Aish Hatorah, Saviors of Souls

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If one man can kill six million Jews, then one man can save six million Jews.

That mantra, in a nutshell, summarizes the core mission of Aish Hatorah, quoted ad nausem in conversation and propaganda posters. It also conveniently compares Noach Weinberg to Hitler, so that I don’t have to actually do so. I’m just following orders.

I was raised amidst a spiritual holocaust. Hitler had only killed people’s bodies. Assimilation was killing their souls. It was obvious then, what my purpose in life was. I was to save the Jewish people, under the guidance and leadership of Der Fuhrer. 

Other causes are cute. You wanna save the whales? Sure. But, save a non-Jew and a non-Jew is saved. Save a Jew and you’ve saved the next Einstein. We’re here to be a light unto the nations. We thought the world humanity! Ethics! Morality! Abraham taught the world how to be a mensch; we’re an entire people devoted to be role models – we’re Ubermenches!

The metaphor was graphic, insidious, and constantly repeated during my years in the Aish-Jugend kiruv factory. Brainwashing children wasn’t their main focus; Aish never really got the whole child-raising thing down. But I was around for the endless speeches, talks, and articles espousing the dire need of those dying around me.

But what if that wasn’t me? What if I was shy, or didn’t share the vision, or didn’t feel I had what it took?

First of all, fuck you. Do you, or do you not want to fight for the Vaterland?  Have you heard of Meir Schuster? All debates about capability dies when you invoke the Meir Schuster trump card, the way all online debates go south the moment you mention Hitler. Because if shy, timid, can’t-make-eye-contact Meir Schuster made a career out of dragging people away from the Western wall to the nearest yeshiva, so can you.

If he managed to crush his own psyche beneath the weight of the enormity of this responsibility, you can too. And he did it by any means necessary, we recall with a chuckle. Remember that one time he told someone he’d take him to a bathroom, but really brought him to Reb Noach’s office for a 20 minute brainwashing session? What a cheeky bugger! What’s a little lie to save a person’s soul?

Second, you don’t necessarily have to do “front line kiruv”, teaching classes or maneuvering on campuses in your suave polo shirt. We also need people to organize the tape library. Everyone can be part of the mission. An army also needs cooks! Even though, yeah, the real heroes are the guitar playing, tear jerking, charismatic superstars who are coming soon to an event near you.

Don’t even think of just living a simple life. Finding happiness in the day to day, putting one foot in front of the other. Reb Noach would pound his fist on the table during one of his many fiery speeches and call those people zombies. The walking dead. Question your beliefs! And then adopt ours!

Aish Hatorah appropriated meaning itself, setting the standard so high that everything else became bland and colorless. If you weren’t a medic bandaging spiritual wounds, why were you even alive, you fucking fuck? I hope you’re at least having some Shabbos guests over on the weekends!

We had the secret of happiness and meaning in the Torah, and by God we’d either spread that fire through the entire world, or die trying. We were creating a revolution. We were ushering a new era. Mashiach would come and rebuild the 3rd temple and his Reich would last for 1,000 years, or until the world ended, whichever was sooner.

Charedi society never held much threat. They are so backwards, so primitive, that it’s positively quaint. Walk down Meah Shearim and you’ve stepped back into 1880s Poland. You’ve got that old Jewish handwriting. Bare, antiquated walls. Flickering florescent bulbs and weird clothes and Yiddish. People who’ve never seen a TV before freaking out about stupid shit. Cool stuff bro, let me take a photo and post it to Instagram in black and white.

Aish was far more insidious. To use a hypnosis term, it fractionated, bringing you back and forth repeatedly between modern western life and “ancient Jewish wisdom”. It blurred the lines, making you feel like it was possible use the internet (aish.com, anyone?) and be a good Jew all at the same time.

It whitewashed all the parts that needed whitewashing – sexism (women have a role, it’s just different!), genocide (it’s an internal struggle against your evil inclination!), homophobia (there’s no prohibition against being gay, you’re just not allowed to act on it!). Ideas were simplified and enumerated into tasty self-help morsels to rival the click-baitiest Buzzfeed article: “48 Ways to Wisdom”, “7 Principles of Intellectual Clarity”, “6 Tips for a Better Marriage (That Don’t Actually Work)” were yours to be savored and shared. 

Most importantly, it sold you on an idea that promised to solve the most basic human anxieties with a flick of a switch. They had the secrets to happiness, to meaning, to ethics and morality. And if only you stuck around to make it from Essentials to Intermediate I, you’d see the light.

They made things beautiful.

Metaphorically: ancient parables were repackaged, pop psychology was appropriated (have you made your gratitude list yet?), eloquent English was used to fuck with your mind.

Physically: knowing that a Meah Shearim ghetto would never fly with the western sensibilities of their victims, they built beautiful buildings, served good food, took people on trips (we gotta get people out of their normal headspace!).

They got a testimonial from Bill Clinton. They installed a fucking glass Chihuly sculpture in the mezzanine of their world center. But did you know it’s a metaphor? Just like water can carve away at rock, so too, the fire of Aish Hatorah can sear your soul until there’s nothing left but charred ash and smoldering guilt.

When Reb Noach died, he left a gaping vacuum where his single-minded obsessiveness and personality-crushing fists had been that none of his children could fill; and his cult-leading figure was no longer there to prop up the myriads of dysfunctions that plagued an institution that was built on guilt, brute force, and the illusion of happiness.

If one man can kill six million Jews, then one man can save six million Jews. And if Orthodox Judaism can be compared to a pogrom, chaotically rampaging through the world and crushing souls of small Cheder boys at random, then Aish is fucking Auschwitz, “saving lives” with all the meticulous methodologies that western technology and resources have to offer.

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