His place in Jerusalem
Bergenfield’s Rabbi Steven Burg to lead Aish HaTorah
Rabbi Steven Burg is headed back to Jerusalem next month.
Rabbi Burg, 43, spent two years there after high school; he spent another year there during his rabbinic studies, and he returned many times during the time he worked for the Orthodox Union.
Now though, he will have a more prestigious address: 1 Kotel Plaza.
That’s how Aish HaTorah jokingly refers to its headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City, which opens to the plaza of the Western Wall, and whose rooftop looks down over the Temple Mount.
That’s quite a draw for the fundraising events that Rabbi Burg will oversee beginning July 1, as he assumes the post of Aish’s director general — the Israeli term for chief executive officer.
In that capacity, he will lead an organization that has grown over 40 years from a small yeshiva to a large institution with more than 30 outposts around the world.
Because Aish is a worldwide operation, Rabbi Burg will be able to divide his time between the Jerusalem headquarters and the New York office. He will not have to uproot his family from its Bergenfield home.
“I have to figure out what the time commitments are,” he said. “On the one hand, our heart and hub are in Jerusalem. On the other, the branches and board members and donors are in the States.”
Aish HaTorah was founded in 1974 by Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who broke away from the Ohr Samayach Yeshiva, which he had co-founded. It was one of the first yeshivot to cater to ba’alei teshuva — “returnees” to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Weinberg, born in America, had moved to Israel after his rabbinic training at Baltimore’s Ner Israel yeshiva, which his brother, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, later headed.
“The school started in a little apartment in the Old City, with a dormitory with freezing cold showers and bad food,” Rabbi Burg said.
“The core Rabbi Weinberg was focused on was to create feeling Jews and passionate Jews. Judaism doesn’t work without inspiration, without passion,” he added.
Rabbi Burg grew up in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Flatblush, Brooklyn. When he followed his father’s footsteps and attended Yeshiva University’s MTA high school, he didn’t feel much passion. “We were not particularly inspired by our Judaism,” Rabbi Burg remembered.
(Nonetheless, he and his wife, Rachel, enrolled their two oldest sons at MTA. Four younger children attend the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, where Ms. Burg teaches.)
Rabbi Burg found his passion for Judaism in his post-high school years in yeshiva in Israel. He returned to America and undergraduate studies at Yeshiva University caring about the Jewish people and about God.
NCSY — the Orthodox Union’s youth group — became the vehicle where he could put his passion into practice. A friend asked him to volunteer as an adviser at an NCSY Shabbaton — a weekend retreat. “I drove eight hours to Pittsburgh,” he said. “I fell in love. I said this is what I want to do with my life.”
He continued as an NCSY volunteer adviser during his rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University’s theological seminary. After ordination, he and his wife moved to Detroit, where he was an NCSY associate regional director. After a few years they moved to Los Angeles, where he headed NCSY’s West Coast region.
Here’s the story he tells to explain what makes NCSY special:
“We had as part of our region a girl from Charleston, West Virginia. She was the only girl in her entire city in NCSY. She came to the regional convention, where we discussed plans for Shavuot: Kids were going to stay up all night studying back in their synagogues. But we couldn’t figure out how to make it work for her, and she went back home very dejected.
“So one of the staff members put together a box of 15 books for her and wrote letters for her to open the entire night recommending readings. One for 11 p.m., one for midnight, and so on. Afterward, she said she didn’t feel alone. She said she felt part of the Jewish people. There’s a real power in that.”
That sort of work, inspiring teens, is the core mission of an NCSY adviser. As Rabbi Burg moved up the job ladder, his work became more management. That was particularly true of his eight years as NCSY’s national director and then his four years as the OU’s managing director.
Two and a half years ago, Rabbi Burg became head of the New York office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“Throughout my career I’ve done a lot of management, learning how to deal in bureaucratic hierarchies. I have the Judaic background, which enabled me to manage the people who were concentrated on the Judaic and spiritual content, because I knew what they wanted to accomplish. I knew how all the stakeholders were involved in the process,” he said.
But the bottom line at the OU, and now at Aish, is inspiration.
“Inspiration is having a direct connection with God, becoming inspired by the religion, rather than hanging out within the religion because that’s your social circle. People are missing that direct connection to God, whether it comes through prayer or Shabbos. We’re trying to create people who do it because they care about the religion and care about the reason, rather than just because their family has always done it.
When people are passionate about their religion, when they’re inspired, when they’re connected to God, religion takes on a whole new level. It becomes part and parcel of who they are.
“That’s the ultimate goal: To help Jews connect with God,” he said.
Alongside Aish’s expansion in recent years has come a broadening of its focus. It’s no longer solely looking at the spiritual.
“Rabbi Weinberg was also extremely concerned about physical dangers to the Jews,” Rabbi Burg said. “So we have the Hasbara Fellowships, where we go to college campuses and recruit students to go to Israel to meet with leaders so they can go back to campus and fight the BDS movement.
“Rabbi Weinberg was a real visionary. When he started talking about the physical dangers to Jews, not everyone was on board,” he said.
One example Rabbi Burg gives is the Sderot Information Center, formed to tell the world about the plight of Israelis living under threat of missile fire from Gaza. Rabbi Weinberg came up with the center’s initial funding.
“He gave them a video camera and a car to let the world know,” Rabbi Burg said. “He came to the OU to talk about the dangers of radical Islam. He was so convinced that this was an issue and that we had to get behind it. He was way ahead of the curve on it.”
Rabbi Weinberg died in 2009. Rabbi Burg compared Aish’s founder’s focus on both Jewish spirit and Jewish safety to Moses’ own mission.
“Moses is the one who gives the Jewish people the Torah, but he also saved them from slavery,” he said. “If you want to inspire people, you have to make sure they’re alive.”
At the heart of Aish, though, past the Hasbara Fellowships, past the Jewish Internet content on Aish.com, “You still have the yeshiva, the place of learning. When you go to Aish in Jerusalem, a whole section of the building is the executive learning center, for business executives who come to learn with the rabbis. They understand that life is not just about money, that the Torah has tremendous value. People understand that becoming a more learned Jew, a more educated Jew, will lead to great things.
“We have a tremendous amount of classes. We have this Discovery Program, a seminar for a couple of days where people can learn a lot of incredible things,” he said.
The Discovery Program has been criticized for its use of the Torah codes — the argument that patterns encoded in the Torah prove its divinity. Published papers arguing in favor of Torah Codes have been rebutted by mathematicians who have found similar patterns in Hebrew translations of “War and Peace” and “Moby Dick.”
“I think it’s just different scholarly opinions and stuff,” Rabbi Burg said of the controversy. “Like in any academic environment, there are people who go back and forth. Anyway, the Bible codes are just one piece of a much bigger seminar.”
How big is Aish? How does it compare to the Orthodox Union?
“The OU has part-time mashgichim” — kosher supervisors — “all around the globe,” Rabbi Burg said. “Aish probably has more full-time people working for it. In its real estate size and footprint, it’s probably bigger than the OU. Aish has multiple buildings and there are a number of places where the branches have synagogues. Probably the amount of participants that go through Aish HaTorah is much bigger and wide-ranging.
“I compare it to the structure of Hillel,” the Jewish campus organization, where each campus outpost is its own organization, “connected to the mother ship back in Washington,” the Hillel International headquarters.
“A lot of funding comes locally,” he said. “They are kind of independent in how they put together their board, but they all look to Aish in Jerusalem.”