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Shattered Hearts and Heartfelt Hugs

This past week has been the longest and most meaningful week for me since October 7. As I have told so many of you, if you have the opportunity, you should come to Israel now to experience one of the most devastating and uplifting periods in Jewish history. 

Last Thursday we welcomed a mission from the West Side Institutional Synagogue led by our dear Aish Partners, Bari and Dani Erber, Rabbi Daniel Sherman, and Cantor Zev Muller. The group hit the ground running on Thursday night with a concert for displaced Israeli refugees from the North and South of Israel featuring Akiva and Ishay Ribo. Aish hosted this amazing night of spiritual upliftment and joy for families who have suffered tremendously over the past few months. The Erber Family Gesher (EFG@aish) Women’s program also attended to help liven up the night.


Ishay Ribo concert at Aish


Early on Friday morning, I went down south with the mission. We toured Kfar Aza, Be’eri, and the site of the Nova Music Festival. The devastation and destruction that we witnessed were enough to break the strongest of hearts. Everywhere we went we met relatives of those who were brutally murdered and those who had loved ones still held captive in Gaza. When we arrived at the Nova site which is now a public memorial, we were met by the EFG@aish yeshiva students and by Rabbi Shmuel Herman who was there with several fathers of IDF soldiers who had fought heroically and fallen on October 7th.


Aish students at the site of the Nova music festival


Many tears were flowing and strong hugs were passed around. After hearing each of their stories, Rabbi Herman announced that the Erber family had commissioned a Sefer Torah in their memories, and the scribe appeared and assisted each of us in writing a letter in the Torah. This Torah which we began writing at the Nova site will be completed on the roof of the Dan Family Aish World Center on Sukkos. We look forward to all of you joining us and the bereaved families as we dance in their memory.


Writing a Sefer Torah


Friday night we prayed at the Western Wall with EFG@Aish, followed by a beautiful meal and oneg. It was a beautiful moment when Bari Erber spoke to a packed room of Aish TLI Israeli young professionals about her journey as a religious female business entrepreneur. 

On Sunday as the WSIS mission continued, I had to attend the Jewish Agency Board meetings in Jerusalem. The tenor of these meetings was very different from the meetings I attended last year which were rife with interruption and protests due to the government’s judicial reform proposal. This year, the meetings were more somber and focused on the support that the Jewish people must give each other. Perhaps the most moving moment for me was hearing from Jon and Rachel Goldberg-Polin, parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who was kidnapped from the Nova festival on October 7th and has been held captive by Hamas for 147 days. 

Watching the video of Hersh, who was severely wounded by a grenade and thrown into the back of a pickup truck before being taken into Gaza, speaks volumes about why Israel is fighting this war. Listening to them speak about the failure of the Red Cross to provide any answers as to the status of their son is heartbreaking. Jon was not only the father of a kidnap victim but he had worked for the Jewish Agency. This was a Jewish family in deep, unimaginable pain. Hersh is our brother who was wounded and kidnapped only because he was a Jew who committed the ‘crime’ of living in the home of his ancestors. We must not stop doing everything we can for his release, including storming the gates of Heaven with our prayers. 

Sunday night, as the Erbers and WSIS danced with soldiers on an army base, the Gade and Neuman families who are also Aish Pillar members and parents of EFG@Aish students, danced with their newly completed Sefer Torah at the dedication in Jerusalem. Aish Rabbi Yisrael Katz, Director of Strategic Partnerships attended the beautiful celebration of Jewish continuity in Israel.

On Monday morning I rejoined the WSIS mission to visit the Har Herzl Military cemetery. Every day at 11 am, the IDF conducts a memorial ceremony for all the soldiers who passed away on that date throughout Israel’s history. We took part in the commemoration and then spent time by the graves of those who lost their lives on October 7th. There, we encountered a young widow who was sitting beside one of the graves. She told us her husband’s story. They had been away from their kibbutz spending the holiday of Simchas Torah with her parents. As the volunteer head of security in their kibbutz, when he heard what was happening, he rushed back to defend their neighbors. He fought valiantly until the end and sacrificed his life for the Jewish people, leaving behind three young children. The members of WSIS took her information and offered to host the family in New York. There are no words to describe the pain we feel for her. It not only breaks the heart, it shatters it completely.


