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Rav Yitzchak Berkovits takes the torch at Aish HaTorah

 

Photos: Eli Cobin

There’s prime real estate, and then there’s the rosh yeshivah’s office in Aish HaTorah. The breathtaking panorama of the Har Habayis spreads out below, while Har Hazeisim gleams as a white mosaic of graves. Down below at the Kosel plaza, small black figures mingle with multicolored ones, testament to every shade of Jew drawn here.

This is the Jewish People’s Ground Zero. It was from this room that Rav Noah Weinberg led a global revolution, transforming countless lives and communities from L.A. to London with the outreach movement known simply as “Aish.”

But even though the “Western Wall on Friday night” is still the “first time ever there” for many of the millions of Jews who visit, something has changed. The long-haired backpackers of the ’70s and ’80s captured in Mordechai Ben David’s iconic song are gone. Today’s equivalent are more likely to snap a selfie and continue unchanged rather than begin a journey to discover the meaning of life. Millions of Jews are still drifting away, and different tools — a new revolution — are required to reach them.

That task has brought a new occupant to this storied room. Sitting behind the wide oak desk is famed posek and rosh kollel Rav Yitzchak Berkovits. To his new task of rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah, he brings a passion for Torah and the Jewish People that finds expression in his trademark beaming smile.

Though he’s very different from his predecessor, he shares an essential something with Rav Noah Weinberg: a burning drive to bring Jews back to Torah before it’s too late.

 

Boro Park Beginnings

“My rebbi muvhak was my mother.” For someone not short of great figures to call their primary mentor, it’s a surprising statement. But the reverence with which Rav Berkovits mentions his mother is matched only by the frequency that her name recurs in his conversation.

A child of Holocaust survivors, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits was raised in the Boro Park of the 1960s in a home with deep chassidic roots. Postwar New York was a far cry from the Europe she’d known, yet his mother, Mrs. Chana Berkovits, was determined to instill in her children what she’d learned at home. “My mother always spoke about emunah. The Ribbono shel Olam was part of the family,” says Rav Berkovits.

This was no simpleminded faith. Around the time of his bar mitzvah, she introduced young Yitzchak to nothing less than Moreh Nevuchim.

Coming from a richly chassidic heritage, Mrs. Berkovits’s learning had itself come from her own learned grandmother. That penchant for deep knowledge was twinned with great strength of character. Rav Berkovits’s mother would tell of the time her grandmother killed a dangerous snake on the dirt floor of her home in Czechoslovakia. That tenacity must have rubbed off on Chana Berkovits: “She was outspoken, and spoke about Yiddishkeit to everyone,” says her son.

Chassidic blood runs deep in Rav Berkovits’s veins. His paternal grandmother was born in Lizhensk, where her own father was a banker who would spend many hours in shul clad in tallis and tefillin. The other side of the family was no less intense. “My other zeide was a chassid from Munkacs,” explains Rav Berkovits with a laugh. “After the war he mellowed and became a Satmar chassid!”

With this chassidic background, how did young Yitzchak end up in the litvish yeshivah system? Back in postwar Boro Park, there wasn’t the rich network of chassidish yeshivos that are present today. “So my mother insisted that I go to a litvishe yeshivah to become a talmid chacham,” he says. The decision provoked heated opposition from her Satmar-oriented father. “Okay, he’ll be a talmid chacham,” he said, “but who will teach him yiras Shamayim? Who will teach him to say asher yatzar?”

Rav Berkovits pauses before delivering the punchline: “I tell people that I learned to say asher yatzar — from my mother.”

So the Yiddishe mamme won. Her son’s first port of call was Yeshivas Toras Emes-Kamenitz. In its heyday, it was Boro Park’s biggest yeshivah, headed by Rav Levi Krupenia, son-in-law of Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and a senior alumnus of the Mirrer Yeshivah. That gave way to learning under Rav Leib Rotkin, a leading talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler.

