NEW YORK (JTA) — Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder and dean of the sprawling global outreach operation Aish HaTorah, was being called a “unique visionary” following his death in Jerusalem.
Weinberg, a brilliant educator and charismatic lecturer, was suffering from cancer when he died Feb. 5 at his home. He was 78.
A pioneering figure in the ba’al teshuvah movement, the process of bringing secular Jews to Orthodox Judaism, he was the guiding force behind Aish HaTorah’s emergence as a leader of efforts to turn back the tide of assimilation.
With just five students, Weinberg founded Aish in 1974 in Jerusalem. It now occupies prime real estate opposite the Western Wall and encompasses dozens of branches around the world. About 100,000 people reportedly attend Aish programs annually in 77 cities in 17 countries.
The organization also operates a rabbinical training program in Jerusalem, a hesder Yeshiva for Israeli soldiers and draws untold numbers of Jewish students and travelers to its introductory courses in Jerusalem and around the world. Aish.com, the organization’s home on the Internet, is among the most popular Jewish educational Web sites and features endorsements from a range of celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher.
“Rav Noah was a unique visionary who believed that every Jew was innately interested in their Jewishness, but because of the lack of education was ignorant of the wealth of their heritage,” said Rabbi Yitz Greenman, the executive director of Aish HaTorah New York/Discovery. “He saw it as his mission to make Judaism relevant to an apathetic generation. He was incredibly successful over the last 50 years at reigniting the spark of Jewishness in hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls.”
Like the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose vast global network comprises what is probably the best known and most successful outreach effort in the Jewish world, Weinberg believed the greatest challenge facing Jewry today was the loss of Jews to ignorance, apathy and assimilation. He spoke of a spiritual holocaust that was depriving the world of more Jewish souls than the actual Holocaust. His disciples at Aish headquarters in Jerusalem would frequently invoke war metaphors to describe the struggle they were engaged in to save the Jewish people.
To drive the point home, Weinberg led a delegation of Aish rabbis to Poland in 2006, a journey that became the subject of a film, “From the Ashes.”
“Why did we come here? Why did I come and ask all the fellas, all the rabbis, to come?” Weinberg asks in the film. “To wake us up. The time is drawing closer. We are losing more neshamas [souls] every day than we’re gaining. We’re in trouble. We got to wake up.”
Weinberg is lauded for taking a non-judgmental approach to outreach. He welcomed atheists and non-believers to his yeshiva, saying he would make them better atheists. He even reportedly allowed a practicing Muslim to study at Aish, even though the student prayed five times a day to Mecca.
“A lot of Orthodoxy’s outreach was always tinged with judgmentalism — not always, but often,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociologist of American Jewry and a critic of what some observers describe as Orthodoxy’s rightward drift. “Both Chabad and Rabbi Weinberg found you could reach out to people without having to force them to deny who they were, and not be quite as judgmental. And that was a key element. Now we take that for granted.”
Unlike Chabad, Aish principally relies not on the warmth and charisma of its emissaries but on presenting a rational, cogent argument for God’s existence and the unique mission of the Jewish people. For a time, Aish was virtually synonymous with the popular Discovery seminars, a series of lectures on topics such as Bible codes, Genesis and the Big Bang, and Jewish history, that collectively attempt to present a logical and scientific case for the divine origins of the Torah.
Weinberg’s devotion to programs like Discovery was rooted in his interest in changing perceptions about Judaism and stressing the practical applicability of its teachings. One of his most famous lectures was “Five Levels of Pleasure,” in which he taught that Judaism wants human beings to derive pleasure from the world, but that the highest pleasure of all is spiritual connection.
Weinberg once asked a young visitor if he was capable of repaying all the kindness of his father simply by saying thank you. When the boy replied in the negative, Weinberg drew an analogy to the relationship between God and his creations.
“There’s nothing that you can do for God,” said Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld, an Aish rabbi in London and the boy’s father, recalling Weinberg’s message. “He doesn’t become more infinite when you pray. He doesn’t become more infinite when you eat more matzah on Pesach. He doesn’t need anything from us. All He wants from us is to gain the pleasures of the world that He created for us.”
Aish also differs from Chabad in another crucial respect: Chabad’s emissaries often are the children of emissaries themselves and the movement’s most dedicated cadre, steeped in its values from an early age and charged by the movement’s late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to retrieve Jewish souls from the far corners of the world.
Weinberg, after trying and failing several times to start outreach efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, realized he needed to populate his organization with individuals who once were secular. Only they, he believed, understood the urgency of the task.
“He had a way about him,” said Adam Jacobs, a rabbi at the Aish Center in Manhattan who first encountered Aish as a secular Jew studying at Brandeis University and eventually found his way to Jerusalem. “He was so focused on other people and it was so genuine the way he would interact with other people. He paid attention to people in a way I don’t recall seeing ever before.”
Over the years, transformations like Jacobs’ have drawn criticism, with some branding Aish a cult and speaking in hushed tones of their once-secular friends who had been “Aished.”
Heilman says such reactions are inevitable.
“Anytime you have a movement that causes people to convert — and that’s what we’re really talking about, conversion — the groups from which they’ve been converting are always going to say these folks have been brainwashed,” he said. “To some extent it is. Brainwashing is just a negative way of talking about conversion. It’s sort of inherent in the process.”
As the organization has drifted into Israel advocacy work, in North America principally through its Hasbara Fellowships program, it also has been branded as right wing and a supporter of Israeli settlements. Aish is “just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today,” Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote in October.
Rabbi Shalom Schwartz, one of the original group of students who joined Aish in 1974, said Weinberg always emphasized the need for students to apply their studies to real-world problems. He recalled Weinberg once blasted a Time magazine article that accused Israel of unleashing biblical justice on the Palestinians and, in later years, he insisted on confronting the threat of radical Islam.
“He was very, very concerned about the current rise of anti-Semitism and the situation in Iran,” Schwartz said. “He made a point of pressing whoever would listen to him that these are not normal times. This is a time when every concerned human being has to take up the cause of confronting militant Islam, and especially the threat from Iran, and that this is a responsible position of every caring — not only Jew, but every human being. This is from day one in his teaching.”
Greenman recalled once visiting Weinberg at his home on a Friday night. On entering, Weinberg’s young son was climbing up a pipe. Expecting the rabbi to scold his son for misbehaving, Greenman was shocked to discover him offer to lift his son on his shoulders so he could better reach the ceiling.
“That’s who Rabbi Weinberg was,” Greenman said. “He was a man who said to everyone, stand on my shoulders and I’ll help you go further. He helped every Jew try to reach the ceiling.”