Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention
It was during se’udah shelishit, as an unforgettable Shabbat was coming to a close, when HaGaon HaRav Dovid Schustal, shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, seized the opportunity to reflect on the Shabbat that he had just experienced.
“What I saw…was kodesh hakadoshim!” he exclaimed, referring the “holiest of holies” – the term used for the most sacred chamber of the Bet Hamikdash.
“Truthfully, I must thank Dirshu for persisting in asking me to come,” he said.
The Dirshu International Convention, held on Shabbat Parashat Shemot (January 20-21) at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, was all about celebrating the accomplishments of the heroes of Torah and their wives, who comprise the extended Dirshu family. Leading Torah sages from across the entire spectrum of Torah Jewry joined in the celebration, displaying their deep admiration for these devoted students of Torah who participate in the Dirshu organization’s large network of intensive learning programs. Most of these students hailed from the Tri-State Area, though there were many who came from across the United States and Canada, as well as a sizable international delegation, consisting of participants from Israel, England and France. All the participants returned home from this unforgettable Shabbat inspired and moved to not only continue what they were doing, but strive for even greater heights of achievement.
The wives were treated to a profoundly inspiring program featuring classes and lectures on a wide range of topics. These included a class on practical halachah delivered by Rav Zev Hofstedter, as well as lectures by Rebbetzin Shlomtzy Weiss, Mrs. Debbie Selengut, and Mrs. Rochel Goldbaum. Additionally, several Dirshu wives gave moving testimonials about what Dirshu had done for them and their families.
The Purpose of Mitzvot
HaGaon HaRav Reuven Feinstein, shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Staten Island, was introduced by his disciple, Rabbi Gabi Fried. Rav Reuven noted how the Torah repeatedly tells us that we perform mitzvot in order to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt. The Rosh Yeshiva explained that the mitzvot serve to remind us of the need to eliminate from ourselves every speck of the decadent, materialistic culture of Egypt. Our task is to refine ourselves, and we accomplish this through Torah learning.
The “Yoke” of Torah
After an especially inspiring Kabbalat Shabbat service, HaRav Shaul Pinter, Rosh Chabura of the Dirshu Amud Yomi Kollel in Lakewood, introduced HaGaon HaRav Yitzchok Sorotzkin, shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta of Lakewood.
Rav Sorotzkin delivered a riveting address defining what he felt was the unique innovation of Dirshu. He said that while there are many special qualities of the Dirshu organization and distinct advantages that its programs offer, “the overarching quality” of the organization is “the concept of ol Torah” – the “yoke” of Torah that a student must bear. The Rosh Yeshiva explained that Dirshu’s message is “that a person is never ‘off.’ Day in, day out, no matter what is transpiring in his life, he has the ol Torah. Every day he must learn anew, and every day he must review what he previously learned.”
Following Arvit, the assemblage gathered for the Shabbat meal. In the men’s dining room, a special address was given by HaGaon HaRav Dovid Schustal, shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha, Lakewood. He was introduced by Rav Nuta Silber, who teaches one of Dirshu’s Daf HaYomi B’Halacha classes. In the couples’ dining room, participants heard words of Torah from HaRav Yonasan Abraham, shelita, a member of the London Rabbinical Court and rabbiof the Toras Chaim synagogue in Hendon, North West London, who was introduced by Rav Naftali Levy, Director of Dirshu, France. Guests in the Terrace couples’ dining room was addressed by HaRav Chaim Weg, shelita, a teacher of a Daf HaYomi B’Halacha class.
“The Phenomenal Power of Dirshu”
After the meal, the massive crowd took part in a fascinating and enjoyable session of questions and answers with the Skever Dayan of Boro Park, HaGaon HaRav Yechiel Mechel Steinmetz, shelita. The session was moderated by Rav Eliezer Ralbag. Rav Steinmetz was first introduced by HaGaon Dayan Binyomin Eckstein, shelita, the Belzer Dayan of London and director of the European division of Dirshu.
