A Conversation with Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum
Linda Chase | June 1, 2023
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum is the founding director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Programs. Rabbi Eliahu recently visited South Florida for a conference in Miami and explained the mission of the Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) network.
“Ohr Torah Stone is a Modern Orthodox movement committed to illuminating the relevance and beauty of authentic Torah Judaism which is rooted in halacha, yet eternally relevant to contemporary life. We envision a world in which every Jew has access to dynamic Jewish learning opportunities and vibrant welcoming Jewish communities capable of engaging our children and inspiring our grandchildren. Fueled by 30 educational institutions, social projects, outreach programs and leadership development initiatives for men and women, OTS is affecting a transformative impact on Jewish life, learning and leadership all over the world, educating and preparing the next generation to strengthen society, perfect the world and serve as a light unto the nations. During the conference, we dealt with the many challenges currently being confronted in our communities and schools. We shared practical ideas on how to help advance the overall Modern Orthodox ideals that we view as important for the Jewish people. An additional focus was to ensure that our emissaries know they are part of a larger movement and that we are all in this together and are able to rely on one another.”
Rabbi Eliahu explained his role as founding director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary training programs.
“25 years ago, Ohr Torah Stone’s founder, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and I established the Straus-Amiel Institute out of a sense of responsibility for the future of the Jewish people. We firmly believe that the future requires proactive work in order to strengthen Jewish identity. I work with communities on five continents and send our emissaries to both large and small communities that are largely assimilated. There is often a need to create a sort of religious and educational language that responds to those communities that are so heavily assimilated in order to effectively return them to a place where they can embrace Jewish identity and tradition. We feel a great sense of satisfaction when we see Jews finding their way back to Judaism and pass those traditions on to their families.”
Rabbi Eliahu explained the importance of working with communities in the Diaspora. “The Jewish communities are the key to strong Jewish existence and it is difficult to impossible to live as a ‘lone Jew’. As Jews, we need that sense of kehila (community) and a sense of belonging and meaningful purpose alongside others.”
Rabbi Eliahu shared his thoughts on the future of Judaism. “As someone who has a deep familiarity with the Jewish nation and has dedicated considerable effort to researching this field for several decades, I believe that the very existence and future of the Jewish nation is something which cannot be taken for granted and cannot be viewed as a certainty. In order to ensure a Jewish future, we need to be constantly focused on that future and to embrace strategic means that will ensure its very existence. My guiding mantra is that ‘A nation that thinks towards the future will have a future.’ It’s not enough just to think of the remarkable past of our people, we need to look ahead. Our goal is to share that message with the communities around the world: Think about your future and do whatever is necessary to protect that future. Of course, we work with our emissaries and educators to think and act towards that same vision of protecting our very Jewish future.”
Rabbi Eliahu reflected on his military service during the First Lebanon War.
“During the first Lebanon War I fought as a combat officer in the Armored Brigades in the battle in Sultan Yaquob. Our battalion was ambushed. Twenty soldiers were killed, another 30 injured and three went missing or were taken as hostages. Only a handful of tanks escaped the chaos of that night and not all of us made it back to Israeli territory. That was the toughest battle of the war and has remained a deeply painful chapter in the history of the IDF. For an entire night, I was being attacked by Syrian rocket fire as well as other rocket fire from guerillas and terrorists. Despite the incredible pain that resulted from the war, I truly felt like I was touched by God. In the wake of the war, I felt a sense of purpose building up within me that pushed me to dedicate myself to our Jewish nation and specifically to go out and work with the people in a way that would help protect our national and spiritual futures. Rabbi Nachman from Breslov said ‘Wherever I walk, I am walking towards the Land of Israel.’ Through that path, I chose a path in life that said ‘Wherever I walk, I am walking on behalf of the Jewish nation.’ This is literally a path of Jewish survival and has challenged me almost every day since. The conclusion I have reached regarding my military service is both simple and logical: If Hashem chose to keep me alive, I must work as his messenger to keep other Jews alive. That has served as my motivation to work with Jewish communities across the Diaspora. During my time traveling around the world to these communities, I always have tried to understand the local people and their needs and do so out of a position of empathy and respect. I am not coming as an anthropology researcher, or a curious tourist looking to take fascinating pictures and then move on. We work as partners on their level recognizing that Jewish sustainability can be a complex formula that needs to be understood and broken down before we can hope to create the recipe needed for lasting success.”
Rabbi Eliahu expressed who he considers to be the greatest influence in his life. “There is no doubt that every person has specific figures that influence them in life. In essence, until this very day, I meet many people all over the world who I listen to and learn from. Sometimes they are religious people and sometimes not. Sometimes they are old and sometimes they’re young. I feel that every conversation I have had, contributed to who I am and helps push me forward in my life’s journey. But without a doubt, the figures that have made me who I am are my rabbis and commanders from the IDF. I learned and grew up in the home of Rabbi Chaim Druckman zt”l, who served as my spiritual guide for issues relating to Israel and the return of our people to the land of Israel. I then continued to study under my teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son-in-law who taught me Torah and how to connect to Torah study. I also learned alongside Rabbi Yehuda Amital zt”l, who taught me what is the ‘Torah of Life’ and how to connect between Torah and our daily lives. For several decades I worked with my teacher and dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who infused within me what the role of a rabbi is all about and how we can give everything we have to be able to reach and touch the heart of a fellow Jew.”