New Aish Center at the Western Wall

November 29, 2009

9 min read


Premier educational programs amidst an architectural marvel.

On December 3, 2009, philanthropists, government officials and dignitaries gathered from around the world to celebrate the dedication of Aish HaTorah's spectacular new educational center directly across from the Western Wall. The building, named the Aish World Center Dan Family of Canada Building in honor of Leslie & Anna Dan and Stuart & Andrea Hytman, boasts a breathtaking view – directly overlooking the Temple Mount and rising seven stories above the Western Wall Plaza.

The new Aish Center hosts thousands of visitors annually to a variety of educational programs including the world-famous Discovery Seminar, the Jerusalem Fellowships leadership program for college-age students, the Hasbara Fellowships for Israel activism training, the Executive Learning Center and the Essentials program. As well, private individuals and organizations can arrange for events like bar mitzvahs, weddings and Shabbat dinners in the beautiful dining room or on the spectacular rooftop terrace.

Nearly 3 million people visit the Western Wall annually. Standing at the Wall is the moment when people are most open to exploring the meaning of Jewish identity and the role each individual plays in Jewish destiny. This provides an extraordinary opportunity for Aish HaTorah, whose mission statement is "to urgently awaken and empower the Jewish people to end assimilation and to fulfill their destiny of Tikkun Olam (perfecting the world)." For as they say in real estate, the most essential ingredient is “Location, location, location!”

How did this coveted piece of land – comprising 40 percent of the frontage facing the Western Wall – come into Aish HaTorah’s possession?

In 1967 when Israel recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem, the Israeli government – knowing this was the most precious piece of real estate in the country – felt compelled to use it for something very special and important. But they weren’t sure for what. Aish HaTorah then proposed a Jewish educational center designed to give every person who visits the Western Wall a greater understanding of Judaism’s holiest site, and what that means in the larger context of Jewish destiny. Hearing this, the Israeli government said, “That’s the perfect concept. Here, take the whole thing.”

Chihuly Glass Sculpture

The building itself is an architectural and historical marvel, with elements dating back to the Second Temple period. For example, running through an exterior wall of the building is an actual aqueduct that was used to bring water to the Holy Temple. As well, the building features beautiful reconstructed archways from the Crusader period.

Beyond this, the building is a striking combination of old and new. A glorious atrium is punctuated by a modern glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, the most successful and talented glass artist in the world. Entitled, “Fire and Water,” the multi-dimensional, two-story-tall sculpture was described by one critic as “appearing to be a frozen gaseous explosion hanging before one's eyes” that “has the power to leave its spectators in awe.”

The sculpture is a contemporary representation of the talmudic story from which Aish HaTorah gets its name. Aish HaTorah, literally "Fire of Torah," was inspired by Rebbe Akiva, a 40-year-old shepherd who could not even read the Aleph-Bet. One day, he came across a stone that had been holed out by a constant drip of water. He concluded: If something as soft as water could carve a hole in solid rock, then how much more so can Torah – which is fire – make an indelible impression on my heart. Rebbe Akiva thus committed himself to Torah study, and went on to become the greatest sage of his generation, with 24,000 students learning under him at one time.

This story encapsulates the Aish HaTorah philosophy: First, every drop of Jewish involvement has a profound impact. And second, when it comes to Torah study, it’s never too late to start.

Brian Blondy described the Chihuly sculpture in the Jerusalem Post: “Sizing up the piece from top to bottom, it does indeed seem to metaphorically represent Rabbi Akiva's upward spiral, from his former life as a shepherd to his latter incarnation as a rabbinic scholar… although, it just might represent something more. Could the installation also be a poignant metaphor for the Jewish people, a bright rising of the Israeli present and an abstract revelation with a respectful reference to the historical Jewish past?”

The sculpture, a gift from Lillian and Elliot Hahn of Miami, took four months to create in Chihuly‘s Seattle studio, and was delivered to Jerusalem in hundreds of boxes. The sculpture hangs beneath a domed skylight, which naturally illuminates it in an explosion of vibrant color. Its message, beauty and impact is so great that critics have likened it to the iconic Chagall Windows installed at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, with the Jerusalem Post calling it “one of the most significant works of glass art to be permanently exhibited in Jerusalem.”

