The modern Orthodox rabbi who keeps the fire of Aish burning


Rabbi Daniel Rowe, the new executive director of the Orthodox outreach organisation Aish UK, is widely regarded as one of the smartest young British rabbis around. When Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis launched his Shabbat UK project two years ago, he turned to Rabbi Rowe to co-ordinate it.

But although he grew up in a strongly Jewish and Zionist home, as son of the philanthropist Joshua Rowe, he admits "As a kid, I was a deep sceptic".

During his teens, he was dogged by such questions as how to reconcile science with religious faith, how Judaism could respond to academic criticism of the Bible that challenged the divine origins of the Torah or why bad things happened to good people.

At his right-of-centre Orthodox school, Manchester Jewish Grammar (now called Mesivta), he was "discouraged from asking questions by some teachers". The Israeli yeshivah where he spent five years, Keren B'Yavneh, did not confront the subjects troubling him head-on.

It was only in discussions at the outreach organisation Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem during his summer breaks that he found a place "where people could be open-minded," and learned that "questions aren't forbidden". The inquisitive student was inspired to opt for a role in Jewish education.

Our goal is to get students to re-enter mainstream communities

After taking a philosophy degree at University College London - to which he has since added an MPhil in mathematical logic - he joined Aish UK full-time in 2003. The 40-year-old rabbi, who sees himself on the modern side of the Orthodox spectrum, became its head three months ago.

Aish first set up tent in Britain 30 years ago when there was a shortage of educational programmes for young adults. However, it encountered suspicions from those who saw it as a kind of Charedi front organisation intent on spiriting youngsters away from the mainstream into the yeshivah world.

In the early days, Rabbi Rowe explained, its operation was largely "run out of Israel and not out of England, which created certain fears. Aish was so focused on the kids themselves, it often didn't focus enough on developing relationships with parents or [communal] institutions."

Aish has "never been a ba'al teshuvah movement", he said. While delighted if someone becomes fully observant "as long as it's done in a sensible way and co-ordinated with the family ," he said, "that's not our goal at the core".

Its mission is Jewish continuity more broadly - to encourage young people to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. When it comes to commitment to the Jewish future, this is more likely if a person has a religious, rather than cultural, Jewish identity, he argues, citing recent research in the UK and elsewhere. "It doesn't mean people have to be religious, but that they identify with a pride in their religious heritage." For Aish, the easiest yardstick of success is how many of those who have taken part in its programes "marry Jewish, especially from among those who probably would not have done".

For many years, the British outfit has run independently of its Israel parent. Along the way, it has spawned various spin-off ventures such as JRoots, which offers educational trips, the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the charity Gift and the Sephardi young adults' group Chazak. They come under the umbrella of the Jewish Futures Trust headed by his predecessor Rabbi Naftali Schiff.

During term-time, its educational and social activities can draw around 2,000 people from the age of 17 to 30 in schools, campuses and elsewhere. It maintains eight centres around the country, plus a number of rabbis living in other locations.

But it still needs to expand, he said. Its Essex branch has to keep turning people away because its premises are too small, its Manchester and Bristol operations are overstretched. He also wants to increase work among parents, building on recently launched seminars on how to handle Jewish teenagers. "Parents are potentially our biggest allies," he said.

Its £2.5 million annual budget represents half of its income before the 2008 crash, when it could splash out on cheap tours for young adults to such places as South Africa.

Whereas outreach organisations like Aish were once regarded as rivals of existing institutions, it now places greater emphasis on partnership. It has "come to respect the establishment much more", he said. A few years ago it decided to stop running its own Shabbat services and instead "encourage people to get back involved in their own communities. Our goal is to get students to re-enter mainstream communities and help those become stronger."

A good educator, he said, is "primarily a listener" who tries to find out what weighs on young people's minds and tailor programmes to their needs.

"People think we live in this hedonistic generation of selfish young people but it's not true," he said. While they may not sign up to a cause "out of some abstract sense of duty… they are prepared to work hard and do things they feel an emotional attachment to. Young Jews do care about continuity - but what they may want first is some sense of why Jewish continuity is important."

Educators need to take account of changing attitudes - how to respond, for example, to the "increasing number of students who are openly gay or bisexual and at the same time want to grow Jewishly"; or the many who wrestle with their relationship with Israel when many see Israel today as a reason "to be less affiliated".

It is important to be "seen to be actively engaging in the great conversations that are taking place" - hence his forthcoming defence of religion in a live debate with the atheist philosopher AC Grayling on Wednesday week.

It is essential, too, to keep up with the social media culture of yong people when technological change is so rapid that "everyone who reaches the age of 30 is going to be like an immigrant into the land of the 15-year-olds". If you are running the same programme as you did five years ago, Rabbi Rowe said, "you are probably not offering the right thing".

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