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Sky’s the Limit

Malkie Shulman

Jerusalem Fellowships, Bizrael, and GoInspire are just a few of the programs Chanan Kaufman created to reconnect thousands of Jews to their Jewish identity. Would massive debts upend it all?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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RADICALS “Rav Noach got us to take responsibility for other Jews, even though we were just beginners ourselves.” Yet even for the Aish-trained kiruv maven, massive debts threatened to upend the enterprise he’d built over two decades — until he realized that ideology doesn’t have to be sacrificed for a sustainable business model. Kaufman with his beloved rebbi, back when group kiruv was a radical plan (Photos: Mordy Gilden)

F or more than 20 years, Rabbi Chanan Kaufman had been building organizations and programs reconnecting tens of thousands of disenfranchised Jews to their lost heritage. But then the 2008 recession hit and the serial Jewish outreach entrepreneur — founder and seeder of such popular programs as Jerusalem Fellowships, Jewel, and Aish New York — wound up holding the bag for $1.5 million in debts. He says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Our financial disaster spurred me on to make a major changeover,” Kaufman tells Mishpacha. “I was 50 years old, and for over two decades I’d been pushing, creating, working hard, but it was always with that stress of raising the funds and pressing on to do more — I never had a dime in the bank. So the crushing debt stopped me in my tracks and made me reassess the entire process.”

And now, Chanan Kaufman is on a mission — to change the way nonprofits are run in the Jewish world. Today he’s created a sustainable business model where ideology doesn’t have to be sacrificed against the debilitating pressure of always having to find funding for the monthly budget.

Rabbi Kaufman’s personal business card reads like a kiruv directory, listing the organizations he’s established or helped to grow over the past 25 years: Jerusalem Fellowships, Aish New York, Aish Campus, Jewel kiruv program for women, Bizrael, and Israel High Tech Ventures (providing Israel advocacy niche trips for entrepreneurs and start-up enthusiasts), GoInspire (a for-profit travel company combining touring with Jewish identity), and NextDor, a global consulting and training organization designed to help Jewish nonprofits attain their highest goals. This most recent organization is, he claims, a reflection of how he reinvented himself.

Ways to Wisdom

Chanan Kaufman, who today lives in Monsey with his family, is a driven, nonstop mover and shaker, although his positive, calm, can-do nature often belies the frenetic energy underneath. When he speaks about his vision, he’s passionate as he outlines practical steps to help Klal Yisrael survive and thrive — yet he has no problem turning back the clock and harnessing memories of old times, sharing what it was like in the early days of Aish HaTorah when he first came on board the kiruv train that carried him to his future.

“I was really supposed to be a doctor, you know, the dream of every Jewish mother including mine, but a conversation with my 91-year-old grandfather once I returned home from Aish HaTorah nixed those plans forever,” he relates.

Chanan was doing his “take off a year from college and travel thing” back in 1980 when en route to Europe he stopped off in Israel to work on a kibbutz. He never got to Europe or the kibbutz, though, because as soon as he arrived, he bumped into friends who convinced him to go with them to some classes at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. Rav Noach Weinberg’s “48 Ways to Wisdom” classes convinced him to remain in yeshivah where the learning changed the momentum of his life — as it did for many of his classmates who are now, like Rabbi Kaufman, influential names in the global outreach community.

“When I came back from Israel, I told my grandfather that I was studying in a yeshivah near the Western Wall. He’d thrown his tefillin and religion overboard when he immigrated to America, but I could see he was glad. He’d never lost his positive memories of learning,” Kaufman says. “He told me, ‘Andy, learning Talmud takes the strength of a bull. When I studied in yeshivah in Europe, I learned all of Shas. Talmud will make a person smarter, a better husband, and a better businessman.’”

Chanan’s mother, who overheard the conversation, had her own opinion. “Your grandfather is senile. You’re going to medical school.”

Ultimately, though, Mrs. Kaufman senior was proud of the direction her son’s life took. “Eventually with the children and grandchildren, we became a tremendous source of nachas to her. And my father tells me every day how proud he is of the things I do.”

Seeking a Fellowship

“Rav Noach was our role model,” Kaufman says. “He got us to take initiative and to take responsibility for other Jews even though we were just beginners ourselves. He charged us with a mission to make a difference.” This was quite a controversial move in the kiruv world at the time, as Chanan and his peers were novices to Judaism themselves. But Rav Noach felt there was no one who understood the mindset of these students more than they did. “We had energy, we believed, and we knew the market. We knew we had to share our experiences, so we just went out and did it.”

“Coming up with payroll every month took my kishkes out. Creating independent cash flow freed me up to become more innovative.” Chanan Kaufman says his close call with bankruptcy was the best thing to happen to him

Chanan Kaufman was in good company back then. His fellow trailblazers at Aish HaTorah included some of the biggest names in outreach today — twin brothers Ephraim and Refael Shore, Eric and Nechemia Coopersmith, Ken Spiro — a few of the people who helped build the Aish empire up to what it is today.

Rabbi Kaufman’s first project was with a group of nonreligious college kids from Rio de Janeiro. A very inspired, energetic friend who had married a Brazilian girl suggested they work on bringing a group of college students for a yeshivah experience in Israel. This was a radical idea back in 1983, when standard kiruv meant picking people off the Wall one soul at a time.

“The idea was intriguing, but I asked him, ‘If we’re going to do this, why start with a group from Rio, the most decadent city in the world?’ ” Kaufman remembers. “But Rav Noach was adamant and we did it. We got the funding and they came. And in the end, many students were turned on to Judaism.”

Once the concept of bringing groups of secular college students to Israel proved viable, a team including Kaufman and other Aish veterans got together to fine-tune the idea. They knew that in order to attract groups of intellectual college students, they’d have to be professional and create a program that would be prestigious, with the feel that it was designed for future leaders.

That’s how the Jerusalem Fellowships, a program designed to bring secular college students to Israel for a combination tour and yeshivah learning, began in 1985. “We had 80 students on our first trip,” shares Rabbi Kaufman. “More than half of them became frum, and you’ve probably heard of them — Lori Palatnik [founder of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which has brought over 10,000 wives and mothers to Israel] was in that first group.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 653)

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