The program continued with a beautiful oneg Shabbat featuring soulful singing and an address by guest speaker HaGaon HaRav Dovid Olewski, shelita, Rosh Yeshivat Ger, who was introduced by Rabbi Shaya Brauner. Citing the verse from Psalms (111:2), “Great are the deeds of Hashem, accessible to all who want them” Rav Olewski said, “Hashem’s deeds are great, they are so exalted they are beyond us. Every Yid [Jew], however, who seeks Him out…who truly desires to access Him, can do so. That is the phenomenal power of Dirshu… It is a program that enables Yidden [Jews] to access Hashem, to become close to Him and to attach themselves to Him.
“The Biggest Yeshiva in the Entire World”
Early Shabbat morning, well before the Shaharit prayer began, the rooms and lobby areas of the hotel were full of students diligently learning that day’s material.
Rav Dovid Hofstedter, the Nasi (Chairman) of the Dirshu organization, presented a thorough, in-depth class on that day’s Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud). The class incorporated a dazzling array of commentaries and ignited a spirited debate about the material that took place afterward.
Later, Rav Berel Povarsky delivered a class to all the participants. He was introduced by Rabbi Shimshon Klein, a long-time student of Dirshu. Before beginning his lecture, Rav Povarsky said that he is generally accustomed to delivering lectures in yeshiva, and so he felt perfectly at ease delivering a class in the hotel that Shabbat, because, in his words, “Dirshu is also a yeshiva, the biggest yeshiva in the entire world!”
The joy of Torah felt by the audience as Rav Povarsky spoke was palpable and genuine. The sight of the great Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis who participated and listened to each word with bated breath, asking questions and engaging in intensive debate, as Rav Povarsky presided over the discussion like a master conductor of the most harmonious Torah symphony, was a sight that left the entire assemblage energized and uplifted. The extraordinary event exemplified the special unity that characterizes Dirshu, as it included rabbis and students from a remarkably wide range of backgrounds – Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Hassidim of all types, Litvaks, and more.
Rav Povarsky’s lecture was followed by the Shabbat morning meal.HaGaon HaRav Yehoshua Fuhrer, shelita, spoke in the men’s dining room, while those in the couples’ dining room heard an address by HaGaon HaRav Moshe Mordechai Lowy, shelita, Rav of Agudas Yisroel of Toronto, who was introduced by Rabbi Yossi Abramczyk, Dirshu’s Montreal coordinator. The Terrace couples’ dining room was addressed by HaRav Shlomo Cynamon, Rav of Kehal Bnei Torah and Rosh Kollel Dirshu of Flatbush.
One of the most moving moments at the convention took place during Minhah, when, for the first and only time over Shabbat, an aliyah was sold. Whereas all the aliyot of the Shabbat morning Torah reading were given to the great sages in attendance, the third aliyah at Minhah was sold – only not for money, but for Torah, the “legal tender” of Dirshu students. The arrangement was that the aliyah would be sold to the one who bid the highest number of pages of Talmud that he would commit to learn. The bidding started at 1,000 pages, and the “price” quickly went up to 2,000. Furious bidding ensued until finally, after some 20 minutes, the aliyah was sold for a whopping 10,000 pages of Gemara to be learned by that time the following year. This amount – 10,000 pages – would be learned by one person!
The winning bidder presented the aliyah to Dirshu’s Nasi, Rav Dovid Hofstedter, as an expression of gratitude for the transformation his life underwent as a result of joining the Kinyan Shas learning program.
Later, at se’udah shelishit, Rav Schustal addressed the crowd, and with his voice trembling with emotion, he said, “Who would believe that a person could be mikabel [accepting] on himself to learn 10,000 blatt [pages] in one year?! This is the koah [power] of Dirshu. It is a zechut [privilege] to be together with such Yidden [Jews]!”
“Is Not Being Prepared an Answer?!”
Se’udah Shelishitwas a fitting, inspirational culmination of a Shabbat full of overflowing emotion. Dirshu’s American Director, Rabbi Ahron Gobioff, chaired the event and paid tribute to the love of Torah exhibited by the devoted students of Dirshu.
HaRav Yitzchok Zalman Gips, shelita, Rosh Yeshiva of Nehardaah and rabbi of Kehal Birchas Avrohom in Boro Park, began his speech by saying, “I am sorry. I am not prepared. I simply didn’t have time to prepare. I have a large family, a yeshiva, a shul. There just wasn’t time. If you will rightfully ask, didn’t Dirshu invite you to speak several months ago? How can you say you are not prepared? I have no answer, other than I couldn’t find the time.”