But with a mother who spoke longingly of “the land where the neviim walked,” it was obvious where Rav Berkovits was headed. As a 20-year-old bochur, he traveled to Israel to learn in Yeshivas Mir.

His single status would stretch on for another eight years. He used that time to become close to the legendary roshei yeshivah who lived within the Mir complex. Rav Nochum Partzovitz, according to Rav Berkovits, “taught us how to read.” He developed in his students a sensitivity to the nuances of the Rishonim, and after hearing him, says Rav Berkovits, “I went back to learn how to daven again, to read Mesillas Yesharim again. It was a different text.”

Rav Nochum Partzovitz also taught the budding talmid chacham something else: how to focus — at high speed. In sharp contrast to the slow pace in contemporary yeshivos, Rav Nochum’s famously profound shiurim covered a tremendous amount of ground.

Rav Berkovits’s relationship with Rav Nochum was close, or as close as possible for someone so totally removed from this world and consumed by Torah. “People used to record the shiur,” remembers Rav Berkovits, “and someone once brought in a boom box to record with. Rav Nochum looked and asked slowly, ‘Dos iz a televiziya?’ ”

The other living legend then in the Mir was the elderly Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz. “By that stage, Rav Chaim’s vision was severely impaired, but he still delivered chaburos,” recalls Rav Berkovits. “We looked closely, and he would sit there quoting the Gemara word for word, with his finger pointing — to the wrong daf.”

So where does a talmid of Gemara-focused Mir gain the skills to become a well-known posek? Rav Yitzchak Berkovits wasn’t just molded in Mir; halachah, it turns out, is in the genes.

“My elter zeide on my father’s side was one of the greatest prewar poskim, Rav Pinchos Zimetbaum who was av beis din of Grosswardein, now Romania,” Rav Berkovits explains. “He’s not so well-known today, but his son-in-law is: He was the Minchas Yitzchak, Dayan Weiss.”

This family relationship gave Rav Berkovits access to one of the greatest poskim around — and when he arrived in Yerushalayim, he took full advantage to become what he describes as a “ben bayis” at Rav Weiss’s home.

A Thursday night halachah chaburah that Rav Berkovits gave during his last years in the Mir led to a relationship with Rav Elyashiv as well. Already famed as a leading posek, Rav Elyashiv was still accessible in those years, and Rav Berkovits would go there on Thursday mornings to discuss the contents of his upcoming shiur. After Rav Berkovits’s wedding, the Eidah Hachareidis’s Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher became a third halachic mentor.

Lithuania and Hungary; in-depth Gemara study and halachah; the rigors of the yeshivah and the passion of chassidus. Rav Yitzchak Berkovits blends many worlds into one coherent whole. But after ten years in the Mir, one influence was still to come: Rav Noah Weinberg.

“It all started with a message from Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, the wife of Rav Noah and a determined kiruv pioneer herself,” remembers Rav Berkovits. Rebbetzin Weinberg summoned Rav Berkovits to a meeting. “I’m starting a seminary for girls,” she declared confidently — “and you’re teaching halachah.”

That was how the kiruv world gained its preeminent posek.

Up-and-coming talmid chacham he may have been, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for Rav Berkovits when he first began teaching beginners at EYAHT, Aish’s women’s division. Rebbetzin Weinberg, he remembers with a laugh, would sit in on his classes, and occasionally passed notes to him in the middle with a pointer. One read “Speak English — or at least translate!”

The English, to judge by Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz’s famously impeccable delivery, was just a matter of practice. But what he couldn’t have foreseen was being asked by Rav Noah Weinberg to serve as menahel ruchani of Aish HaTorah, a position he held from 1983 until he left to found his own institution, the Jerusalem Kollel, in 2001.

Even a decade after Rav Noah Weinberg’s passing, his presence in the Aish HaTorah building is palpable. But for someone who never met him, who was “Rav Noah,” as they say in Aish? Where did he draw the volcanic energy for kiruv that created this movement out of nothing?

