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All Paths to the End Zone

 

The sun is shining, everyone is smiling, and it’s all systems go for the upcoming Siyum. But there was a time, not so long ago, when things weren’t as simple

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Photos: Moshe Vaknin, LNS

When I realize that our meeting at MetLife Stadium coincides with the very first day of football, just hours remaining until the preseason game between the Giants and the Jets, I promise myself that I won’t open the article with clichéd comparisons between the pregame excitement at MetLife Stadium and anticipation for the Siyum.

Consider this hataras nedarim.

The parking lot attendant mimics a touchdown pass as he waves me to Lot C, and the Indian gentleman wheeling a cart of snacks to the concession area does a little spin, dancing along to music blaring from loudspeakers hours before the game will begin.

A young man, part of the ground crew painting white lines on the field, looks up and shields his eyes from the bright sunlight.

“We work here all year long, not just today, but this is the point of it all, you know? It’s, like, we’re all coming alive again.”

He draws out the word, alive, as if to indicate just how not alive they’ve been in the off-season.

The excitement is contagious, and it’s not only about football. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding, who stands near the tunnel talking about the Spider-Cam that will be flying over the stadium during the 13th Siyum HaShas to be held on January 1, is just as excited to be figuring out how much cloth they will be using for the mechitzah near the women’s section (enough to create a curtain running all the way to Manhattan) and about the security preparations (the event will be classified by the Department of Homeland Security as Level 2, the most critical short of a presidential visit).

Rabbi Naftali Miller of Agudath Israel is up in the first row, talking seating prices with Zecharia Waxler of Roth and Co. — the official accountants of the Siyum HaShas —perfecting the system that will allow the host organization to welcome tens of thousands of guests at a price that works for both the guests and the hosts.

“Works,” Rabbi Miller explains, “means that tickets have to be accessible to every member of KIal Yisrael, but all together, ticket sales have to cover our costs and enable us to do our part. The numbers here are staggering, so we’re grateful for their help.”

Rabbi Golding is giving an impromptu lesson on corporate vision to a group of MetLife staffers, telling them about Ron VanDeVeen, CEO of MetLife Stadium, from whose office he’s just come.

“The reason we love working with you guys is because no one here is just doing a job,” he tells them.

Rabbi Golding turns to me and recalls how last winter, the Novominsker Rebbe was at the venue for the signing ceremony: The golf cart requested for the Rebbe’s use pulled up, driven by VanDeVeen himself. “That’s the culture here. He wanted to do it, and that’s why these people,” Rabbi Golding indicates the small cluster of stadium personnel, “are such a pleasure to work with.”

Helen, a MetLife executive nods. “It’s credit to you as well. It was such a positive experience last time,” she says, referring to the 12th Siyum HaShas in August 2012, when the 82,500-capacity stadium was filled, and another 8,500 folding chairs were placed on the playing field.

The sun is shining, everyone is smiling, and it’s all systems go for the upcoming Siyum. But there was a time, not so long ago, when things weren’t as simple.

Great leadership, according to the aphorism, happens at the very beginning, out of sight. Then everyone else comes in and says we did it ourselves.

The meeting took place at Agudah headquarters less than two years ago.

The last Siyum HaShas had taken place on a summer evening and the ramifications of that were clear to everyone on the steering committee: The next one was scheduled for deep in the winter.

There were several options, and none of them seemed ideal. To do it indoors and use several different venues (since there is no indoor stadium in the New York area able to accommodate the crowd of a hundred thousand) would mean losing that thrill, the chance to gather and say “Amen, yehei shemei rabba” en masse. To push it off until the spring would be counterintuitive, given that the program has endured and thrived specifically because of its demand for commitment and determination, day after day — and seven and a half years means seven and a half years.

But how could it be done outdoors on a freezing winter day? Would people come?

There was indecision and some anxiety and then, one man at the meeting said, “We can do it. Let’s book MetLife. It will be okay, b’ezras Hashem.”

The man who spoke up isn’t generally in the limelight, much preferring to operate in the shadows — but Reb Shmuel Yosef Rieder came forward to take achrayus at that critical juncture.

Some of the attendees at the meeting may have been surprised, but those who knew the history got it.

Because back in the late 1980s, a few years after the Eighth Siyum HaShas at Manhattan’s Felt Forum, it was Reb Shmuel Yosef — a son of Reb Yaakov Rieder, one of the few who’d seen the glory of Kerestir and brought that generosity and extraordinary chesed to America — who suggested that Agudah was ready for the next frontier.

The 1982 Siyum had drawn 5,000 people, an astounding number at the time. But the young Mr. Rieder felt that it was time to think bigger.

The American Torah world was ready for Madison Square Garden, he remarked to Rabbi Moshe Sherer.

