This is the story of how one person can change the world. It actually encompasses stories of many individuals who not only changed the world of Torah, they showed us how love for our fellow Jew could change their lives as well.
Outreach is the term we use to summarize efforts to bring the beauty of Torah to the non-observant, to draw them into a life of sweetness and goodness to which they were not previously exposed. Aish HaTorah doesn’t just define outreach, it helped create it.
Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, founder of Aish HaTorah, was born on the Lower East Side of New York. He learned in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and subsequently received semicha from Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. His college degree was from Johns Hopkins University and his graduate degree from Loyola Graduate School.
Rav Weinberg’s concern for the assimilation of Jews was noted as early as 1953 when at only 23 years of age, he made a trip to Israel to discuss the issue with the Chazon Ish, who unfortunately was niftar while Rav Noach was still en route. Rav Noach worked as a salesman for his brother’s dry goods company and in his travels throughout the United States, became more aware of the Jews in small towns who were distant from their heritage and religion. In 1966, Rav Noach opened up a yeshiva in Jerusalem, the first of its kind, for outreach. There were many attempts before he and four others founded what would become known as Ohr Sameach. In 1974, Rav Noach founded Aish HaTorah with the goal of creating a place where men could be given a basic Torah education coupled with training to become “kiruv soldiers” to help prevent the scourge of assimilation and intermarriage and to help non-observant Jews connect with the beauty and wisdom of their heritage. The first class of Aish HaTorah had five such soldiers, all ba’alei teshuvah. One of these five was Kalman Packouz, zt”l.
Rabbi Packouz was born into a multi-generational American family from Portland, Oregon (see “A Shul With A Story: Portland Oregon” 6-28-19). After graduating college, Kalman decided to travel the world before attending law school. It was his visit to Israel that changed his life – and the world. After working on a kibbutz, Kalman’s search for the meaning in Judaism led him to a meeting with Rav Noach Weinberg in Jerusalem. The first of Kalman’s long list of noted accomplishments was that he wrote the first book Aish published: How To Stop An Intermarriage. That was in 1976 and 6,000 copies were sold. In 1978, Aish published Kalman’s revised book entitled How To Prevent An Intermarriage.
Kalman wasn’t just studying, writing books, or fervently working on outreach, he was also Rav Noach’s assistant administrator. Rav Noach had a special ability for finding each student’s talents and actualizing them for future outreach – each student was made a lieutenant with specific goals. Kalman’s devotion to helping Rav Noach’s administration became a job training that served him well in his subsequent work for Aish. While Rav Noach instilled in his soldiers his teachings, his “48 Ways,” and supported their self-discovery, he specifically trained his students to be part of the international outreach movement to bring all Jews back. These soldiers were going out to save the world and Rav Noach was strategizing the how, where, and when.
Businessman Kenneth Spetner from St. Louis reached out in 1978 asking for help in stemming the rise of assimilation and intermarriage in his hometown. And it was then, with the creation of the first Aish HaTorah Outreach Center, that everything changed.
Rav Noach asked for a volunteer to go to St. Louis – Kalman Packouz and his wife Shoshana offered to go, along with Chaim Willis whose wife Shelley was from St. Louis. Rav Noach gave Kalman and Chaim six months of training in a semicha program and sent them off to teach the not yet observant about their heritage and their religion.
Chaim Willis came from a secular background and, after graduating college from the University of Michigan with a major in Chinese, traveled extensively in Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. While in Jordan, Chaim found out he could get a visa to visit the West Bank of Israel, and that was the beginning of his real journey. At that time, Aish had only been functioning for about nine months and had thirty students. In their first meeting, Rav Noach asked him: “What do you think about Judaism?” Chaim responded by saying that it’s a nice culture, to which Rav Noach countered, “When G-d gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai, G-d didn’t give a culture, He gave a religion.”
Four years later, Rabbi Willis was on his way to lead Aish of St. Louis.
Kalman was the fundraiser and director and Chaim primarily the teacher, but they were both Rav Noach’s kiruv soldiers. They went to the campus of Washington University and set up tables to engage the Jewish students in conversation, they gave classes at the Hillel House, and Kalman created the Jewish Computer Dating Service, another first.
Rabbi Willis is proud of their three biggest accomplishments. As he noted, “Number 1: we survived! We were the first Aish branch; if we had failed, it would have been a failure for Aish. Fundraising was difficult, we encountered political and territorial issues, and there was no one to learn from, no role models. The success for Aish was a critical one. Number 2: We were able to be makarev people. It showed that people who started out with no knowledge of Judaism were able to reach out and show the possibility of change to others. Some of those that became observant left St. Louis and are now in Baltimore, Detroit, Passaic, and other Jewish centers.” Rabbi Willis is still in touch with many of them today.
