Rabbi Aryeh Markman: Connecting Jews to their Judaism

May 26, 2022

In the 1980s, Rabbi Aryeh Markman took groups of people on tours around the world. He went to places such as China, Canada, all over Europe and Russia. It was in Russia that someone from the United Jewish Appeal came up to him and asked him for a favor.

“He gave me the number of a professor who was fired from the University of Moscow because they were complaining about quotas and not letting Jews into the university,” said Markman, who is executive director of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles. “The man asked if I could visit the professor.”

The rabbi made contact with the professor and made six more trips to Russia carrying contraband for him. In those days, contraband included blue jeans, money, the game Monopoly and proofs of a book the professor was working on. 

Up until that point, Markman was a secular Jew. As his father told him when he was growing up, their family was “left of Reform.” 

“I did a bar mitzvah, but it was transactional,” he said. “I told my parents, ‘Don’t bother me about Judaism after this.’ For the next 15 years, I stepped into a shul maybe five times. I was done.”

When he went to Russia, however, he saw what it meant to be a Jew in that country. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, this professor is Jewish, and look at how they are treating him,’” he said. “No Jews were leaving the country then.”

Markman was supposed to enroll in an MBA program. But before going to school, he wanted to take six weeks to backpack in Israel.

“All of a sudden, I confront my Judaism and it’s like I’m back in Sunday school,” he said. “I was going to classes at Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach. I became so fascinated. I could not believe this was Judaism. Why did no one ever teach me this?”

When the rabbi learned about the Talmud, he was all in. “I said, this trumps MBA school,” he said. “I have to master this. This is life wisdom.”

He was in his late 20s at the time, and he became a yeshiva student who didn’t know Hebrew and was living in a dorm room with four college-aged guys. 

“Who knew what my future would be?” Markman said. “This really felt like the right thing to do. I decided I wanted to spend my life bringing this to everyone else.”

Markman received smicha from Aish HaTorah Founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg and ended up staying with the organization – he became executive director of the LA branch in 1994. He’s responsible for the budget in his everyday work.

“To date, with the help of the Almighty and our generous donors, I have covered 684 payrolls plus all the other expenses since 1994,” he said. “Additionally, I help set the vision for Aish LA. The secret to my success, of what success I have, is don’t look down, only up.”

Aish, a kiruv organization, focuses on helping Jews connect to their Judaism. However, it’s not about them becoming observant. He and the other staff meet people on their level, showing them how Judaism can allow them to live to their fullest – and not take anything away from them.

“People will think they have to give up something they really enjoy,” he said. “They think their life will be less, but no, it’ll be so much more. Judaism enhances whatever you’re doing if you go about it the right way.”

The rabbi has experienced this himself. He loves running and participating in marathons; he’s part of a group of rabbis who run. He said, “Running is a very spiritual pursuit. You can do that with cooking, your marriage, your job or your children. Everything has a spiritual dimension to it.”

At Aish, it’s his job to encourage Jews to connect to the source of their spirituality, just like he did all those years ago.  

“I’m always looking in the Torah for the most inspirational, motivational and big life ideas and trying to bring them to people.”

“I’m always looking in the Torah for the most inspirational, motivational and big life ideas and trying to bring them to people,” he said. “I try to find all those inspirational pieces so we can become the best versions of ourselves.”  

Fast Takes with Aryeh Markman 

Jewish Journal: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Aryeh Markman: My wife’s chocolate chip cookies. They are organic so you actually lose weight eating them.

JJ: What’s your perfect Shabbat look like?

AM: Catching up on a sleep-deprived week, sharing our Shabbos meals with family, friends and students, a few hours of immersive Torah learning and not overeating my wife’s delicious organic cooking.

JJ: How do you get all seven of your kids into the car at once? 

AM: It would take my wife and I an hour to get everyone in the car. The only way to get them all in is to say we’re going to leave, or we have really yummy food in the car.

JJ: What was your favorite marathon to run?

AM: The Jerusalem marathon. Even though it was so hilly, it was really something special.

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