Sunday, April 05, 2020

As a lifelong New Jerseyan, I’ve been in the Garden State’s largest city many times, though never for reasons related to Torah study. I was fascinated to discover that Dirshu was going to be celebrating a Siyum Hashas in Newark, and was thrilled The Jewish Link asked me to attend the milestone event in the Gateway City on Sunday, February 9.

Dirshu is an organization with a fascinating but little-known backstory. Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter is a Toronto real estate developer who founded Dirshu, a nonprofit organization, in 1997 for the purpose of promoting Torah learning and retention. Rabbi Hofstedter, a son of Holocaust survivors, is using Dirshu to restore a category of Jews exterminated in the Holocaust: Shas Yidden (Jewish men fluent in the entire Talmud). To give an example, I once asked my grandfather, Rabbi Pesach Raymon, a native of Plungyan, Lithuania, why there was no Yiddish translation of Shas or even a Yiddish Aramaic dictionary. My grandfather responded that there had been no need for it because you could always find someone in the town’s beis midrash who could translate whatever Talmudic passage you did not understand. Unfortunately, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, there are very few American Jews who are Shas Yidden and have such Talmudic mastery, a deficiency that Dirshu hopes to rectify through its programs.

Dirshu’s best-known program is kinyan Shas (acquiring a mastery of Talmud). Following the Daf Yomi schedule of learning, Dirshu gives monthly tests on the 30 blatt learned. Stipends are awarded for getting good grades on the tests as an incentive to properly learn the material. (We’re talking about a maximum of $2,000 a year, so no one is getting rich off this.) Dirshu also gives quarterly and biannual cumulative tests, and every seven and a half years, coinciding with the Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas, there is a written test on the entire Talmud Bavli. One version of the test is Gemara and Rashi, while the second version also includes every single Tosafot.

The Dirshu event in Newark celebrated a Siyum Hashas both for those who were tested every month and for those who took the cumulative tests.

For its American Siyum Hashas, Dirshu rented the three largest facilities in Newark: the Prudential Center, NJPAC and the Newark Symphony Hall, which they linked by satellite transmission.

There was a very heavy police presence in Newark, with cops out in full force, blocking off many downtown streets and directing traffic. A Newark police officer told me that not only was the Newark Police Department on the job but they had also borrowed cops from the Bloomfield and Verona Police Departments. New Jersey State Police were also helping out, as well as the FBI. They were determined to prevent any sort of attack or threat. This made me feel grateful to live in our wonderful country.

Security was very tight at the Prudential Center, with only a few people from each line allowed into the building every five to 10 minutes. Once inside, attendees had to undergo the equivalent of an airport screening.

The Prudential Center is an impressive facility with a cavernous lobby and many hallways. All the concession stands were selling exclusively glatt kosher food or were closed. The Prudential Center, with its 18,000-person seating capacity, was sold out.

An usher directed me to my seat, where I was surrounded by a cross section of klal Yisrael. I was sitting next to a Modern Orthodox man from West Hempstead, behind me sat a yeshivish family from Lakewood, and in front of me were a group of chasidim from Williamsburg. I asked those in my vicinity why they came, and most responded that while they didn’t personally do the Dirshu program, they still felt that Dirshu’s Siyum Hashas was worth attending.

The keynote speaker was one of the most dynamic and prominent roshei yeshiva in Israel, Rav Dovid Cohen of the famed Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Less well known is that Rav Cohen is a grandson of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, one of Rav Kook’s closest disciples and his Av Beit Din.

The mesayem of Shas was a surprise guest from Eretz Yisrael, the renowned Sanzer Rebbe from Netanya, Rav Tzvi Elimelech Halberstam. Rav Halberstam, an American, was in the U.S. to visit his ailing mother, a Holocaust survivor who lives in North Jersey.

Rabbi Hosfstadter noted that the siyum was being held on Tu B’Shevat, pointing out that the first Siyum Hashas in 1931 (Daf Yomi began in 1923) was also held on Tu B’Shevat.

Most of the speeches were in Yiddish with a simultaneous English translation provided. Having taken Yiddish for my foreign language requirement at Yeshiva College, I tried to see how much I could understand without the translation.

Dirshu livestreamed the entire Siyum HaShas program and it can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOhBmbX-Z7w. To view the 10-minute dancing segment only, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=he_zAWeYgdM. While the videos show what happened at the siyum, they really do not capture the feel of the event. There was tremendous positive energy at the siyum that could only be experienced in person. The joy of the 18,000 attendees at the Prudential Center when Shas was completed had a powerful impact on me. I felt privileged to be sitting with so many Jews who were genuinely happy about Torah learning.

Daf Yomi has begun a new cycle and Dirshu has already administered its initial test on the first 30 dafim (double-sided pages) of Gemara Brachot. Over 30,000 Jewish men throughout the world took the first test, including 4,000 in the United States. Dirshu now has 40 testing centers in the U.S. and Canada, in cities such as Boca Raton, Houston, Montreal, Los Angeles and Passaic.

Everyone at the Prudential Center received a publication containing an interview with Yeshiva Heichal Hatorah faculty member Rabbi Pesach Skolnick. Rabbi Skolnick began learning Daf Yomi 30 years ago, when he was an 18-year-old student at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. Rabbi Skolnick set up a system of chazarah where he reviewed every page 11 times. He also began taking notes on the highlights of each daf. When Rabbi Skolnick saw the ads for Dirshu, he knew that the tests would hold him accountable for his learning; therefore he joined the program. At the Prudential Center he was celebrating a cycle of passing tests on all of Shas with Tosafot including a cumulative bechinah.

It is clear that Rabbi Hofstedter is well on his way to accomplishing his goal of producing Jews who have attained a mastery of the entire Shas.