Aish International is widely believed to be the U.S. arm of Aish HaTorah in Israel. But it isn’t.
By Gary Rosenblatt
Posted with permission from The Times of Israel
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 the U.S. 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 The Jewish Week.
This was news to Lieberman, who said Aish International’s conduct “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 advisory board of governors of the Jerusalem-based Aish HaTorah, thought of Aish International, based in the U.S. 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 Rabbi 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 The Jewish Week. They said they ceased their contributions two years ago when they concluded that Rabbi 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.
“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.”
Rabbi Steven Burg, director general of Aish HaTorah, said Rabbi 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.”
Rabbi 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 Rabbi 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 Rabbi Weinberg and his work. The “Programs” section lists and describes 10 projects, all of them 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 name and photo of Sen. Lieberman, prominently featured as honorary co-chair for 2017 next to Rabbi Rabinowitz, was removed after The Jewish Week made inquiries about the organization.
Sweetwood explained that Rabbi 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 Rabbi Weinberg’s legacy.