“He was unlike any human being I ever met,” answers Rav Berkovits. “He took every word of Chazal to heart for real. If you didn’t understand that there was an obligation to change the Jewish People, you weren’t a yarei Shamayim.”

That super-charged perception of reality colored everything that Rav Noah did. “Just to give you an example,” explains Rav Berkovits, “Rav Noah was once introduced to a wealthy man from Switzerland whom he’d been attempting to meet for a long time. He told the potential donor that he was fighting assimilation, to which the man replied, ‘What’s so bad with marrying out? I’ve done it myself!’ ”

Rav Noah’s response to this was to shout “Traitor!” and walk out, not pausing to discover what the man had stuffed into his pocket.

“He had absolutely no sense of flattery,” continues Rav Berkovits. “He was incredibly demanding of donors. He would tell them: ‘Stopping intermarriage is as much your job as mine.’ And the majority of Aish’s leading supporters became religious themselves.”

Rav Noah Weinberg showed baalei teshuvah how emunah is real, how Hashem is real, and how much they could understand for themselves. He created the proud, confident baal teshuvah.

Not only that, Rav Noah worked to create talmidim capable of sharing their knowledge. Laser-focused on saving Jewish lives from assimilation, he asked Rav Berkovits to develop a curriculum to teach baalei teshuvah everything from alef-beis to semichah in as short a time as possible, so they could take up the fight themselves. When Rav Berkovits reported back that his curriculum would take seven years, Rav Noah thundered: “Seven years? In seven years, we won’t know who is Jewish!”

Just as Rav Noah demanded endless resources of himself, he demanded unflagging dedication and energy of others. His sense of mission was so consuming, and his belief in every Jew’s responsibility to fight assimilation so encompassing, that he dared to dream and demand what many considered not only impractical, but impossible. “He refused to recognize human weakness,” says Rav Berkovits.

The legacy of that unstoppable drive is still apparent today — in the most literal sense, it’s on display in the unparalleled Aish HaTorah complex. With its spectacular arched corridors, part of the building dates to the Crusader period. The latest iteration, built atop layers of history, features paneled walls, a sleek information desk, and a jaw-dropping glass sculpture. It feels like a corporate headquarters.

Which, of course, is exactly what the building is. At the Jewish world’s most iconic address, 1 Western Wall Plaza, the building reflects the global ambitions of its visionary founder: to be relevant enough to take Torah anywhere, from Manhattan to L.A., London to Melbourne. An early adopter of every innovation from sharp graphics to digital outreach, Aish has always been at the cutting edge of kiruv. In fact, Aish as a movement has been so successful that it’s managed what few movements do: Its name has become a verb. In the same way as “to Google” means to search the web, to get “Aished” is a term for young people becoming inspired to transform their lives and become religious.

Rav Berkovits, it turns out, prefers to use a different word to describe Aish. “It’s a milchamah,” he says — “a war against Jewish ignorance.” But on today’s battleground, that war is more difficult than in the past. Around the time that Aish HaTorah lost Rav Noah Weinberg, the whole of the outreach world was hit by a double whammy: a finance crunch, and a numbers crunch.

Today, with the world economy out of the doldrums, money isn’t the desperate issue it was back then. But the second challenge is still present. Labeled by some as the “kiruv crisis,” today’s outreach scene is seeing lower interest and enrollment: Students simply aren’t coming to learn in yeshivah or seminary in the numbers that they used to. When they do, it’s often not for as long. Inevitably, the ability to revolutionize lives is affected.

A veteran of the kiruv world, Rav Yizchak Berkovits is well aware of the challenge. The up-to-date maps on the wall behind his desk show the shrinking of American Jewry, and the global distribution of Jewish populations. “There are four to eight million Jews in America now,” he says “but intermarriage is now so bad that even Sephardim [usually stalwart when it comes to traditions surrounding marriage] are affected.”

In true corporate style, Rav Berkovits says the first priority in today’s kiruv climate is R&D. “We’re working on a think tank to come up with strategies. But one thing is clear: We have to find a way to reach the young liberal Jews.”

