A Jewish organization that is both old and new has a home on the Main Line.
That organization is Aish HaChaim, or the Fire of Life in Hebrew, and it is the result of an intended collaboration of two decades-old organizations, the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies and Aish Philadelphia.
Aish HaChaim opened its doors on Jan. 1. It is located at The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service for Shabbat and in private homes or other Jewish centers during the week.
Binyomin Davis and Gevura Davis, who were serving as executive director and director of programming at Etz Chaim, respectively, will lead the new organization.
“[Etz Chaim and Aish are] both Jewish outreach organizations trying to raise the bar for education and engagement,” said Rabbi Binyomin Davis, who will be executive director of the combined organization. “Our mission statements are pretty similar and so, therefore, there is kind of a dovetail between the two organizations.”
Like its predecessor organizations, Aish HaChaim will put on learner’s Shabbat services, speaker events, educational programs, trips — including an upcoming women’s trip to Thailand — and more.
“We try to be not a typical rabbi and rebbetzin,” said Gevura Davis, who will be the director of outreach and who added that she and her husband recently completed the Philadelphia Marathon. “We want to seem relatable. We’re going through the same challenges in life that everybody goes through.”
Eitz Chaim Founding Director Rabbi Dovid Wachs and Associate Director Rabbi Moshe Ungar will continue to play a role in the organization. Rabbi Eli Kopel of Aish will have a role as well.
Though based on the Main Line, the organization will have programming in Center City, Northeast Philadelphia, Elkins Park and college campuses.
“We are sad to leave [Elkins Park],” Binyomin Davis said, “but we will be not too far away. The more important point is that we still do plan to continue being a regional organization, not just Lower Merion-centric, and we have programs in Elkins Park, Ambler, Center City, Northeast Philly, among other places. We have occasional classes and programs there. That’s kind of what makes us unique.”
Thirty years ago, Wachs established Etz Chaim in Northeast Philadelphia to connect Jewish Philadelphians to their heritage through classes, events and other programming around Jewish education and learning. Over the years, the organization changed location.
In 2017, Wachs retired, and Binyomin Davis stepped into his position as executive director.
“We take Judaism to people,” he said. “Wherever someone’s at, we try to be there. That was always the vision of Rabbi Wachs.”
Aish Philadelphia was established 24 years ago with a similar goal.
Kopel has been at Aish for 11 years and had served as executive director for five. He said he wanted to change his role so that he would just serve as a rabbi, teacher and adviser.
Aish and Etz Chaim are similar organizations, he noted, so the collaboration made sense.
“I’m still going to be here as a teacher and one of the rabbis in the synagogue, as well my wife,” Kopel said. “We feel the union [of the two organizations] will accomplish so much.”
Earlier this year, he approached the Davises and proposed a collaboration of the two organizations.
Michael Willner led the committee that put the collaboration together. He has been involved in both organizations for a while, so it was natural for him to help out in this way, he said.
“Together, the collaboration can bring more to the entire Jewish Philadelphia community than they can apart, budget-wise and things of that nature,” Willner said. “Part of the reason of the collaboration is because the Davises are so highly thought out through the entire community, and they’re going to be great leaders of this new collaboration, and it was appealing to everyone for Gevura and Binyomin to lead.”
Rabbi Binyomin Davis said Etz Chaim saw about 750 different community members throughout the year. At Aish HaChaim, he estimates that number will double.
“I hope, over time, that this becomes a powerful extension of Jewish outreach within the Jewish community,” he said. “My hope is to hire additional staff members and do even more greater things as time goes on.”
Gevura Davis grew up Jewish but not part of communal life. Some of the programming they will do is similar to the kind of programming that made her more Jewishly engaged.
She said the goal is to “create a home for people who haven’t previously been engaged or felt disenfranchised.”
“We’re building on the successes of both organizations,” she said. “We’re creating a much stronger, more vibrant outreach [organization]. … We want to make Judaism accessible for everyone at every different life stage.” l