary.
The other key ingredient to our survival has been our Rabbinic leadership. One has only to open books about questions that were asked of our Rabbis during the Holocaust to know that even in our darkest days holy Jews strove to know what the Almighty wanted us to do. We have volumes written over thousands of years filled with questions asked by everyday Jews to our precious Rabbis across the globe about how to serve the Almighty. Our Rabbis kept us sane, holy and strong.
An organization like Aish HaTorah needs a Rabbinic figure who has a towering mastery over the Almighty’s Wisdom and a clear understanding of the knowledge of all those that came before. That Rabbi must have the passion of a lion and the heart of an angel. Over the past few years, I have dialogued and met with great Rabbis on many different continents. One stood out amongst his peers.
I met Rabbi Yitzhak Berkovits not long after I started at Aish. We met in his apartment in a room surrounded by thousands of Seforim (Jewish books) containing Jewish wisdom of the ages. I found his Judaic knowledge to be broad and his countenance angelic. We discussed the Rav’s history at Aish HaTorah. Almost forty years before He had been brought into the Aish family to teach young women who lacked a Judaic background. His skills as a master teacher were quickly noticed by Rav Noach Weinberg and he was asked to enhance his role at the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva.
At the Yeshiva, Rabbi Berkovits became the defacto Rabbi to so many young men and even created a curriculum for the ordination of future Rabbinic leaders. Almost eighteen years ago Rabbi Berkovits opened up an institution called the Jerusalem Kollel to set up a formal training center for Rabbinic ordination.
What was different about the Jerusalem Kolel was that Rabbi Berkovits didn’t only teach these young men how to decide complicated matters of Jewish law. He taught them how to feel. He taught them to mourn the loss of so many Jews who left their Judaism behind. He taught them how to feel the Almighty’s pain in losing His children to assimilation and indifference. These Rabbis would become leaders all over the world bringing Jews back to their Father.
We talked that day in his apartment about the state of the Jewish world. I have been to many great Rabbis who are bothered by all the Jews fleeing Judaism. In Rabbi Berkovits’s presence, I felt that he felt the pain as if all these Jews around the world were his personal biological children. Calling Jews our brothers and sisters was not a throw away cute term to him. Rabbi Berkovits felt the burden of responsibility for every Jew, even those he had never met.
As I left his apartment that day I knew that Aish could only have one candidate for the role of Rosh Yeshiva. As I spoke to Aish Rabbis around the world they continued to hammer home the point that Rabbi Berkovits was their candidate to be Aish Rosh Yeshiva.
With a heart filled with pride and happiness, I can now announce that Rabbi Berkovits has agreed to become the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah. He will retain his position as the head of the Jerusalem Kollel because there is nothing more important than creating passionate Rabbis for the next generation. We look forward to great synergy with the Jerusalem Kollel.
Rabbi Berkovits will serve as much more than a spiritual guide for us all. He will be involved with the strategic initiatives of Aish to “Light Up Our Nation”. He has already had many high-level meetings to listen to many Jewish leaders about how to bring our brothers and sisters back to us and the Almighty. I encourage all of you to send him heartfelt wishes of welcome to RYB@Aish.com.
We will be having an official historic inauguration ceremony in Israel at Aish on August 30 – September 1, 2009. I encourage all of you to attend with your children so they can experience the accession of a great Jewish leader. You can register and find more information at aish.com/register.
I want to leave you with one story that I have thought about often as we strove to fill the role of Rosh Yeshiva. Many years ago in a hospital in Pittsburgh, there was an incredibly hard ethical dilemma. Conjoined twins were born to a Jewish family. If the twins were not separated they would both die. If they were separated then one would die for sure. The question was if it was permissible to “kill” one baby to save the other.
Since the family was observant they had brought the question to the leading Rabbinic authority of the day Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The operating surgeon was the future Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Coop. Many doctors had flown in to see this surgery and were getting antsy because they were waiting for Rav Moshe’s answer.
At one tense meeting when they were reviewing the information with Rav Moshe’s emissary a doctor stood up and said “This is ridiculous! Why are we waiting for some little old Rabbi from the lower East Side of Manhattan to tell us what to do.”
Dr. Koop stood up and said “Listen closely, I don’t know what the right thing here is ethically and you don’t know either. For some reason, I feel that this Rabbi knows what to do and we will wait for him”. Rabbi Moshe gave the go-ahead for the surgery and one of the babies was saved.
I think about that story often. The magnitude of pressure that falls on the shoulders of great Rabbis to lead us in the right direction is immense. The Almighty gave us the Torah not just as an intellectual pursuit. Our Torah is a Toras Chaim, a living Torah. We must strive to live a life where the Torah is our guide.
In today’s world, anyone can become a self-described expert by just tweeting or posting. As Jews, we need to understand that we have survived 3000 years by being led by gentle giants of Torah wisdom who have been our connection to the Almighty’s path. I couldn’t be prouder to welcome Rabbi Berkovits as the leader of Aish HaTorah. Come join us in Jerusalem as we celebrate the next step in Aish HaTorah’s beautiful journey.