That’s easier said than done, especially when so many Torah positions are held a priori to be unjust to progressives. “The one thing that we have in common with today’s liberals is social justice,” Rav Berkovits says. “The secular world got it from us, but we have to draw them in by showing them how the Torah delivers real justice. We’ve done that in the Jerusalem Kollel, where visiting groups of students learn the laws of bein adam l’chaveiro as they apply to real-world situations. It can be a transformative kiruv encounter.”

But even as he seeks new strategies, Rav Berkovits is doubling down on a core Aish approach. “Aish HaTorah’s strategy,” he says, “has always been to inspire secular Jews to take responsibility to inspire others. We have to find those with leadership qualities and make it happen for this generation.”

About halfway through the interview, we leave Rav Berkovits’s office, and the conversation continues as we head to the adjacent rooftop. It’s an opportunity to see the new Rosh Yeshivah interact with some veteran talmidim. There’s a clear reverence, but when one wants to pose for a photo with his rebbi, Rav Berkovits does so perfectly naturally.

“A holy Jew” is how Aish CEO Rabbi Steven Burg, who has been instrumental in bringing Rav Berkovits back to Aish HaTorah, describes the rosh yeshivah. “I’ve seen Rav Berkovits with major donors and secular opinion makers, and that holiness comes across. He’s a majestic personality.”

And the benefit of that personality, Steven Burg feels, is coming at the right time because the organization has the wind in its sails. “We have about 200,000 people coming into the Aish World Center every year. There are a million people a month visiting Aish.com, and we’re poised to expand our use of digital tools to reach Jews wherever they are. Over the last few years, we’ve opened a new center in San Diego and made a push into South America, including Buenos Aires and other cities.”

In practical terms, Steven Burg explains, Rav Berkovits’s new role will mean providing the vision at the top to lead Aish as an international movement. “Rav Berkovits is now doing regular Zoom meetings with staff from the branches over the world,” he says. “It’s amazing to see those relationships and interactions. As the leading posek of the kiruv world, people ask him questions in halachah and hashkafah, and he gives them the chizuk they need.”

Rav Berkovits is uniquely suited to that advisor role. For decades, he’s served as the longtime unofficial posek of the kiruv world. The deep involvement of American secular Jews with liberal lifestyles has raised sensitive questions for outreach professionals — and it’s to Rav Berkovits that they turn for guidance.

According to veteran educator Rabbi Menachem Nissel, who serves as a rabbinic advisor to NCSY, Rav Berkovits has a unique ability to handle contemporary questions. The thorniest sh’eilos land at Rav Berkovits’s doorstep — from kashrus to geirus to halachic questions arising from alternative-lifestyle issues. As an example, he quotes a recent case of an NCSY city director who was asked to officiate at the wedding of an unaffiliated couple who were open to doing a halachic wedding, but who were unprepared to order kosher catering.

In another case that crossed Rav Berkovits’s desk, a campus kiruv rabbi found that serving food was a great way to attract Jewish students to his booth at the annual university fair. One year, however, the fair was scheduled for Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, posing a dilemma — surely he couldn’t actively enable Jews to eat on a fast day, but without the food, he’d likely lose a crucial chance to reach unaffiliated Jews.

For popular educator and speaker Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan, who recently made the move from Jerusalem to Cleveland, Ohio, Rav Berkovits’s guidance involved an early lesson in sensitivity to others’ perceptions. A rabbi in upstate New York invited him to speak to the community there and warned him that if he wore a hat, no one would turn up to listen. The idea of changing his yeshivish dress to please others was a difficult one for Rabbi Bensoussan to swallow — until Rav Berkovits helped him see things differently. “If they don’t like your hat, that’s because they feel that’s not what their parents’ and grandparents’ Yiddishkeit looked like,” said Rav Berkovits. “They feel that you’re violating their mesorah.”

Rabbi Bensoussan’s move back to America after many years in Israel, where he ran programs at Ohr Somayach, prompted a classic Rav Berkovits response.

