You support Orayta, a yeshiva in Israel for modern Orthodox teens on their gap year, and it has since become an intellectual hub. From where did you acquire your passion for intellectualism and how do you work to instill it in others?
Years ago, when I told someone my story of how I had become disenchanted with Judaism because of the actions of those I considered to be very observant Jews, I was told that I should meet someone named Rabbi Aaron. I kindly told this person that I really didn’t want to meet anyone whose name began with “Rabbi.” But after numerous calls from Rabbi David Aaron, I finally agreed to meet.
Rabbi Aaron did two things I had not experienced before. First, he listened to me. He didn’t judge me or interrupt me. He let me talk and he “heard” me. He understood where my pain came from and was prepared to confront that pain on a level that was intellectually true and spiritually pure. He taught me Jewish philosophy. He taught me how the Torah was really a love letter from God to mankind and as such, required every bit of our concentration and understanding to “hear” the deep and sometimes subtle messages within its amazing text. He explained that, what was once to me a source of texts and interpretations by ancient scholars, was actually a sophisticated guidebook for how humanity partners with God to create His world for us. The Torah and its laws became empowering rather than restricting.
Between Rabbi Aaron and Rav Binny Freedman of Isralight, I was exploring my religion on a very deep level for the first time in my life. It is often said that men start “thinking” at age 40. That was when I became actively involved with Isralight, an organization that was bringing meaningful Judaism to those searching. My wife and I went to Isralight retreats where we celebrated Shabbat with others who were experiencing it for the first time in their lives. Imagine, after 40 years of keeping Shabbat, you celebrate the entire day with people who are enthusiastically embracing the singing, prayers, learning and rituals, as well as the camaraderie of doing it together for the first time. It was an extremely powerful and defining experience where we fell totally in love with our heritage.
And when you’re in love, you have the need to tell everybody. This became our goal — to spread the spiritual, halachic, light of Torah to those not fortunate enough to have seen what we saw.
Later, I convinced the rabbis that they would be able to leverage their approach to Torah and Judaism by training young adults to learn their Hashkafa and methodology and bring it to many other people with whom they interact in college and beyond. Yeshiva Orayta has become the training ground for the intellectually gifted seekers and the committed educators.
You had some religious challenges in your past. What brought you closer to Judaism and tzedaka?
I was very fortunate to have met two compassionate educators when I was at my lowest point of religious observance. I had been terribly disappointed by people I looked up to as role models for combining a Torah life with the business world. My reaction was to turn against an entire sect of Judaism and question my own beliefs.
Rabbi David Aaron and Rav Binny Freedman of Isralight, introduced me to a whole new paradigm in my educational experience. They taught me that the most important tenet of religion is that it is filled with love and unity with God and fellow man. Once you open your eyes to seeing God in your life and the beauty and strength that comes with that, you have a natural desire to learn more and share with those closest to you. This was my introduction to supporting charities that could positively impact the world.
I started giving to Isralight and, as my contributions grew, my involvement in its strategic direction grew. Ultimately, I was so impressed with their educational style, content and success that I convinced them to open a formal yeshiva in Jerusalem, Yeshiva Orayta, which has become a magnet for the intellectual modern Jewish young adult to develop a strong foundational love of Israel, Torah and the nation of Jews and their friends. The success of Yeshiva Orayta led me to start looking for other breakthrough projects that would make the world a better place to live.