Rabbi Seth Cook’s path to leading Aish Ignite Pittsburgh with his wife Lisa wasn’t a straight line. Rather, the circuitous route took him from Ohio to Israel; from Reform Judaism to becoming an Orthodox rabbi.
As leaders of Aish Ignite, the Cooks are charged with working to empower young Jewish Pittsburghers to end assimilation and fulfill their destiny of tikkun olam or repairing the world. The core principles and values of the organization include the belief that Judaism is a journey, that every Jew is worthy of “profound respect” and that all Jews are responsible for one another, according to its website.
The Cooks engage young professionals and local college students in learning opportunities and trips. While in years past, Aish leaders recruited on various campuses, those days are long gone, said the rabbi. Instead, students come to Aish through word of mouth and posts on the organization’s social media pages. Individual and group classes are taught at the pair’s Squirrel Hill home or locations convenient for the students, including local Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
“I wasn’t not religious when I was young because I made a choice not to be religious. I just wasn’t ever exposed to enough of a variety of Judaism in order to even be open-minded about Judaism,” Cook recalled of his upbringing. He grew up in Marion, Ohio, attending a local Reform temple a couple of times a year, on holidays, “but other than that we didn’t really have a Jewish life,” he said.
When he was 15, Cook’s mother decided “out of the blue” to send him to summer camp at the Reform movement’s Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. That experience was “life-changing,” he said. “Suddenly, I met other Jewish kids for the first time in my life. I connected with them so quickly. After a month at summer camp, I had these friends that were closer to me than kids I’d grown up with my whole life.”
The rabbi credits that summer with showing him that Judaism “was something special.”
After attending camp for a few more years, Cook embarked on a NFTY trip to Israel. He remembers it as “another life-changing” experience.
“I had no connection to Israel. In fact, I didn’t like most people who went to Israel because they came back all Zionistic,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, Cook found himself “sobbing at the Kotel. It put me on this journey to understand what I was connecting with,” he said.
After attending summer programs at the Hebrew Union College, Cook decided to become a Reform rabbi. Then, while attending college at Indiana University, Cook came in contact with Jewish students from other movements.
“I started going to Conservative services and hanging out with all of the Conservative people and decided maybe I’ll become a Conservative rabbi instead,” he said.
After being accepted into the graduate program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Cook decided he should learn about Orthodox Judaism, so he rescinded his application and traveled to Israel to attend a yeshiva.
“I did not have a good time at that yeshiva at all,” Cook remembered. But after going to the Kotel to pray, he found his way to the Aish HaTorah yeshiva where, as luck would have it, he met someone he knew from a Phish concert in Cincinnati. Cook was so happy with what he saw at the yeshiva that he stayed seven years, receiving his rabbinic ordination and meeting Lisa, his future wife, a native of Melbourne, Australia.
The couple eventually came to the States, where Cook took a job at his alma mater in Bloomington, Indiana, before moving to Pittsburgh years later to engage young Jews.
“We’re not trying to make people believe anything,” Cook said. “We’re trying to provide an educational experience, a positive Jewish experience that will give people the tools to make their own decisions about their own Judaism. We have some students that learn from us and go on to lead Orthodox lives and many who don’t. We’re still close with all of them.”
In addition to their one-on-one and group classes, the pair hosts weekly Shabbat dinners during the school year and Lisa leads an annual trip to Poland.
Aish Ignite Pittsburgh partners with Olami, a global community of organizations working to inspire young adults. Through that and other partnerships, “we have access to probably 25 different Israel trips and programs that we’re able to get scholarships to send our students,” Lisa said.
Believing that Jews should view themselves “as part of the larger human family,” Cook also thinks there is “something special and unique about being Jewish.”
“The Jewish people have a unique mission in the world,” he said. While he remembers feeling ashamed of being Jewish growing up in a small Ohio town, he is working to ensure his students “know they are Jewish and are proud of being Jewish.”
As the city practices social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cooks have moved their classes online. The rabbi is offering several different learning opportunities, some in partnership with the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. Lisa recently offered an online cooking video teaching how to prepare some of the couple’s favorite Shabbat foods.
Aish Ignite Pittsburgh encourages young professionals and students to learn and engage with Judaism at their own speed and at their own level, Cook stressed.
“We all want to be open-minded; we all want to learn. For some of us that means learning about the intricacies of veganism or Buddhism. For some of us it’s deepening our knowledge of Judaism. We want to make sure people aren’t burning bridges and growing in a bad way,” Cook said. “Everyone should be comfortable learning about Judaism.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.