BIOGRAPHY OF RABBI KALMAN PACKOUZ

I grew up in Portland, Oregon and attended Temple Beth Israel, a reform temple where I received the John F. Kennedy award as top graduating student from the Sunday School. When I was 11 I remember seeing a photo on the front page of the Portland Oregonian of a starving baby with a bloated stomach. I asked myself, "How could this happen if there is a God?" And I came up with two possibilities: 1) There is no God and life happens. 2) There is a God and there are two more possibilities: 1) Life is one big sit-com and God is creating channels to entertain Himself or 2) God is good and there is purpose and meaning in everything.

 

I sure hoped it was the latter, but I was troubled by the idea that if God is good, then how come one sees good people suffer and bad people apparently living well. I decided that if God is good, there had to be justice and since I did not see justice in this world, there had to be a World to Come to be the great equalizer -- where good people would receive their just reward and evil people would receive their just desserts.

 

So, I would ask every teacher I had in Sunday School, "Does Judaism believe in a World to Come?" I figured there were three possible answers -- "Yes", "No" or "I don't Know" -- but ended up with 6 or 7 different answers; none of them were "Yes." I received answers such as "No, that's a Christian idea," "If you want there to be," "In the deeds you do," "In the name you leave behind."

 

Then I would ask my second question, "What's your evidence?" And one teacher after another would tell me, "That's my opinion and it's as valid as anyone else's opinion." Being an intelligent little kid, I knew that my teachers were right, but I also knew that the Jewish people didn't survive for close to 3,500 years because every Jew had his own opinion, but more likely in spite of every Jew having his own opinion.

 

For years I would ask my Sunday School teachers and others to no avail; eventually I figured there were no answers to be had. When I finished my studies in Psychology at the University of Washington, I took the LSATs and applied to law schools. Then I took a year to tour the world to see if anyone had a more meaningful life than being a lawyer.

 

While I was working in the knife factory at Kibbutz Urim near Be'er Sheva, my high school friend, Ronnie Balshine, from Vancouver, BC, suggested that I study at a yeshiva since I had questions. He introduced me to Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach and later the founder of Aish HaTorah.

 

The first thing I did in Bais Medrash, the Study Hall, was to approach a rabbi and ask my time-wearied question, "Do we believe in a World to Come?" He replied, "Of course." I was shocked! This was the first time in my 22 years that I ever heard a Jew say that we believe in an afterlife! I almost forgot to ask him my second question ... but I recovered and asked for his evidence. He showed me a couple of allusions in the Torah (the subject for a future edition). I was impressed. Whether he was right or wrong, at least he had a reason and evidence and not just an opinion.

 

I spotted another rabbi in the Study Hall and sidled on up to ask him the same question (making sure that he didn't have a chance to collude with the first rabbi to give me the same answer!). When I asked, he replied, "Sure. The World to Come is a fundamental belief in Judaism; Maimonides includes it in the "Thirteen Principles of Faith" and without it there is no way one could possibly understand God as being good and just." I was flabbergasted! Two for two after 22 years of strike outs -- and the last answer being the emotional and intellectual equivalent of a Grand Slam Home Run!

 

And then it hit me -- these are the people who really believe the Torah is truly the word of God, who constantly study it and who live according to its precepts. If any place Jews would believe in a World to Come and have sources, it would be in a yeshiva.

 

I decided to stay for one month and was totally fascinated by the depth and breadth of the wisdom about life that was in our Torah heritage. I figured that I owed it to myself and my children -- should I one day marry -- to study longer. I extended it to three months, delayed entry to law school for a year and then after that year decided I'd rather be a teacher or a rabbi than a lawyer. In 1979 (6 years later) I received my rabbinical ordination from a member of the Israeli rabbinate. Later that year I started the first Aish HaTorah branch in St. Louis with Rabbi Michael Willis (see the April 1977 edition of Rollingstone Magazine). From 1982-1990 I was executive director in Jerusalem. In 1990 I came to Miami to be the director of the South Florida branch and then later to head up an office for the worldwide Aish HaTorah operation.

 

I started the Shabbat Shalom Fax in 1992 because I was fascinated with technology. I read an article about a new invention called a fax modem where one could compose a document on the computer and then fax it directly from the computer. Wanting to have one, I set out to figure a good reason for Aish to purchase it. I started sending a one page fax to 50 people to inform them of classes and about the weekly Torah portion. People seemed to enjoy it and it apparently filled in a need in some people's lives. In 1993 I also started sending it via the internet with the help of shamash.org.

 

Today I send out close to 20,000 faxes and 30,000 emails. The branches of Aish which use the Shabbat Shalom fax/email send it out to tens of thousands more.

 




Rabbi Kalman Packouz