The audience soon realized that this comment was only an allegory. Rav Gips explained, “We all know that after 70 years of life – hopefully a bit more – we will be called to the bet din shel maalah [heavenly court]… They will ask us, ‘What did you learn?’ What will we answer? ‘I was busy. I had a large family to feed… I simply couldn’t learn.’ They will retort, ‘Is that an answer? You knew you would be tested one day. You had years to prepare!’
“Nevertheless, the pace of our lives, raising our children, earning our parnassah [livelihood] and myriad social obligations make it so hard to learn. What Dirshu does is enable us to find the time that we don’t have. It gives us a misgeres [framework] wherein we can learn Torah and know Torah. Dirshu takes away the excuses!”
“It Has Never Been Easier…It Has Never Been Harder”
HaRav Zev Smith, shelita, a teacher of the Dirshu Daf HaYomi B’Halacha and Irgun Shiurei Torah programs, said, “It has never been easier to learn in our generation, and simultaneously, it has never been harder. Yes, there are so many opportunities, so many shiurim [classes], so many ways to tap into the power of limud haTorah [Torah learning], but there are also so many distractions, so many enticements that can bring a person down. What Dirshu does is enable us to not to be distracted and avail ourselves of the opportunities to learn. It is the antidote to the nisyonot [challenges] of our generation.”
“The Bread and Meat”
HaRav Dovid Schustal, delivering the final address at se’udah shelishit, noted the wonderful phenomenon of huge numbers of Jews studying Daf Yomi – a page of Gemara each and every day. However, he warned, the Daf Yomi program was not designed for people to attend a brief, superficial class each day and then move on without reviewing the material. Rav Schustal said that Dirshu has restored the depth and intensity of Talmud study.
“What Dirshu has done is that it has elevated Daf Yomi to becoming…to paraphrase the Rambam when referring to the Talmud Bavli [Babylonian Talmud]…‘the bread and meat’ of Torah learning… Rav Dovid Hofstedter has changed the world through the Dirshu programs.”
Following havdalah, HaRav Usher Anshel Eckstein, shelita, Belzer Dayan, delivered a lecture on kashrut-related topics, while two roundtable discussions were held for teachers of Daf Yomi –one in Yiddish led by Rabbi Chaim Bauer and Rabbi Nechemia Bluzenshtein, and one in English led by HaRav Asher Eisenberger, Rav of Agudas Yisroel of Detroit. Another group took part in a fascinating, intimate question and answer session with three prominent American Roshei Yeshiva.
The incredible weekend culminated in dramatic fashion, with a festive Melaveh Malkah and siyumcelebration of the completion of Masechet Bava Batra. Some 2,000 were in attendance.
Rabbi Ari Seidenfeld, who leads a study group in Lakewood, opened the evening by noting that this year marks Dirshu’s 20th anniversary. He proceeded to highlight Dirshu’s myriad programs and its impact on the Jewish Nation over the past 20 years.
Rabbi Seidenfeld then introduced HaRav Shmuel Choueka, shelita,rabbi of Congregation Ohel Simha of Long Branch. Rabbi Choueka explained how the Daf HaYomi B’halacha program, which includes the study of the Mishnah Berurah along with additional source material, enhances not only the student’s observance of halacha, but also his yir’at Shamayim (fear of Gd).
Rav Berel Povarsky was then called upon to recite the traditional “Hadran” text celebrating the completion of a tractate. Before reciting the “Hadran,” Rav Povarsky exclaimed that Dirshu has made it that a student’s entire day is filled with Torah learning and the constant drive to learn more.
The kaddish following the “Hadran” was recited by HaRav Moshe Mordechai Lowy, after which the hall erupted in dance to celebrate another milestone of Torah achievement. It was a stirring sight to behold as the venerated sages seated at the dais linked arms and danced in honor of the Torah.
“We Are Not American Society!”
