I met Richard Boruch Rabinowitz shortly after I arrived in New York City. While I already had my circle of Jewish friends in the city, I quickly found myself part of a more orthodox community as well as I started to help the Aish branches on their social media platforms and volunteered at their Gala(s) in Manhattan.
I remember the first meeting with Boruch and the other rabbis. I was somewhat intimidated as I never knew whether I could shake hands (some did) or not; whether they will look at me as we talk or not; and whether their faces would change when I tell them I wasn’t Jewish.
Well, all I’ve ever got from them was kindness. Even when I confronted them about my rejections towards religious dogmas, or questioned whether G-d would really punish us if we are not fasting on Yom Kippur. Since then I understood that they could not get mad at me simply because it is a very Jewish thing to counter-argue. So there, I’m an Almost Jewish.
While we kept in touch with Boruch, I never had the chance to ask my questions to him. So, now, I decided to use the opportunity and also share our conversation with you.
If I remember well, we met for the first time during an Aish Gala in Manhattan, and I think you were the second person I’ve ever met who was referred to as a rabbi. Then I figured you aren’t working as a rabbi per se, so how does that really work? You know I can only think in Christian terms: if some is a priest, he acts as a priest.
Being a rabbi really means being a teacher. You teach wisdom or the Torah. There is a formal category, of course, where you also get a function of coordination. I function as a rabbi in the form of a teacher, and I do perform some of the duties, but I’m also spending my time on administrative issues, running programs for Jewish communities, doing fundraising for these programs. So my role is a dual role.
From my studies as a graduate student at Touro College – being the fourth non-Jew ever getting herself into Judaism studies without prior education in the field – I knew and learnt about Noach Weinberg and his incredible work. If I know well, he had a huge impact on your life. Can you tell me how and why?
Noach Weinberg had an impact on my life on so many levels. He had affected my life tremendously. He was not only person knowledgeable on Torah wisdom, but he was an exceptional human being as well. He was not only learned, but he walked the walk. His personality has profoundly shaped my ideas and brought me closer to the Torah. He showed me the practical wisdom of how the Torah can really impact one’s life; the road to greatness and pure power and to the beauty of the Jewish people. But above all, he instilled in me to fight the cause of helping the world and to make a difference being for the Jewish people and exposing the non-Jewish world to our world.
He was my rabbi, my friend and played many roles in my life. I was in an exceptional, rare and privileged position where I could speak to him about everything and anything. In fact, we spoke every day I. asked him questions all the time…not only about Jewish life or the Halakha but also about friendship, marriage, interacting with people. It felt special to have someone so wise to go to.
So was it him who motivated you to be active in the Jewish communities and try to help the Jewish people?
I spent 5-6 months of the year travelling with Rav Noach. We travelled together, went on meetings, planned together and just spent some valuable time throughout these trips. When you get close to a person with such wisdom you not only learn what they say but also how they act. So I saw his greatness up close and how he dealt with things and people and it had an impact on my whole life. Losing him and his wisdom was a tremendous loss for me and many others.
You have dedicated your career to Aish HaTorah and its mission. You know, I only heard about Aish a few years ago when I was in Jerusalem, and I heard mix experiences from people. Do you think today’s Aish is still the one Weinberg dreamed of?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t think Aish, at large, was what rabbi dreamed of in his lifetime. His commitment to a cause was so much beyond Aish. He was involved in so many organizations, and Aish was just one essential part of this vision. Honestly, I think, Aish has never really met up to what he really wanted or envisioned; nor then or now. But it’s an important part and plays an important role in the Jewish people.
So my answer is: Rav Noach’s vision went way beyond Aish.
But as we said you are not a rabbi, you are not educating people in a shul per se, so what is your role exactly?
I do play a role as a rabbi and teach many people and I learn many, and I also play a role in fundraising for many years since 1982. And I had the privilege and opportunity to get people involved in a cause, to get them involved to fund and support these programs, to actively being involved. They say in fundraising the people give to people not for the cause… Well, there is lots of truth in it, but frankly, it offends me because I always believed that you need to have people really believe in the cause in order to really make a difference and not just give money because of personal relationships.
I had the privilege to meet many people in many different professions thanks to my vast fundraising experience. I have run multimillion-dollar campaigns, I have done dinners and more, but I always felt privileged to meet with philanthropists or to help develop a person or family into philanthropy.