Aish staff at Har Hertzl


We left Har Herzl and went to the Knesset where we were honored to meet with the Speaker of the Knesset, Amir Ohana, MK Yitzchak Pindrus, and MK Dan Illouz. They were all frank and open about how they saw the war and many other issues in Israel. The highlight was when MK Illouz told us that as a college student in Montreal, he would go online to every day to study Jewish wisdom. We stopped in the gallery to watch the Knesset in session. The first two rows of the gallery continue to be occupied by pictures of the hostages in Gaza to serve as a constant reminder to our MKs that we cannot stop working until every last Jew is home.


WSIS mission at the knesset


On Tuesday morning, Aish opened a three-day professional development conference for the Aish branches around the world. It was good to see so many friends back at Aish to recharge their batteries and learn more about where we are going as a movement. I was honored to open the conference and I spoke frankly about what we have achieved in the first three years of our ten-year, AISHVision 2030 strategy. We now have over 3.5 million followers and are averaging over a million video views a day! I reminded the gathered branch leaders that although any other organization would be thrilled with those numbers, at Aish we don’t rest on our laurels. We only look ahead and have much work in front of us. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long as I had to attend the World Zionist Organization (WZO) gathering in Jerusalem.


At the main plenary of the WZO, we heard from the President of the State of Israel, Isaac Herzog. It was moving to hear President Herzog talk about his daily prayers and how he takes the names of soldiers whose mothers come to meet him and add them to his prayers. Before the session, I was honored to be invited to ask the President a question during his address. I introduced myself and my position at Aish in Hebrew but then switched to English to frame my question. I began by stating that Aish has seen a tremendous uptick in unaffiliated Jews who were searching for answers as a result of what took place on October 7th. I explained that Aish had over 50 million video views during the first week of the war. The President cut me off and asked incredulously: “Over 50 million, just Aish?” I assured him that was correct and went on to ask my question about how to address Jews who are demonstrating against Israel. 


Rabbi Burg talking to President Herzog at the WZO


Following that interaction, so many Jewish leaders pulled me aside to understand the magnitude of our online numbers. It became clear that we are light years ahead of the rest of the Jewish community. They kept asking me the same question: How did you accomplish this in three years? I kept giving the same answer: We have no choice. We need to find our brothers and sisters online and make sure they know how much we love them. 


On Wednesday, Aish hosted a lunch for tech leaders around the world while simultaneously convening our entire Jerusalem staff and our global Aish branches as we explained our new strategy for building online communities to help Jews grow to their full potential. Immediately following lunch, the branches traveled with Aish Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, to southern Israel. There the Rosh Yeshiva shared words of inspiration with our branch leaders as we double down on our efforts to make Jewish wisdom relevant to the younger generation. 


Yesterday I got on a plane to travel back to the United States to attend Project Inspire’s annual convention. 


It was quite a week. It was a week of hugs and tears. It was a week of recommitting to the leadership of the Jewish people. It was a week of remembering what it means to be a Jew. We are living through a historic period in Jewish history, with a sharp rise in the type of antisemitism that we thought had been behind us. Antisemites running rampant through the streets and killing Jewish men women and children is a story we know all too well. We must remain strong. We must come together. United we will succeed. Divided we will fall. We must stand strong until every one of our brothers and sisters is returned to their families. I will never forget the image of that young woman crying at her husband’s grave. I never met her husband yet he is my brother and hero. The world will never understand how the broken heart of a Jew can be stronger than steel. Let us all continue to pray and work towards the release of every Jew. Let us continue to love and treasure each other. We are not just a religion or a nation. We are a family and we are strong.