Aish HaTorah, the yeshiva known for its outreach work with disenfranchised Jews and its ability to attract prominent Jews, will set up shop in New Jersey this fall, when it opens the Aish Passaic College of Jewish Studies.
Though Aish has its main campus in Jerusalem, where it has some 4,500 students both full- and part-time pass through its doors each year, it also has drop-in centers throughout the world, where it offers classes mostly geared toward those new to Orthodox Judaism.
And it is famous for its one-day discovery program, a crash course that attempts to offer a rational approach to belief in God and the Torah that is heavily rooted in Gematria, with a bent toward the kabbalistic.
But in Passaic, the outreach organization will open its first full time yeshiva outside of Jerusalem, according to the new yeshiva’s director, Rabbi Sam Bregman.
Though it has not yet finalized a site within Passaic, Aish plans to open the yeshiva in September for between ‘0 and ‘5 male students in their ‘0s and early 30s, said Bregman, and that it is not just looking for run-of-the-mill students, but those who want to be "leaders."
Bregman, who has been the head of campus programming for Aish HaTorah in New York, said that the new school is essentially looking for students like himself.
Bregman is a ba’al teshuva, essentially a born-again Orthodox Jew, who started to look into his Judaism at 18. He grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., in a semi-affiliated home he said that his family had Friday night dinner together, lit candles when his father got home from work, and then watched Friday night television.
But when he was a freshman at Emory College in Atlanta, one day he was broke and needed something to eat. A campus Jewish outreach program offered a learning program about why bad things happen to good people, with free pizza. He attended for the nosh, and ended up with a palate whetted for Torah. He learned throughout his undergraduate years and his years in law school at Emory, essentially "studying for smicha, while I was litigating mock trials," said the ‘9-year-old rabbi.
"No one will be joining us who can right now open a gemara and by himself learn it in Aramaic all day," said Bregman.
The Passaic yeshiva, which Bregman says is being opened with the blessing of the Yeshiva Gedolah of Passaic, will offer a full-time curriculum that covers introduction to Chumash, halacha, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, including classes in business ethics, Jewish history, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Jewish holidays.
While he chose to forsake the courtroom for the rabbinate, Bregman says that the goal is to give the students who pass through Aish’s one-year Passaic program an education that will at least give them similar options.
"We want to help everyone maximize their potential, to learn how to grow and to lead by example," he said. "We believe that it is a Jewish value that everyone should get involved in creating positive change in the Jewish world. If you want to leave law school to be a rabbi, great. If you want to be a businessman but to share your Judaism with others, that is also great."
He is now working with the department of education to make sure that Aish students can receive college credit for their studies at the institution.
The school’s faculty will come primarily from Aish rabbis in the area, but he has received interest from several other rabbis in northern New Jersey and New York who may teach classes in Passaic, said Bregman.
Eventually the school will offer part-time and drop-in classes as well, with the idea that while some people who become interested in Judaism may be able to take a few weeks off from work to travel to Israel to learn at Aish in Jerusalem, the Passaic outpost will allow for a more practical option for those with tough work schedules.
Though the yeshiva will start small, who knows what Aish’s Passaic outpost will turn into?
The organization’s founder, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, started the institution as a one-man outfit in an apartment in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1974. Now, according to the institution, its world headquarters, the sprawling Dan Family Center, sits on Israel’s prime piece of real estate, directly across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and features a movie theater donated by actor Kirk Douglas. The organization says that it has ‘6 full-time branches and offers programs in 80 cities in 17 countries that serve some 100,000 people per year. And, aside from Douglas, it has been associated with something of a Who’s Who of Jews from Steven Spielberg to actor Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame, to Robert Hormats (the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International), to Michael Goldstein (the chairman of Toys R Us).
But Aish chose Passaic for its new campus, which will provide boarding for its full-time students, because of its proximity to New York, its large Orthodox community which Bregman called incredibly warm and welcoming because many of the rabbis who teach at Aish in New York actually live in Passaic, and because of the community’s large number ba’al teshuva community, of which he will become a part when he moves there late this summer.
"At Aish, we don’t have any expectations that anyone has to become anything. We once had a guy who learned at Aish for three years, but refused to wear a yarmulke," he said. "But in a community where there are so many role models, you can meet people who work on Wall Street and for Bear Stearns or Goldman Sachs, and who are still Jewish; it shows you that it’s not all or nothing. There are a lot of ways to keep Torah."