Between the Lines: In heaven’s name: The battle for Reb Noach’s legacy
Aish International is widely believed to be the U.S. arm of Aish HaTorah in Israel. It isn’t.
Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman was listed as honorary co-chairman of this year’s King David Award luncheon, held last month at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The annual event is sponsored by Aish International and brings together members of Congress and a half dozen or so prominent honorees and their families and associates to mark Jewish Heritage Month.
The New York-based nonprofit’s stated mission is to “raise money so that Aish HaTorah and the different branches and programs can operate,” teaching “unaffiliated Jews about their heritage.”
Aish HaTorah, with an annual budget of about $40 million for its worldwide operation based in Jerusalem, is a highly respected organization fostering Torah education, with an emphasis on outreach.
Lieberman said that when he was asked to serve on the honorary advisory committee for the King David program, “I read it to clearly mean that Aish HaTorah, which I know and respect, would be the beneficiary of any funds raised.”
But that was not the case.
In fact, according to Matt Sweetwood, senior adviser of Aish International, no funds raised by the organization in the last two years have gone to Aish HaTorah. The King David event is “a self-funding, very worthy, feel-good promotional program” headed by and supporting its executive director, Rabbi Richard Boruch Rabinowitz, Sweetwood told NJJN.
This was news to Lieberman. Aish International’s conduct, he said, “raises questions about their integrity, and that’s a matter of great concern.”
The former senator is not the only one feeling duped.
For years, even the biggest funders, who were members of the board of governors of the Jerusalem-based Aish HaTorah, thought of Aish International, based in the United States, as the equivalent of an “American Friends of” conduit for contributing tax-deductible dollars to Aish HaTorah. Among them, they donated many millions to Aish International, believing their contributions were being directed to fund a variety of Aish HaTorah educational projects. But they have stopped their donations.
Louis Mayberg, a Washington, D.C., businessman and prominent philanthropist, said Rabinowitz “created the impression” that Aish International was simply the transmitter of funds to Aish HaTorah. Five other major funders expressed the same sentiments in interviews with NJJN. They said they ceased their contributions two years ago when they concluded that Rabinowitz, whom one referred to as “a rogue rabbi,” was keeping significant sums of funds to support his own organization. And they say he refused repeated requests to open his books.
The contributors, some of whom chose not to be named in this article, described the rabbi’s actions as misleading, at best. They expressed reservations about commenting publicly, torn between wanting their allegations about Aish International to be exposed and worrying that the publicity could sully the solid reputation of Aish HaTorah, whose work they praised as vital and enormously successful.
Rabbi Steven Burg, director general of Aish HaTorah, said Rabinowitz was terminated in January 2016 “because we have no way of knowing if monies that were contributed through Aish International were going where donors wanted it to go or were being kept by Aish International. That lack of transparency was intolerable.”
Rabinowitz, who declined a request for an interview, said through Sweetwood that as the major fundraiser in North America for Aish HaTorah for three decades, he is owed more than $800,000 in commission for funds he raised. The rabbi initiated beit din (religious court) proceedings in Brooklyn in early 2016 to be reimbursed and get his job back.
At the crux of the dispute is the relationship between Aish International and Aish HaTorah. Are they one organization or two? Is Rabinowitz, as he claims, the rightful heir of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the much-revered late founder of Aish HaTorah? Or is he an over-reaching fundraiser who is “strangling” the international organization, as one key funder charged?
A visitor to the Aish International website would have no way of knowing that it is not synonymous with Aish HaTorah. The “History” section begins: “Aish HaTorah is a Jewish outreach organization” and goes on to tell the story of Weinberg and his work. The “Programs” section lists and describes 10 projects, all Aish HaTorah’s, including a business ethics series that emphasizes the value of applying Jewish law and morality in one’s business dealings.
Prominently featured on the website is the King David Award luncheon with the names and photos of 32 members of Congress, listed as the Honorary Congressional Host Committee (2012-2016). The photo of Lieberman, prominently featured as honorary co-chair for 2017 next to Rabinowitz, was removed after NJJN made inquiries about the organization.
Sweetwood explained that Rabinowitz maintains the website because it is his intention to continue to raise funds for Aish HaTorah after the disagreement is resolved. “If he committed fraud, would he initiate the case in beit din?” Sweetwood said.
Meanwhile, the standoff continues, as does the battle over Weinberg’s legacy.
The reach of Reb Noach
In the beginning, there was Reb Noach, as he was widely known.
Born on the Lower East Side in 1930, Noach Weinberg, the scion of a rabbinic family, was ordained at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore (where his older brother, Yaakov, is now rosh yeshiva) and moved to Jerusalem with his wife, Deena, in 1967. Deeply concerned about assimilation in the diaspora, he dedicated his efforts to establishing a yeshiva and inspiring young people through a variety of Torah outreach projects. Aish HaTorah was launched with five students in a small apartment in the Old City in 1974. Largely due to the vision, dynamism, and charisma of Weinberg, Aish HaTorah grew to include a Jerusalem center and about three dozen full-time branches on five continents, its programs reaching hundreds of thousands of people.
