It was just over three months ago that I had the privilege of attending the Dirshu World Siyum in Tel Aviv, which was undoubtedly the most inspiring Torah event of my life. Standing amongst 13,000 dedicated Torah scholars of all ages and backgrounds, just a few yards away from HaGaon HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shlita, HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, HaGaon HaRav Shmuel Wosner, shlita, and other preeminent gedolim(Torah giants),all joyously celebrating the gift of Torah, evoked feelings that words cannot describe. As I was exiting Yad Eliyahu Stadium, I remember thinking to myself, “Only in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel)…”
But now I may have to rethink that remark, after experiencing another historic Dirshu event, not in Israel, but in the Double Tree Hotel in Tarrytown, New York, on Shabbat Parashat Hayeh Sara. It was Dirshu’s first ever North American Shabbat gathering, or “Kinnus Olam HaTorah,” which culminated with the Grand Siyum Melave Malka on Saturday night. As that weekend drew to a close, I could not help but think, “There is indeed only one Eretz Yisrael, but…”
The minute you walked into the suburban New York hotel, you sensed the unmistakable aura of Torah greatness, an aura created by the presence of respected rabbisand Roshei Yeshiva of all circles, including a special guest from Israel – the Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva, HaGaon HaRav Berel Povarsky, shlita.
“People Who Live at a Higher Level”
But perhaps the most striking thing about the Kinnus (gathering) was just how extraordinary the 500 “ordinary” participants, and the additional 1,000 plus people who came on Saturday night, were. This scholarly assemblage included kollel students, educators, and hardworking laymen who dedicate many precious hours each week toward not just learning Torah, but acquiring Torah, and lots of it. They came to represent the many thousands of devoted students throughout the world who take part in Dirshu’s various programs that offer incentives to students who pass rigorous exams on large sections of Talmud.
To get a sense of what kind of people these are, one needed only to witness the auction at which the aliyot for the Minha Torah reading were sold. The aliyot were sold in a different kind of currency than the one most of us are used to – pages of Gemara. The gabbai opened the bidding at 100 pages of study for the third aliyah,at which point a fierce bidding war erupted. Once the dust settled, the winner was Rabbi Sheis Avrohom Horowitz, who pledged the study of 2,300 pages of Gemara – no, that’s not a typo – in exchange for the privilege of reciting the berachah over the Torah at this historic event. Indeed, committing to learn hundreds or thousands of difficult pages of Gemara is par for the course for Dirshu participants.
Truth is, you did not have to be in the bet midrash at that moment to recognize the Torah’s effect on the Dirshu participants. It was evidently discernible in the contentment that shone in their eyes, and their sincere, refined smiles. You saw the Torah’s rays in their radiant faces. One guest described the awesome sight he beheld. “The study hall was full early Shabbat morning and people kept on walking around with Gemaras and Mishna Berurahs in hand. You were around people who live at a higher level, not just this Shabbat, but their entire lives.”
The Greatest Shabbat of the Rosh Yeshiva’s Life
The gathering included Jews of every age group, every background, and every mode of dress, and yet there was a tangible sense of camaraderie among them all. One participant, an accomplished kollel student, related how complete strangers would meet each other in the hotel bet midrash and start learning together. “I never saw anything like this in my life,” he marveled.
Apparently, neither did Rav Povarsky, who announced at the Siyum that this was the greatest Shabbat of his life – quite a statement coming from an 81-year-old sage who leads one of the most prestigious Torah institutions in the world. The Rosh Yeshiva and other gedolim present spent Shabbat mingling and speaking to each other and to Dirshu participants, basking in the aura of sanctity and scholarship that pervaded the hotel throughout the weekend.
When you walked into the hotel exercise room on Friday, you saw a kollel studentrunning the treadmill with tzitzit out and a Gemara perched atop the display. When you walked into the dining room on Sunday morning for breakfast, you heard two students discussing the intricacies of a topic that most of us have never heard of. This is breakfast for Dirshu participants.
Doing Something SpecialThe exuberance and devotionof the Dirshu rank and file is indeed amazing, but it all starts from the top. The resources and personal time that Rav Dovid Hofstedter, founder and director of Dirshu, expends each year on running every aspect of the organization is difficult to imagine. The involvement of every partner in this endeavor, across the globe, is carefully overseen in great detail. And it was this same level of professionalism and excellence that guaranteed the success of this most unique weekend retreat. Several unforeseen events, such as the catastrophe of Super Storm Sandy, made the planning of this weekend considerably more challenging than the organizers expected. In the end, however, with Hashem’s help, determination and love of Torah prevailed, resulting in an inspiring and unforgettable experience for everyone involved.
Dirshu’s indefatigable US director Rabbi Aaron Gobioff was unfortunately sitting shivah for his mother a.h. in the days prior to and after the Kinnus. His presence was missed, but his round-the-clock efforts coupled with those of Rabbi Shea Ryback, an experienced event coordinator and Dirshu Kinyan Torah student, who stepped in on two days’ notice, was evident at every step of the way.
One student who attended the Grand Siyum on Saturday night penned a note to Rabbi Hofstedter saying, “You cannot fathom how great a hizuk [inspiration] we got from this awesome ma’amad [event].”
Rabbi Hofstedter received another letter, as well, which demonstrated the effects of the Dirshu program on the families of its participants. A participant brought him a handwritten letter from his eight-year-old daughter saying that when her father takes a Dirshu test, “sometimes it takes (him) long to come home… but it’s still worth it because I know he is doing something special.”
As I made my way to the Kinnus from Brooklyn, I passed by the Manhattan skyline on the way. All of us in the car marveled at how so many of those majestic towering buildings remained in the dark as a result of the hurricane. A half-hour later, we turned into the parking lot of a modestly sized hotel, barely visible through the surrounding trees. Yet, what you saw there was a beacon of light in every sense of the word. In a world with so much darkness, Dirshu provides a source of brilliant illumination, shining the light of Torah upon the Jewish people, and inspiring a Torah revolution that is sure to leave a profound impact upon our nation for generations.