“My son, who’d been raised in Yerushalayim, was apprehensive about the move and couldn’t understand why we were making it,” says Rabbi Bensoussan. “So I brought him to Rav Berkovits who asked him: ‘How long have you lived in Eretz Yisrael?’ ‘All my life,’ answered my eight-year-old. ‘All your life?! You got that much kedushah? Now you have to go and share it with others!’ And that’s what I heard my son tell his younger sister.”

Beyond halachic leadership, Rav Berkovits’s new position also means heading a brick-and-mortar institution in Jerusalem’s Old City with a steady influx of students. On this typical day at Aish, the beis medrash is crowded with students of all different stages, spilling out into the lobby. There’s currently a group of teens from Mexico on a three-month program, and they stand out in their tank tops, distinct from those in their colored shirts who’ve been in the yeshivah for longer, yet again different from the true veterans in their white shirts.

The students are involved in a whole range of programs: the Essentials program, which welcomes people who walk into the Aish center; the post-high school Gesher program; advanced Beis Medrash; and Jinternships for those combining work experience with learning. Over all this presides a large staff, led by Rabbi Dovid Rosman.

Now that Rav Berkovits will be spending a significant amount of time each day in the yeshivah, what areas will he focus on? What has been his effect so far?

“Besides the multiple daily shiurim that Rav Berkovits is now giving to all different levels, he’s involved in overhauling the yeshivah curriculum,” says Rabbi Rosman. “He’s pushed us to create a multilevel approach to take students from beginner to proficiency in a very structured way. And Rav Berkovits is sensitive to the nuances of how Gemara could be perceived by an outsider, such as why certain damages go unpunished under halachah, and he’s spoken about how to address these issues.” Overall, says Rabbi Rosman, “he’s imbued the whole structure with a sense of purpose. Besides being a posek, he’s pushing a vision of ahavas Yisrael underlying what we do.”

If Aish HaTorah represents the front-line kiruv aspect of Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, a few miles away in the neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet is another dimension. It’s there that Rav Berkovits’s kollel and shul stand.

The Jerusalem Kollel, as it’s known, is a leading training program for young mekarvim. After an intense three-year semichah program, alumni are placed in outreach jobs from campuses to shuls around the world. To date, the program has placed hundreds of graduates in rabbinic and outreach positions around the world, armed with advanced knowledge and tools to lead and teach Torah. The avreichim in the kollel come from a variety of backgrounds, but the one thing they share is a commitment to following their rebbi’s approach to helping the Jewish People.

After the kollel sedarim are over, the same beis medrash is transformed. It becomes Rav Berkovits’s shul, home to a core of serious avreichim, many of whom spend their days in Mir and Brisk. This demographic typically pursues long-term kollel learning, and their aim is not outreach. They too see Rav Berkovits as their authority.

There are very few people dealing with such a range of different approaches to Torah life as Rav Berkovits. But how does he reconcile long-term learning with kiruv? Does outreach, however worthy, not take bright minds away from learning?

“I’m certainly not there to cut short people’s growth. When it comes to the kiruv training programs, I try to take avreichim whom I don’t see staying long-term in kollel,” he explains. “Instead of their learning petering out when they go to work, let them go out on a high with three years of intense halachah.”

But the tools that Rav Berkovits teaches are necessary whether people leave the beis medrash for outreach or business. “An avreich,” he says, “has to stay connected and have a relationship with Hashem.”

Rav Berkovits draws from the same bedrock for the avreichim in his shul that he taps for the beginners at Aish HaTorah. Authentic connection with Hashem is paramount, and it’s the underpinning of much of his teachings. That concern even spurred him to teach Tanya to the decidedly yeshivish crowd in his shul on Shabbos.

“People think that only the non-religious lack a relationship with Hashem. But frum people do as well,” he explains. “Too few people have a feeling of love for Hashem and more and more avreichim are yearning for that. The natural place to look for this is chassidus.”