It was a unique opportunity for me to meet so many wonderful people and work together for a cause.
What are the three projects that you are the proudest of?
Honestly? As Weinberg taught us: “don’t take pride, take pleasure.” So what I feel the most pleasure about it is the ability to be still able to fight for the Jewish people and making a difference for the Jewish people. I saw many people come and go; they have tried it, they did a lot, and then they stopped and went into business ventures. I’m not against it as you do have to make a living and support your family. But I feel really good and that I could stay in this work for so long – it’s been more than 40 years now.
“Don’t take pride, take pleasure.”
But if I need to name three projects, then the program we did in Toronto with Elie Wiesel when he got the Nobel Prize in 1986. We did a public lecture in Toronto. It was a bit of fundraising, a bit of public lecture with thousands of people and it was such a beautiful campaign that really got exposure and showed what Aish HaTorah was about in Toronto, and it was a real professional breakthrough.
The second one would be the Discovery Seminars. The Seminar was about the evidence of the Torah from Sinai. We created a seminar that trained the presenters and at one point we had 30,000 people attending these seminars. Another breakthrough program again.
And I can’t even pick a third one. Or maybe our King David Award that aims at Strengthening pride in Jewish American heritage and supporting projects that increase Jewish American identity.
It was so exciting to start many new initiatives. Some failed, some succeeded and some did not take off when we launched but took off years later.
As I’ve been working with non- profits and NGOs in the Jewish niche, they had one thing in common: they struggled to get funding. What would be your advice to them?
Struggling is not bad! Working hard and struggling if you are involved in a good cause then the effort itself helps the cause. It’s part of the process. As Weinberg used to say: if you are playing basketball and it’s an easy game, you don’t get so much pleasure; when it’s hard, and you are really sweating that is when you get the pleasure – and it’s a good thing as you can take pleasure in the efforts and what you are trying to achieve. So getting funds might not be easy, but if you are ready to work hard, you will always find the people who will support your cause. And sometimes the effort in one aspect will bring results in a way never could have imagined.
You know many times I face the blame that the death of Judaism is intermarriage. What is your opinion on that?
The greatest disease affecting the Jewish people is ignorance. If people understood who we were as people and what our values are, they would marry Jewish people and raise Jewish kids and educate their children to be part of the Jewish people. So interfaith marriage is just a symptom of this ignorance.
The greatest disease affecting the Jewish people is ignorance.
I really wanted to ask something from you for a long time: When you, as an orthodox Jew, meet a non-Jew, like me, at events such as the Aish Gala or seeing my involvement in the Jewish communities, how does that make you feel?
I feel really great meeting you, a non-Jewish person at Jewish events and being so positively pro-Jewish and pro-Israel. You are a friend of the Jewish people, and that makes me feel very good and hopeful. It gives me tremendous happiness that you see the positiveness in the Jewish values. So, thank you for all what you are doing!
Now, that I’m working and am actively involved in the Jewish communities both here in the USA and Israel, I start to allow myself to form an opinion about what really is the danger for the future of Judaism. And I’m saddened by what I see in the Diaspora’s new generation. Why do you think they are drifting away from their roots, often refusing to go to Israel and some even join such movements as BDS?
Look, as I said before, ignorance is really the biggest threat. The media is really strongly against Israel, and that gets into people’s head if they are not educated and equipped with our values and beliefs. Unfortunately, this is an outgrowth of assimilation.
I know you lived in Israel for a few years and then moved to Canada for Aish and then to New York. Have you ever considered going back to Eretz?
Sure, I am always considering going back to Israel – it is a beautiful country where I feel at home. You feel in a certain family environment over there; it is a holy place. It is always special. I travel to Israel a lot, but my children and grandchildren are all here.
What are your main goals today?
I am always looking for novel ideas; ideas that can really make a difference to the Jewish people and talking with organizations, entrepreneurs and looking to promote, support and develop ideas that I really think will make a difference. This has been my goal for decades, and this is what I’ll continue doing.
I have this returning question I started to ask Jewish people and each time I get a very different answer, and I want to close with that: What does Judaism mean to you?
Judaism to me means Torah – which is about how to bring the world to perfection and how to perfect ourselves in this world and an understanding of what our life is really all about.