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August 27, 2009 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2009-08-27

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I Spirituality


Community Building

Aish HaTorah lays down roots and expands its presence in Huntington Woods.

Who Is Simcha Tolwin?

Robin Schwartz
Special to the Jewish News


transformation is underway
inside the four walls of a for-
mer doctor's office on Coolidge
Highway in Oak Park. The 5,700-square-
foot facility where a group of podiatrists
once treated patients has been stripped
down to its bare bones. Right now, it's not
much to look at: raw wooden framing, a
concrete floor, exposed ducts, fluorescent
work lights, wiring and sawdust as far as
the eye can see.
But, when Rabbi Simcha Tolwin, 35,
the executive director of Aish HaTorah
Huntington Woods scans the construction
site, he sees the future — a place where
his organization will carry out its mission
"to tie every Jew to a pride in his or her
"This is not a shul," Tolwin is quick to
point out. "Its primary purpose is a loca-
tion for Jewish learning."
And there are big plans for the build-
ing, which will be called the Margolick
Jewish Learning Center. Services will be
held there, but the facility also will house
classrooms for a new Sunday school, a
multipurpose room, a large commercial
kitchen, a rabbi's office, a Judaic lending
library and a Wisdom Cafe (coffee bar for
The project is the culmination of a $1.4
million capital campaign. It also repre-
sents the first time Aish has put down
roots since Simcha's parents, Rabbi Alon
Tolwin and his former wife Aviva Carmen,
started the local branch in 1986. The
international organization, headquartered
in Jerusalem, has branches in 45 cities
around the world. Aish HaTorah, which
literally means "Fire of the Torah," was
founded by members of the Orthodox
community, but anyone, regardless of syn-
agogue affiliation or level of observance,
can participate.
"For the last two decades, the organiza-
tion has been very amorphous," Simcha
Tolwin explained. "We've held programs
in libraries, at an elementary school and
in people's homes. But without having our
own bricks-and-mortar home, it's very
difficult to feel a part of Aish."
That's a significant problem when your
goal is building a community, the very
thing Estie and Simcha Tolwin came home


August 27 2009

Rabbi Simcha and Estie Tolwin outside the building that will become Aish HaTorah

Huntington Woods' permanent home.

to do in 2006. The couple was living in
Manhattan with their five children: Chaim,
now 13, Shayna, 11, Aleeza, 10, Ari, 8, and
Yoni, 4. He was the managing director of
the Aish Center on 83rd Street and West
End Avenue, where he helped launch
wildly successful programs like Speed
Dating — an effort to fight intermarriage
by introducing Jewish singles through a
series of brief mini-dates. But the gradu-
ate of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield
and Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, who
also studied in Israel, was lured back to
Michigan by his father and his supporters

to develop a long-term plan for the com-
munity where he grew up.
"When I came back, my goal was to be
more strategic about what we were doing
— to focus on one neighborhood where
we could have an impact, and in doing so,
have an influence on the greater commu-
nity," he said.
Estie serves as assistant director of Aish.
The new Jewish learning center is at the
heart of their plan.
"It's critical to our strategy,' he
explained. "Community is built by people

He set out to be ordained as a con-
ventional rabbi, but Simcha Tolwin,
35, says he always knew that
wasn't his true calling. After gradu-
ating from Southfield's Yeshiva Beth
Yehudah and Telshe Yeshiva in
Cleveland, Tolwin actually planned
to pursue business. He got hooked
on the business of introducing
Jews to Judaism along the way.
"It's so thrilling; it's a total high,"
Rabbi Tolwin says. "Some people
we meet haven't taken a look at
their religion since their bar or bat
While in Jerusalem in the late
1990s studying at Aish HaTorah
Yeshiva, Tolwin was offered the
opportunity to work with Aish
after receiving his rabbinic ordi-
nation. He agreed to a one-year
commitment doing outreach and
"didn't think it would stick," but he
was wrong.
Tolwin met his wife, Estie, a
Cleveland native, when she was
visiting Israel at the time. You
could say that "stuck," too. They
were married in 1996, and they're
now raising five children: Chaim,
13; Shayna, 11; Aleeza, 10; Ari, 8;
and Yoni, 4.
Tolwin, one of eight children
himself, grew up in an Orthodox
family in Oak Park. His sister,
Henna, and brother, Noah, live in
Metro Detroit, but the rest of his
siblings are spread out across the
country from Atlanta to Phoenix to
Santa Cruz. When he's not working
for Aish or spending time with his
family, he enjoys biking and yoga.
Tolwin says he spends at least two
hours a day doing his own studying
of Talmud or Jewish law.
"What I want people to know
about me is that I'm a person
who's committed to the Jewish
community in any context what-
soever," he said. "That is my per-
sonal goal, to provide a Jewish
community of people who are
learning, growing and experiencing
Judiasm in a positive way. That's
who I am."

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