“The third accomplishment was that Aish St. Louis not only proved successful, it set up a basis for other Aish centers, it established something permanent.” And that permanence is reflected in St. Louis today.
The history of the Jews of St. Louis began with Joseph Philipson who moved from Philadelphia in 1807 to open a general mercantile store. His brothers soon followed. Unfortunately, they left no descendants in the city. It wasn’t until 1836 that the first minyan was formed. Bais Avraham was established in 1894 with twenty-four families and was followed in 1901 with the establishment of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion by Russian immigrants growing the population to forty families. In 1905, the Jewish population of St. Louis was about 40,000 out of a total population of 575,000. Currently, in a city of three million, about sixty thousand are Jewish.
Metropolitan St. Louis boasts six Orthodox synagogues. Approximately thirty percent of the Orthodox community today is involved because of Aish HaTorah’s non-judgmental approach to inspire. Aish HaTorah has also lit the fire of Judaism for those who are not yet observant, but are involved in other Jewish community organizations.
Rabbis Packouz and Willis were at Aish of St. Louis from 1979-1982 and were followed by Rabbi Dov Heller, another Aish success story. Dov Heller was a secular Jew who got involved in Christianity, so involved that he became a lay pastor who enrolled as a student at Harvard Divinity School. On a trip to Israel, Rav Noach convinced him of his mistakes and Dov Heller became a talmid. He was followed by Rabbi Elazar Grunberger who was there for twenty-five years.
For the past twelve year, the director has been Rabbi Yosef David, whose outreach background included The Heritage House Kiruv Institute, involvement with the community and college while at the Cincinnati Kollel, and a founder of the community kollel in Memphis.
Along with Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, the Director of Education who has been at Aish St. Louis for almost twenty-five years, Rabbi David tries to connect and inspire community members, young to old, primarily focusing on suburban families.
Aish HaTorah of St. Louis offers programs for all ages. The monthly Friday night Shabbat dinner with a Learner’s Service usually has about sixty participants. A Tefillin breakfast is offered monthly covering topics like Shema – it has 10-15 attendees. The children’s Sunday School has thirty-five students. The adult Sunday School, held simultaneously, is a productive use of parents time and gives the message that learning is important for the parents too.
Rabbi David says, “What we try to do is educate and inspire – we don’t judge; what you do with it is up to you. My goal is to put myself out of business. If every Jew is inspired, learning, and growing, then I would no longer be needed at Aish.”
Rebbitzen Mimi David is Director of Women’s Education and offers classes on the holidays, mitzvot, holds a lunch and learn program, and leads an Emunah Workshop. She takes ladies on an educational and inspiring trip to Israel, and so far, over two hundred and fifty women from St. Louis have participated.
Back to the original kiruv soldiers. Rabbi Willis returned to Jerusalem for a few years and then moved to Johannesburg, South Africa where he has been the Director of Aish for twenty-one years. In 1982, Rabbi Packouz and his family moved back to Israel where Kalman became the Executive Director of Aish, a position he held for eight years.
In 1990, Kalman and his family moved to Miami Beach where he opened the regional office of Aish HaTorah. In 1992, he wrote his first “Shabbat Shalom Weekly.” The newsletter was a compilation of Jewish facts, commentary on the Parsha, and chock-full of humor, stories, wisdom, witticisms, and touchy-feely stories with a message. In the beginning, Kalman had fifty initial fax subscribers. Always on the cutting edge and embracing technology, Kalman expanded to the e-newsletter. Today, the Shabbat Shalom Weekly reaches more than 300,000 subscribers – and for many, it is their only Jewish connection.
Aish HaTorah created a website in 1997. When Kalman Packouz invented Window on the Wall, Aish HaTorah’s 24-hour webcam, USA Today featured it as Internet Site of The Day, putting the Aish website on the international map. Window on the Wall has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and in the New York Times. Not only does the webcam show the Kotel in real time, live action, one can type a note on the Aish website and an Aish student will print it out and place it in the Wall. To date, it has generated more than twenty million visits.
Rabbi Kalman Packouz, who was niftar this past November, was a kind, gentle, and sweet man, a techno-inventor who was always optimistic and showed his emunah in his smile. He believed in expressing gratitude and influenced others to always find the good in everything and everyone. Kalman had so many one-liners for living a Torah life; one of my favorites is “Being kind is more important than being right.” Kalman’s unconditional love for every Jew was felt throughout the world. He didn’t just change the world one email at a time, one webcam click at a time, he did it one smile at a time.
Rav Noach and his kiruv soldiers have proven that one man can change the world. Just ask the Jews of St. Louis.