By Rabbi S. Simmons
Around the world, millions have been impacted by Aish HaTorah, an innovator in Jewish outreach.
At the heart of Aish HaTorah is its yeshiva (academy of advanced Torah study) overlooking the Western Wall. In 1974, Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l founded Aish HaTorah and as its visionary Rosh Yeshiva set the organization’s spiritual, educational, and philosophical direction.
In recent years, this position has gone unoccupied, leaving a large void. In the search for a new Rosh Yeshiva, one candidate – an “Aish insider” – stood out.
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits had previously been Menahel Ruchani (spiritual guide) at Aish HaTorah from 1983-2001, where he ran a highly-regarded educational program – empowering baalei teshuva (returnees to Torah observance) to move from learning Aleph-Bet all the way to rabbinic ordination.
Rabbi Berkovits became a personal mentor to hundreds of Aish students who now hold Jewish leadership positions worldwide. Indeed, many of Rabbi Weinberg’s closest students were the greatest proponents of Rabbi Berkovits’ return.
With great pride, Aish HaTorah announces the forthcoming inauguration of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits as its new Rosh Yeshiva.
The festive inauguration weekend begins on August 30 with a seudas Shabbos at the Dan Family Aish World Center, overlooking the Western Wall.
On Sunday, September 1, dignitaries and rabbis from around the world will gather at the Aish World Center for the inauguration ceremony. This once-in-a-lifetime event, from 3:00 – 5:30 pm, is open to the public.
This will be followed by a celebratory banquet, from 5:30 – 8:00 pm, by reservation only.
To register for the Shabbat dinner or Sunday’s banquet, go to aish.com/register .
Rabbi Berkovits charted a fascinating path to this milestone. He was raised in Brooklyn, the child of Holocaust survivors who’d lost their families in Auschwitz. His mother, Chana, a factory manager, taught him the importance of reaching out to all Jews. “Growing up, God was always part of our family,” Rabbi Berkovits says. “My mother spoke about God incessantly. Outside the home, she’d speak openly about her Jewish faith, and influenced many people to come closer to their Jewish roots.”
Fast forward to 1983, with Rabbi Berkovits delving deep into Torah studies at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. One day, he received a call from Rebbetzin Dinah Weinberg, Rabbi Weinberg’s wife, drafting him to teach at her school, EYAHT.
“Then one of my students at EYAHT, Rebecca Shore, told her brother that Aish should check me out,” Rabbi Berkovits recalls. “So Rav Noach sent four students to my house every Wednesday night, where we’d talk about topics in Jewish law and philosophy. I believe the group was Raphael Shore, Moshe Pamensky, Aryeh Nivin, and David Baum. That was my first taste of Aish guys, and they were so special. It really whet my appetite.”
Rabbi Berkovits began coming daily to Aish’s yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City. “The yeshiva grew in those days like never before,” he says. “Word was out that Aish has the best program in town. We kept needing more and more dorm space. We had groups from England, from South Africa, from across America. The level of learning and level of maturity was awesome. We had great guys coming in, and greater guys going out.”
The crown jewel of Aish’s yeshiva has always been the rabbinic ordination (semicha) program, which has graduated hundreds of Jewish leaders. For this, Rabbi Berkovits innovated a study system he calls “semicha by number,” with daily source sheets that guide students through key pieces of text. “I did this so they’d know a lot without having to read as much information,” he explains. “It was a demanding curriculum and we held the students accountable for what they learned.”
In 2001, after 16 years at Aish, Rabbi Berkovits branched out, founding the highly regarded Jerusalem Kollel to train outreach rabbis – this time from observant backgrounds. “I initially thought this semichamethod was appropriate for baalei teshuva,” he says. “But then I realized it could be good for anyone.”
When it was suggested several times that he return to Aish, Rabbi Berkovits regarded it as unrealistic. In addition to responsibility for the Jerusalem Kollel and its 200 graduate rabbis, he was head of Congregation Minyan Avreichim in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Murhevet neighborhood, head of the Center for Jewish Values (Linas Hatzedek), and rabbinic advisor to an untold number of Jewish leaders and organizations worldwide.
Who most influenced Rabbi Berkovits’ return to Aish?
“The first is Dick Horowitz,” he says, referring to one of Rabbi Weinberg’s closest partners. “The day I left Aish, Dick told me, ‘You are going to return. This is the greatest mistake of your life and you’re going to regret it.’ Over the years, he never let me forget that.”
A few years ago, after meeting with Dick and Aish Board member Dr. Stuart Hytman, Rabbi Berkovits got a phone call from the revered Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky.
“Rabbi Kamenetsky told me, ‘I can’t obligate you to do anything. But it’s obvious that Aish has to be run by an insider, someone with a direct mesorah (tradition) from Rav Noach.’ At that point I had a responsibility to see if this could work.”
Working closely with Aish CEO Rabbi Steven Burg, Rabbi Berkovits returned to Aish two years ago as Mara D’Asra (halachic authority), a stepping stone to becoming Rosh Yeshiva.
What makes Rabbi Berkovits such a beloved leader and role model?
Many cite his ability to clearly size up a situation (e.g., spiritual, family, career), then through his mastery of halacha (Jewish law) to articulate practical advice. And, as befitting an organization like Aish geared largely toward Americans, he does it all with American sensitivity.
On interpersonal matters (bein adam l’chaveiro), Rabbi Berkovits literally wrote the book, producing nine volumes of Torah sources on a variety of situations – e.g., honoring parents, judging others favorably, and giving constructive criticism. His particular expertise is the laws prohibiting Loshon Hara(negative speech), as detailed in his classic, Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson A Day
“Every Jew is responsible to create Kiddush Hashem by acting in a respectable and mature manner,” he says. “The standards of our interpersonal matters should not be any lower than the kashrus standard of our food.”
Rabbi Berkovits’ personal integrity in role-modeling these values – along with a perpetually upbeat tone – resonates with Jews across the spectrum.
What challenges and opportunities now face Aish HaTorah and the Jewish people?
“The math of kiruv has changed,” Rabbi Berkovits explains. “The number of Jews in America today is somewhere between 4 and 8 million. We don’t even know who or where the Jews are! Who will stand up and be counted as a Jew? Rav Noach always said that time is running out, and soon we simply won’t know who’s Jewish. We’re almost there. This is probably our last chance.”
Rabbi Berkovits sees his primary responsibility to strengthen the yeshiva. “My priorities are to modify the curriculum and do active recruiting, to attract Ivy League-caliber students,” he says. “Rabbi Dovid Rosman, who’s been running the Beis Medrash, already had this idea and put two rabbis in charge of recruitment.”
Rabbi Berkovits is also enthusiastic about Project Inspire, the program that mobilizes observant Jews to reach out to neighbors and colleagues. “Project Inspire is doing a great job and has to be brought to every Jewish community,” he says of the program that Rabbi Weinberg fought hardest to implement. “There is no question that Project Inspire is ready for its next big stage.”
Rabbi Berkovits admires Aish.com and its impact to reach millions of Jews. He is also committed to recapturing the spirit of innovation that reigned during the days of Rav Noach. “My first order of business is to set up an R&D think tank,” he says. “In the olden days, R&D was always Aish’s strength. The Jewish people looked to us for innovative programming, and we need to get back to that. And I want the R&D group to also include creative, successful educators beyond Aish.”
On September 1, Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rabbi Berkovits will step into his new position with a wealth of perspective from both inside and out. Aish HaTorah is privileged that a Rosh Yeshiva of such high caliber and character is steering the ship, guiding thousands upon thousands toward our precious Jewish destiny.