Rav Dovid Hofstedter cited the well-known comment of the Midrash that when the time came for our ancestors to be freed from Egypt, they had no mitzvot to their credit on account of which they could earn redemption. Gd therefore gave them the mitzvotof circumcision and the paschal sacrifice to perform, and in this way they became deserving of the Exodus. Rav Hofstedter asked, how could it be that they had no merits? The Midrash elsewhere teaches that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women, and because they did not change their language or their names, they did not speak lashon hara, and they avoided immorality. How, then, can the Midrash claim that they had no merit with which to earn redemption?
Rav Hofstedter answered by citing another comment of the Midrash, which tells that when Beneh Yisrael were in Egypt, they filled the theaters and circuses. This has been explained to mean that they came under the influence of Egyptian culture, celebrated Egyptian holidays, and mingled and even danced with the people of Egypt. The only way they could extricate themselves from Egyptian culture, Rav Hofstedter said, was through mesirut nefesh – self-sacrifice, and thus they were given the commands of berit milah and the paschal offering.
Our generation, Rav Hofstedter continued, has many merits. “Look at the beautiful edifices of Torah that we have built on the ashes of the Holocaust. It is unprecedented. We have righteous women who are moser nefesh [selflessly devoting themselves] for Torah and who raise wonderful families. We have such hesed!” At the same time, however, we have become inundated with foreign culture. Rav Hofstedter noted that there are people who travel to Eretz Yisrael for the High Holidays and visit the gravesites of tzadikim, but during the trip they also go to places where they should not be. It is impossible, he said, to access the blessing of sanctity if one immerses himself in the impurity of foreign culture along the way. And we cannot extricate ourselves from this influence through just a brief, half-hour session of Torah learning each day.
“We are not American society,” Rav Hofstedter exclaimed. “We are not a nation obsessed with acquiring material possessions. We are not a nation of jealousy, of greed, with a superficial veneer.” Instead, he said, we are Gd’s chosen people, who are charged with becoming “a kingdom of kohanim and a sacred nation.”
Rav Hofstedter then introduced a new Dirshu program that would serve as an antidote to the superficial host culture that has infiltrated even the most sheltered of our communities. The program is called Kinyan Chochma (“Acquisition of Wisdom”), and consists of a daily study of inspirational and motivational material, culled from classic texts such as Tomer Devorah, Orhot Hayim, and Orhot Tzadikim. Sample editions of the new Kinyan Chochma booklet were distributed so that participants could already begin studying the material and taking the exams.
After a beautiful audiovisual presentation highlighting the last 20 years of the Dirshu revolution, Dayan Yonasan Abraham was introduced. The Dayan said he felt “humbled” after spending Shabbat with so many outstanding students of Torah, and that the Shabbat was for him “an absolutely shattering experience,”
“If I can borrow a number of political campaign phrases,” he added, “it is that Dirshu says, ‘Yes We Can!’ ‘Torah First! Right Here, Right Now!’ Rabbi Choueka said earlier, ‘Let’s Make Torah Great Again!’ It is not an empty slogan. That is Dirshu’s mission!”
Consistency in a World of Confusion
The final address of the evening was given by HaRav Binyomin Eisenberger, shelita, rabbi of Kehal Heichal Tefillah. In a commanding speech that addressed some of the difficulties facing our generation, Rav Eisenberger noted, “There was a time when people looked at the news once a day. They got their daily paper and that was it. Today, people need fresh news every minute. This constant desire for change, for something new, creates a tremendous bilbul hadaat –confusion.” Dirshu, he said, embodies the ideal of keviut – consistency. In a world of great confusion, Dirshu students stay focused on their Torah learning.
Following birkat hamazon, the tables were cleared and the hall erupted in song and dance, pulsating with the joy of Torah It was already well after 1am, but one wouldn’t have known from the enthusiasm, the pace and the outpouring of joy that filled the room.
Sunday morning began with a Daf Yomi class delivered by Rabbi Ari Hofstedter. Following breakfast, the participants were treated to a fascinating question and answer session with Rav Berel Povarsky, moderated by Rav Shlomo Cynamon.
Then it was time to leave. The participants exited the hotel visibly focused on their mission – a mission to learn, to review, and perhaps add one more program to their daily schedule. That is what Dirshu does – it motivates students to constantly reach higher, to constantly strive for more, and to constantly set for themselves ever more ambitious goals, one day at a time.