March 11, 2009
Catcher of Lost Souls
“How are we going to be as dedicated as these monsters?” was the line in the film that stuck with me. I was in a cramped synagogue, a few blocks from my house, where a standing room-only crowd had come to honor a Jew who had passed away in Jerusalem 30 days earlier.
After the short film, people came up to speak. A pattern emerged.
The first speaker, Rabbi Moshe Cohen, spoke about being a “lost soul” some 30 years ago, after graduating from law school, and then “stumbling into a yeshiva” in Jerusalem. He attended a class called, “48 Ways,” got hooked and never looked back. One of the things he remembers hearing was: “If you don’t know what you live for, you’re a zombie.”
The next speaker, Rabbi Dov Heller, spoke about being a “lost soul” 34 years ago in Jerusalem and “stumbling into a yeshiva.” The rabbi said he “shudders to think where I’d be today had I not stumbled into that yeshiva.” He talked about what he sees as the two simplest and most transformational words in Judaism: “I care.”
The third speaker, Rabbi Nachum Braverman, also spoke about being a lost soul in Jerusalem more than 25 years ago and stumbling into a yeshiva. He also “shudders to think where I’d be tonight” had he not met someone “who cared.” In speaking of this Jew who was being honored, Braverman listed his extraordinary gifts but explained that “what made him great was not a gift, but a choice.” This choice was to realize that “there is nothing other than to do the will of God and to bring Jews to God.”
The man they all came to honor was the late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah and catcher of lost souls.
Of the infinite number of Jewish texts they could have chosen for the opening of a tribute journal, they chose this from “Duties of the Heart”:
“You should know, my brother, that the merits of the believer — even if he reaches the utmost degree in improving his soul in devotion to G-d, and even if he approaches the level of an angel in good character, wonderful behaviors, and intense efforts in serving G-d, and pure love for Him — all this would still not compare to the merits of the one who teaches people the good path of Torah and brings transgressors to the service of G-d.”
This devotion to bringing Jews closer to the “good path of Torah” is what animates this movement.
I’ve been hanging around Aish HaTorah on and off for the good part of 10 years — traveled with them to Israel on a solidarity mission, attended one of their retreats in Aspen, prayed with them — and one thing that always struck me is how little they talk about themselves.
They’re interested in you, their fellow Jew.
How can they help? What do you need? A free trip to Israel to learn Torah? SpeedDating to meet your soulmate? A one-hour class on happiness or relationships or the Jewish contributions to the world or the parsha of the week? A Shabbat meal? Support for Israel activism on campus? A blessing at the Western Wall from a few clicks on your computer? Just say the word.
They are the concierge of Orthodox Judaism. Just say the word.
It’s not as if they don’t appreciate the value of reaching out to the 99.9 percent of the world that is not Jewish and engaging in the modern ritual of tikkun olam. I’m sure they do.
It’s just that they have this crazy attachment to their own people. They are unabashed, fanatic lovers of Jews. There’s no other way to put it.
This is not the schmaltzy, loosey-goosey kind of love. This is the practical kind. An Aish person will never simply say, “We’d love to have you over for Shabbat one day.” They’ll call you, invite you and nail a date. For them, bringing Jews closer to their Judaism is not just a good idea, it’s a rescue mission.
A lot of this makes sense when you listen to the words of their late leader, who would often say things like, “The Jewish house is on fire; there’s not a minute to waste,” “You are responsible for changing the world, and Hashem is your partner” and “If one man can kill 6 million, then all the more so can one man save 6 million. How are we going to be as dedicated as these monsters?”
The beef against Aish HaTorah — a movement that over the past 35 years has reportedly grown to 27 branches on five continents and has a popular Web site with 2.5 million unique visits a month — is that they have this relentless agenda to make every Jew Orthodox and that they can at times get overzealous when pushing their causes.
I can’t speak for the movement, but I’m guessing it’s a beef they can live with. I’m sure they’d love to see every Jew observe the Shabbat, marry Jewish and raise Torah-observant children. They don’t apologize for that. They also have this clever argument for outreach: Before you reject your Judaism, make an informed decision. You do it before you buy a car or a plasma TV. Why not do the same for your 5,000-year-old faith?
Here in Los Angeles, their challenge is to keep their outreach reflexes sharp, which is not easy when you’re building a community and taking care of your own families.
Maybe that’s why there was such a feeling of intensity the other night at Rabbi Weinberg’s memorial. It was as if everyone knew how easily they could forget his message.
This message is a simple one, and it’s the instrument Aish plays in the Jewish world: There’s a job to be done, there are souls to catch, and there’s no time to waste.