The next Motzaei Shabbos, just as Reb Shmuel Yosef was finishing Havdalah, the phone rang.

It was Rabbi Sherer on the line. “I’m glad you volunteered to take responsibility for the financial part. I’ll take care of the rest. Let’s do it.” he told the Manhattan askan.

It was that “let’s do it” that inspired Reb Shmuel Yosef decades later, looking toward the 13th Siyum Hashas.

I sit with Mr. Rieder in the Monsey study of Reb Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel of America, the highest ranking lay leader within the organization, and the man who signed off on that decision.

“It was gutsy,” Reb Shlomo concedes, “but it was really the only option. We had to be true to the schedule. Once the Moetzes gave their blessings, the wheels started turning.”

And in case I think the words “gave their blessings” are trite, he tells me a story. Turning toward the wall, where a picture of his rebbe, the current Gerrer Rebbe, hangs prominently, Reb Shlomo recalls the evening of the last Siyum.

“It had been raining, on and off, all day, and the forecast called for rain during the Siyum. I did something I don’t usually do,” he remembers, “I found a quiet corner and called Eretz Yisrael and asked to speak to the Rebbe. I told him that we needed a brachah for a clear evening, and the Rebbe assured me that we would be matzliach.”

Reb Shlomo completes the chassidishe maaseh and lets it sit there, not feeling a need to explain, or make it rational. Yes, his expression says, that’s right — a massive football stadium and tens of thousands of people and uber-sophisticated sound and light equipment, all waiting for a brachah from a Rebbe across the ocean.

Because beyond the sleek advertising and mammoth logistical tasks, the trail to this Siyum really does go back to the original ideal — it starts with daas Torah.

You can roll your eyes if you want, or you can accept the fact that both men sitting across from me are businessman with decades of accomplishment, but even so (or maybe because of that), they buy into the concept.

Largely unreported, but significant in this upcoming Siyum, is a shift that also has its roots in a decision made by an older man with a white beard, seated at the head of a dining room table weighted under piles of seforim.

The first part of the story is familiar: In 1923, Rav Meir Shapiro introduced the daf yomi program to unite Klal Yisrael, giving brothers from all over a holy rope to keep them bound together. The Imrei Emes of Gur asked for a Maseches Berachos after davening on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and no further marketing was necessary. The first Siyum was held in 1931 at Rav Meir Shapiro’s yeshivah, and the next one, in 1938, at the yeshivah as well. It was a rallying cry, a proclamation by tens of thousands of people that even with the sword dangling over their heads, they weren’t letting go.

Then darkness fell and voices were stilled and daf yomi appeared to be forgotten. Except it wasn’t, because the 1945 Siyum drew thousands of people across Eretz Yisrael, many of them immigrants, and in their hoarse voices, they cried out “Lo nisnashi minach,” we will not forget You. There were siyumim in New York as well, and one in the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp, where survivors extended frail hands and waved their Gemaras. In 1953, a nation that had proven it had not forgotten gathered again, both in New York and Jerusalem, united around the Gemara, telling the nations of the world that they were back. In 1960, Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the generals of the great renaissance, made the Siyum at a Zeirei Agudath Israel convention, the reborn organization growing along with families that made the daf yomi shiur the focal point of the day. The 1968 Siyum at the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park drew a record 300 people, and by 1975, there were five thousand people at Manhattan Center.

The people understood that these gatherings were a chance, once every seven and a half years, to celebrate the Torah, its Giver and its receivers — the nation that endured by escaping to the light found between the holy lines and letters.

At the 1982 event at Felt Forum, many of the lomdim were American-born — a new generation that had never seen Rav Meir Shapiro — but even they were stunned by Rabbi Sherer’s ambitious announcement that the 1990 Siyum would be held at Madison Square Garden, with its 20,000 seats. It seemed like an overreach.

In fact, it turned out to be an underreach, and in 1997, two such venues were needed, half the crowd in Madison Square Garden, the other half in Nassau Coliseum. In 2005, a third such venue was added in New York, with parts of the program being broadcast live from stadiums in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago.

In 2012, the 12th Siyum Hashas broke new ground, moving outdoors and drawing a hundred thousand people to MetLife Stadium — and here were are again.

But along the way, something changed: The daf yomi program had, in a way, become a victim of its own success. Rav Meir Shapiro led a yeshivah with a few hundred talmidim and it was the largest institution of its kind. But just half a century later, there were hundreds of yeshivos across America, Europe, and Eretz Yisrael bursting with talmidim. Full-time yeshivah study was the standard for young men, and even after leaving yeshivah, bnei Torah were maintaining serious learning sessions.

