JERUSALEM — The new Aish HaTorah World Center takes up some 40 per cent of the real estate adjacent the Western Wall and Temple Mount.
Leslie Dan and his daughter, Andrea Hytman, at the official opening of the new Aish HaTorah building.
It bears the name the “Dan Family Building of Canada,” which was in the spotlight last Thursday night when hundreds of people gathered at the Wall Plaza for the building’s official inauguration.
The crowd cheered as the boys’ Shira Hadasha choir sang, torches were lit on the rooftop of the new building, and video footage of Aish HaTorah’s late founder, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, flashed across the limestone face of the new structure.
The ceremony was attended by chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, and rabbi of the Kotel, Shmuel Rabinovitz, along with 50 donors from North America, who came as part of a weeklong DedicAISHion mission, among them Canadians David Bronfman, Harvey Hecker, Eli Grossman, Andrea and Stuart Hytman, and Leslie and Anna Dan, the Toronto family who contributed the lion’s share of funding to the new facility.
“It is my hope that this building will have a major impact upon the future of the Jewish people,” said Leslie Dan, founder of the Canadian generic drug manufacturer, Novopharm Ltd., which was sold to Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. in 2000, making Dan the Israeli pharmaceutical conglomerate’s largest private stockholder.
“Aish HaTorah’s main concern is to help bring the Jewish people back to Judaism by showing them the beauty and love that emanates from the Jewish religion. I am very glad that I am in a position to support that.”
The biggest problem facing the Jewish Diaspora is assimilation, Dan said. “The Jewish people are disappearing. In the long-term, given two-three-four generations, intermarriage could be just as devastating to the Jewish people as the Holocaust. It has been said that a Jew is not defined as he who is Jewish today, but by he whose grandchildren are Jewish.”
The answer, said Dan, lies in rekindling Jews’ ties to Judaism. “Unless we take steps and make efforts to do this, it’s not going to happen. Aish HaTorah is taking those steps.”
Dan, who dedicated the first Aish HaTorah building across from the Western Wall 14 years ago, affixed the mezuzah onto the new building’s main entrance. The new building was converted from a two-storey, 7,000-square-foot structure built during the Ottoman era – used in the 19th century by an American minister to proselytize to Jews – into an eight-storey 55,000-square-foot space that will serve as the organization’s headquarters.
The top floors of the $20-million (US) edifice will be used for educational programming, while the lower two floors are home to the “Exploritorium,” a unique interactive museum of Jewish history that includes the Rav Noach Weinberg Tribute Wall, as well as the Kirk Douglas Theater, donated by the Hollywood actor, to be used for events that teach Jews about their heritage and connection to Jerusalem. On the rooftop, sits the largest model of the Temple ever built.
“This building is a testament to the recognition Aish HaTorah has received for the work that we’re doing, which is reaching out to the entire Jewish world,” said Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, editor-in-chief of Aish.com, one of the largest Jewish-content websites. “We are trying to reach all Jews and wake them up to the meaning and beauty of their heritage, and what better spot to do this than across from the Western Wall.”
Rabbi Coopersmith played a significant role in designing the Rav Weinberg Tribute Wall, a state-of-the-art interactive touch-screen controlled installation. “Through our website and all of our programs, we are reaching hundreds of thousands of Jews every year, and this building will be a tremendous tool to reach way more.”
In his speech, Chief Rabbi Metzger highlighted Aish HaTorah’s unique outreach approach. “There’s a big difference between Aish HaTorah yeshivas and other kinds of yeshivas,” he said. “[Rabbi] Weinberg created this yeshiva to look after boys and girls who came from all over the world… He didn’t wait, as most heads of yeshivas waited, for them to come and learn at his yeshiva. He went outside and called them in for a lunch, for a dinner, and then he began to teach them the Torah.”
The organization’s proactive mandate has resulted in quick expansion. What began as a Jerusalem yeshiva consisting of one rabbi and five students has over the last 35 years grown into an international movement spanning five continents, with 37 branches, and an online following of 750,000, with three million hits a month.
Toronto was the second international city to open an Aish HaTorah satellite, the Village Shul at Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue West, in 1981 (after St. Louis, Miss.). Since then, two other Aish HaTorah branches have opened, one in Thornhill, Ont., and the other on the University of Toronto campus.
“Toronto has always been on the forefront of Jewry worldwide. Toronto [Jews] have a connection to Judaism that is stronger, and different,” said Harvey Hecker, former international chairman of Laventhal and Horwath, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. Hecker retired two years ago from his post as international president of Aish HaTorah, after 27 years of involvement with the organization in Toronto.
“We live in Toronto and think that the rest of the world is like Toronto, but Toronto is special,” he said. “Its [Jewish] leadership and its ability to keep people connected, is incredible.”
Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, who made aliyah to Beit Shemesh from Toronto with his wife, Chana, in 1983, after helping to establish the Village Shul, concurs. “There is something very special about Canadian Jews and their connection with Israel,” he said. “Part of that has to do with the fact that we are one generation less assimilated [than a lot of Jews in the United States].
“A lot of people came to Canada only after the Holocaust, and so the generation that came after them is much more connected to Judaism, Jewish culture and Israel. I think that’s why you see so many Canadians connected with projects in Israel, and with Aish HaTorah, specifically.”
Canadians have become a very strong force in supporting Aish HaTorah,” Dan said. “We are very dedicated to the dreams and the objectives of Rav Weinberg… to bring the Jewish people back to Judaism.”