Model of the Holy Temple

Another unique attraction at the new Aish HaTorah building is a 1.2-ton model of the Holy Temple – which sits on the awe-inspiring rooftop terrace overlooking the site where the real Temple stood for 1,000 years before being destroyed by the Romans.

The Temple model is the largest of its kind in the world. It is constructed at a scale of 1:60, incorporating authentic materials like gold, silver, wood and Jerusalem stone. It features a remote-controlled hydraulic system that raises the sanctuary section of the Temple, offering an internal view of key elements such as the Holy of Holies, the Menorah and the Ark of the Covenant.

“The Jewish people have contributed revolutionary ideas to the world, like justice for all, monotheism, love your neighbor and universal education,” said Rabbi Hillel Weinberg, dean of Aish HaTorah. “These ideas were nurtured, studied and exported to all of humanity from the Temple, the center of our spiritual world. This model helps people envision what it was like to be here at the time of the Temple.”

Explorium of Jewish History

Also slated for the new building is the Explorium of Jewish History, a major attraction spanning three floors that takes visitors through a virtual tour of all of Jewish history – from Abraham until the present day – in a highly interactive, hi-tech environment. Designed to accommodate 300,000 people annually, the Explorium gives individuals and tour groups the opportunity to make their experience at the Western Wall much deeper and more meaningful. The Explorium is expected to be completed in two years.

The focus of the Explorium is the Kirk Douglas Theater, named after the famous actor who was an active student at Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles for many years. Around the time Kirk began to rediscover his Jewish heritage, he was sitting at the Western Wall, feeling very emotional, yet perplexed at exactly what caused him to feel this way. At that moment, he thought, There ought to be a facility here that explains the meaning and importance of this site. This, of all places in the world, is where people are inspired to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be Jewish? What is our historical mission? In what ways have we impacted the world, and what yet remains to be achieved?” So something needs to be at this spot to provide good answers.

When Kirk realized that was precisely Aish HaTorah’s concept, he made a major commitment to construct a giant-screen theater as the centerpiece of the Explorium.

“The miraculous epic of the Jewish people is human history’s most amazing story, and the Explorium allows people to relive this story,” said Rabbi Ephraim Shore, executive director of Aish HaTorah Jerusalem. “The unparalleled location, the advanced multi-media technologies, and Aish HaTorah’s educational expertise all merge to make this an incomparably unique experience.”

Unique Construction Project

The dedication of the new Aish HaTorah building is a highly-anticipated event in the Jewish world; for years, visitors to the Western Wall would look up to see the huge banner unfurled, “Future Site of Aish HaTorah.”

Construction was painstakingly slow for a variety of reasons. First, the building was essentially sitting on the side of a hill, but Aish HaTorah tripled the size of the building by digging down five floors into bedrock.

Second, due to its unique status as a historical site, Aish was obligated to preserve the original facade of the building. This meant that rather than demolish the site and build from the ground up, they had to gut the building and work from the inside-out. This was complicated by the fact that the original facade was centuries old and very delicate.

Third, due to its location adjacent to the Temple Mount, the entire building site was essentially one large archeological excavation; the entire process had to be supervised by the Antiquities Authority.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder and dean of Aish HaTorah, always saw it as a personal miracle that Aish HaTorah was awarded this precious site. When people would visit his office overlooking the Western Wall, they would often ask, “How did you get such a great office?” To which Rabbi Weinberg would reply, “I work for the right Boss!”

In his last years, Rabbi Weinberg made the new educational center one of his highest priorities. He took an active role in crafting the educational curriculum, brilliantly articulating the development of the Jewish people’s partnership with God to fulfill human destiny. Rabbi Weinberg, who passed away this year, unfortunately did not live to see this dream realized. The new building exhibits a “Rabbi Weinberg Tribute Wall,” which features short films of Rabbi Weinberg’s wisdom and touch-screen access to all his teachings.

“Aish HaTorah has spent the past four decades educating Jews about the beauty and power of their heritage, and this building is a culmination of those efforts,” says Rabbi Eric Coopersmith, CEO of Aish HaTorah International. “We have poured all of our combined know-how and creativity to produce an educational facility – in the world’s most inspiring location, and utilizing the most advanced multi-media technologies – that can impact hundreds of thousands of individuals, and consequently the collective Jewish world.”

The dedication of the new Aish HaTorah building takes place this Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 4:45 pm at the Western Wall. The public is invited.

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