While Weinberg was beloved for his warmth, teaching, and many other skills, strong management of the fast-growing operation was not one of them, according to several people involved with the organization. He worked closely with a small group of loyal associates, whom he trusted, including Rabinowitz, a former student and perhaps his closest aide. When Weinberg died in 2009, confusion reigned in efforts to understand and disentangle elements of the financial operation, which had grown to the tens of millions of dollars. It includes a board of governors, a board of directors, and an amutah (an Israeli nonprofit board). The disorganization went on for years, observers said.
“Aish HaTorah was the car and Rav Noach was the engine,” said Burg, who was brought on to professionalize the operation as the group’s director general in June 2015. “When Reb Noach died, the engine fell out and the car kept on going.”
Burg, who was given high marks for his work with the Orthodox Union; its teen program, NCSY; and later as head of the New York branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, set about establishing best practices regarding transparency in the Aish HaTorah network. He hired financial executives who confirmed long-simmering suspicions that Aish International’s operation was deeply problematic. Seeking to increase transparency within the organization about a year before Burg was hired, Rabbi Hershel Lutch, then-chief operating officer of Aish International, presented a financial report at an Aish HaTorah board of governors meeting. According to several in attendance, the report was the first clear disclosure to members concerning the financial relationship between Aish International and Aish HaTorah. Until that point, the board hadn’t realized that Aish International was a separate entity.
“We were trying to peel back the layers” of the operation, said Louis Mayberg. “But it was opaque. There were always surprises.” And growing frustration and irritation with Rabinowitz, whom they had long trusted.
Most of the donors came to believe that going back as far as 10 years, there were major discrepancies between the funds raised by Rabinowitz in North America, and the amount of those funds that reached Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
Lutch resigned from Aish International to work directly for Burg as COO-North America for Aish HaTorah, having concluded that Rabinowitz was not representing Aish HaTorah’s true interests.
Burg told Rabinowitz he could no longer operate solo as a fundraiser. He stressed that financial transparency was being instituted and that Rabinowitz would be accountable for all funds raised. As for Rabinowitz’s claim that he was owed more than $800,000 in commissions, Burg told him the donors first wanted to see bank and financial statements for Aish International and a breakdown of charitable donations made to Aish International going back to 2007.
Burg and the donors interviewed here said the rabbi never complied.
In a series of nine written requests for financial information from Aish HaTorah controller Jamie Feinmesser over a two-month period in the fall of 2015, copies of which were obtained by NJJN, Rabinowitz responded only to say he was in discussion with Burg, though Burg said Rabinowitz refused to provide any financial accounting.
In January 2016, after four months of failed attempts, Burg wrote to Rabinowitz to request that Aish International “cease and desist acting on behalf of Aish HaTorah in any capacity.”
The letter praised the rabbi as a highly successful and dedicated fundraiser for Aish HaTorah for decades, but noted that that Aish International and Aish HaTorah are separate and independent organizations, with their own boards. Despite this, Burg wrote, there was ongoing confusion among donors and others who believed that contributions to Aish International automatically were directed to Aish HaTorah.
Both sides now accuse the other of stalling as the beit din proceedings drag on, and Aish HaTorah officials feel bound by those proceedings rather than going to civil authorities.
A victim of ‘lashon harah’
Sweetwood, Rabinowitz’s spokesman and defender, offers a very different version of the conflict. A business consultant, he came to know and admire the rabbi after sharing office space in Manhattan with him a few years ago. He praised Rabinowitz as “the most honest man I know” and who, as Weinberg’s key and devoted aide, raised more than $100 million for Aish HaTorah over the years. (The rabbi’s critics do not dispute those numbers and readily acknowledge his major efforts in the organization’s growth.)
“He felt it was his organization” after Weinberg died, Sweetwood said of Rabinowitz, based on an agreement between the two rabbis many years ago. Some say the agreement was verbal, others say it was written on a scrap of paper decades ago and may have included a figure for Rabinowitz’s commission. But was that number agreed on for all donations or just the one?
Sweetwood contends that the donors “want to take control of the organization like a Wall Street takeover” and have “employed a scorched-earth method” by terminating the rabbi and besmirching his reputation through “lashon harah” (slander).
According to him, Rabinowitz did show a full financial accounting to the donors and Burg, though they deny that. The rabbi’s advocate said “it’s time to give him back his job under the new rules and move on.
“He’s a very righteous man who has been hurt spiritually,” Sweetwood emphasized. “This kind of sabotage and sense of ingratitude for a man who built Aish HaTorah by a religious organization is shocking to a lay person like me,” he said. “In the end, it’s all about the ego, and this” conflict “will hurt the whole organization. Let everyone get back to doing Rabbi Weinberg’s work.”
No doubt Burg and the major donors would agree with that comment, though they would argue that it is Rabinowitz’s ego that is the problem.
Isaac Gross, a major contributor for more than two decades, said he spent a full day trying to “broker an understanding” between the two sides, but said Rabinowitz agreed to a compromise “and then he backed down.”
“Reb Noach is gone. That’s the issue. And some don’t understand that they’re not in control anymore,” Gross said, noting that after the loss of a strong, charismatic leader like Weinberg, Aish HaTorah required reorganization.
“There is no question that Rabbi Rabinowitz diverted some funds; no one saw the entire picture. I’m not accusing him of fraud,” he continued, “but if he really cared about Aish HaTorah ‘l’shaym shamaim’ [for the sake of heaven], is he really thinking about Reb Noach’s memory and legacy?”