“More people are learning than ever before,” says Reb Shmuel Yosef, “but that doesn’t mean that they are learning daf yomi. People learn b’iyun, or do amud yomi, Daf Hashavua, Dirshu, or one of the other great programs. So we had a question about how to proceed with regard to the Siyum.”

The Novominsker Rebbe made the call. “The Rebbe directed us to make this a celebration of limud haTorah, beyond daf yomi. It was courageous, because it seemed to be a shift from the program’s essence, but the Rebbe made it clear that it wasn’t so. Torah is Torah. Daf yomi is holy, but the mesorah is to celebrate the connection to Torah.”

Once the marching orders were given, Chavrei HaSiyum was created, with Agudah staffers working with shuls and chaburos to create a framework for each, involving a goal and a siyum that could be made on January 1. In some cases, entire shuls undertook to finish Shas, or sedorim, each member on his own path to the Siyum. Masmidei HaSiyum was formed, giving children entry to the world of the Siyum too, with every single participant given a unique PIN number, goal, and incentives to reach that goal.

“Now,” says Reb Shmuel Yosef, “it’s caught on. We’ve been to South America, Europe, and Mexico and they are thrilled to have this outlet for their ahavas haTorah. We’re focused not just on the Siyum itself, but on January 2, the day after — we hope to introduce new vitality and excitement to the existing learning programs. Everyone wants a part of it now. They called us from Eastern Europe and South Africa — of course they’ll be included too — yet until the Rebbe suggested we open it up, we didn’t see the possibilities.”

Weather concerns would dictate that the event be held during the daytime hours, when it’s warmer. And being a legal holiday, most people aren’t working.

But Mir Rosh Yeshivah Rav Elya Brudny wasn’t sure. “I would have thought that the children and bochurim shouldn’t miss yeshivah, as their limud haTorah holds up the world — but that was only until Rav Dovid Feinstein spoke. Once the gadol hador spoke, it makes no difference what I thought. Rav Dovid said that the kavod haTorah of the Siyum takes precedence.”

And so, the Siyum is slated for one p.m.

“You know, people sit at football games and they’re just fine all winter long,” says Reb Shlomo, whose business is sports apparel. “When it means enough to you, you don’t feel the chill.

“I met an older Yid who told me, ‘Cold? Cold was the death march from Auschwitz, this is warm!’ But with all that, we’re aware that it’s the winter and we’re working to create a program which is shorter than in past years.”

There will also be sections available with access to heated indoor lounges. Although priced higher, their cost includes not just increased comfort, but also the knowledge that the purchase enabled others to access more affordable seats, and that the funds will be used to fuel Ki Heim Chayenu initiatives and learning programs over the next seven years.

I try prying about the program itself: Who’s scheduled to speak?

Reb Shlomo and Reb Shmuel Yosef exchange glances and I can tell there’s something, a slip of information within reach.

“Nothing is final,” Reb Shlomo says, “and we certainly don’t decide. There is the Siyum committee, which meets each week and includes Hashi Herzka, Yaty Weinreb, Dr. Dudie Diamond, and Duvi Gross, and we gather ideas which we bring to Reb Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who in turn, discusses them with members of the Moetzes.”

But there is something.

It’s quiet. “As soon as we have something official, you will be the first to know,” Reb Shlomo says. “Fair?”

ttendees are expected from across the world, and Siyum organizers have reserved full hotels in the vicinity. They’re planning a Yarchei Kallah the day before as well, a full schedule of shiurim and inspirational talks.

“We will also arrange transportation to the stadium,” Rabbi Golding tells me with the excited expression that means he’s addressing a problem, “so they can avoid the traffic.”

We’re back at MetLife, and he stops to observe a stadium staffer, who is straightening pictures on the wall to the private boxes.

“Eddie, tell him about the pictures,” Rabbi Golding asks the young man, who grins.

“Ah, okay,” Eddie says shyly. “The pictures on the wall show the different stars who played with the team over the years, the legends, you know? But since this stadium belongs to both the Giants and the Jets and they both play here, we have two sets of pictures, one for Giants games and one for Jets games.”

He’s warming up. “We turn them around before each game.”

So what happens, I wonder, when the two home teams play each other, like tonight’s preseason kickoff?

Eddie nods, expecting the question. “Right. So tonight is considered a Giants home game —they’re called the home team.”

And with a serious face, he tells me the nafka mina. “So they get the pictures, it’s their game. The Jets will wear their road uniforms and sit on the visitor’s bench. And this is the most important thing,” he emphasizes, “it’s the Giants season ticket holders who get to come, not the Jets, so the crowd will be a Giants crowd.”

And in case I don’t grasp the significance, he adds another sentence. “It’s all about who you cheer for, who’s cheering for you and with you. It makes all the difference.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 777)

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Tagged: LNS, Photos: Moshe Vaknin