As a posek who mentors future rabbanim to full proficiency in halachah, Rav Berkovits displays a different side. A close talmid who is now in a senior rabbinical position himself says that his rebbi sets the rabbinical bar exceptionally high. “He sets a high bar for what a rav needs to know. Firstly, there’s his clarity, both in halachah and hashkafah. He never has to look things up, and to have clarity in both is a rare combination. But secondly, he has developed a sense of yashrus, the spirit of the law for things that are not in the Shulchan Aruch.”

This particular talmid says that the secret to Rav Berkovits’s success in mentoring so many young rabbanim is his positivity: “It’s there in his smile,” he explains. “Rav Berkovits encourages people to reach higher and doesn’t criticize. In all of the hundreds of hours that I’ve spent with him, I’ve never heard him say something negative about anyone.”

Undaunted

Taking over the leadership of the massive Aish movement, in addition to the roles of rosh kollel and rav, must be a daunting prospect. But Rav Yitzchak Berkovits doesn’t seem easily disheartened. In fact, there’s an unusual tranquility about everything he does. An assistant comes in to say that we need to wrap up the interview as the rosh yeshivah is due to start his weekly shmuess to the whole yeshivah. But Rav Berkovits continues the conversation calmly, fully present.

Then, at the lectern in front of Aish’s futuristic glass aron hakodesh, Rav Berkovits speaks about why sinas chinam — baseless hatred — is really the worst scourge to affect humanity. “Life can be a Gan Eden or a torture chamber,” he says. “The difference is how we interact with others. We have to demand of ourselves only love for Klal Yisrael.”

That, if you like, is the secret of Rav Yitzchak Berkovits’s unusual drive to help the Jewish People. His is an utterly genuine belief that Torah and a close connection to Hashem are the very best things for mankind. It’s the glue that holds together all of the diffuse aspects of his personality.

It’s that unshakeable conviction, together with the trademark wide smile, that are now at the helm of the battle for the soul of the selfie generation.

Fist banging is not Rav Berkovits’s style, but there’s no mistaking his passion when it comes to saving the Jewish People. “The avodah is enormous,” he says. “But there’s one thing we should never forget. The Torah is the solution to all of the problems of non-religious life. We just have to get that across.”

 

A General Takes Charge

Brooklyn businessman Isaac Gross is a child of the Viener kehillah and a graduate of Yeshiva Chasan Sofer, but the passion for the whole of Klal Yisrael has burned within him for years.

As a bochur, he maintained a weekly Thursday night learning session with Rav Shlomo Freifeld, who pulled back a curtain before him, showing him the vast neshamah of Klal Yisrael, the shared soul of a nation.

Years later, Rav Noah Weinberg came to solicit funds for Aish HaTorah and Isaac heard the same exuberance and determination. This time, it came along with a challenge: to do something.

Instantly taken by Rav Noah, Isaac offered a generous donation, but asked that in return, the Rosh Yeshivah spend Shabbos with him in Flatbush. Rav Noah agreed, and over that memorable Shabbos, Isaac posed the question.

“How come not everyone feels that passion?” he asked the Rosh Yeshivah.

Rav Noah started to cry, and said, “Because it doesn’t hurt them.”

Those words were the challenge to go change the world. Not to be content with clich?s, or even donations, but to foster real change.

“It was what he said, and the way he said it,” Isaac recalls. “It was life changing.”

Since the passing of Rav Noah, Isaac has been watching the yeshivah — and its alumni — search for direction, and he invested much time in recent years meeting with the new rosh yeshivah.

“Rav Berkovits isn’t just a posek and gaon. He’s a pikei’ach; a wise, wise man,” he said. “I don’t think we need another Rav Noah — he does it his way — but the goal is the same. It’s about saving Klal Yisrael and he feels the urgency, the call of the hour. We have a dedicated army out there, but someone has to give commands. Now with Rav Berkovits as rosh yeshivah, baruch Hashem, we have a general.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 774)

 

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