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From Finish to Start


Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab, Avraham Elbaz


Yisroel Besser

Bigger Than the crowd

The press box is a mixed blessing. It’s warmer than outside, but it’s also sterile. You have space to put your hat down, but it’s not a matzav.

Minutes before the one o’clock start time of the Siyum Hashas, though, it was the perfect place to be. Through the glass, I could see a bustle of activity in one corner of the floor, and then similar activity in the other corner.

The four-sided dais was in the middle, the bandstand off to the side. It was clear from the two additional stages, still empty, that there were going to be other featured guests at this event, besides the rabbanim and musicians. I was curious, and in the small room nearby, from where Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding was controlling sound, image, and video for the whole stadium, I got the answer.

“One is for the zekeinim, the survivors, and one is for the children.”

There you have it, the whole story of our People.

The middle dais was for Torah — the roshei yeshivah, admorim, and rabbanim, their faces creased with toil — but over the next four hours, they would be bookended.

First, by the children. Representatives of the Masmidei HaSiyum made their way across the floor, tens of thousands of hopeful eyes following them as they were mesayem Shishah Sidrei Mishnah. It was a small group, about 75 children chosen to flank Rav Nosson Scherman as he expertly taught them the Mishnah: 75 boys, from chassidishe chadarim to Modern Orthodox day schools, representing 40,000 Yiddishe kinderlach who set goals and met them in advance of the Siyum.

And then, toward the end of the program, as the sky had already grown dark, by the survivors. A group of men hunched, resilient, eyes that saw too much but were still colored by disbelief and wonder. Even as they wiped away tears and remembered — have they ever stopped remembering? — there was a a glint of laughter in their eyes.

Those two messages that ran through the Siyum — that our elders are our inspiration, and our children are the whole world — were the atzei chayim, bound together by the scroll.

Mah mah mah ahavti, Sorasecha…. So many moments. Feet on the floor, of course, waves upon waves of dancing Jews, music rising by the boxes and bleachers and billboard into the sky, people not just shouting out the words, but smiling as they did. Ninety-thousand people, and, as someone remarked to me as we surveyed the bubbling ocean of joy, 90- thousand problems. Every dancing figure has worries and challenges of their own, but for those minutes, the problems weren’t the story, just the solutions… Ve’asima, ve’asima, ve’asimi sikvasi bo.

There were memorable lines too, soaring words by speakers that had the potential to lift listeners out of their seats. “From here, we tell you, Father, Yaakov Avinu, from here, we cry, Yaakov Avinu lo meis!” thundered Rav Uren Reich. From the belly of galus came forth this message, We’re still here, still clinging tight. We love Your Torah.

Not just song, not just words, but also silence — the pin-drop stillness of Shemoneh Esreh — this too a message to our fathers, our zeides, their fathers, all the way to the Yaakov Avinu. We’re holding on tight.

There were the rabbanim — and I saw several of them, choshuve rabbanim with large followings who say shiurim to masses — who were sitting in the stands among their daf yomi shiur attendees, because “we’re celebrating together, a family.”

Zeide Yaakov, here in galus, we still have shepherds.

And something new, a shift from Siyumim past. In the shadow of darkness, those first post-war siyumim were testament that, “Ein lanu shiur, rak haTorah hazos.” We have nothing left but the blatt Gemara.

But with time, the numbers increased. We could do this. We could rebuild.

They looked on, the rebuilders themselves, hundreds of them present in 1990 when twenty thousand Jews — 20,000! — filled Madison Square Garden.

Two decades later, in 2012, it was already a resounding nekamah oif Hitler — look, look, look at us, still dancing around with the Torah you despised.

But this Siyum, the 13th, brought something different: If we’ve rebuilt, then we must build others.

Seven-and-a-half years ago, Agudath Yisrael made the decision not to livestream the Siyum. The Internet was new and scary. We don’t jump into things. It’s still scary, but we’ve developed a cautious path through the jungle. This time, it was livestreamed to an audience of hundreds of thousands, programming to secular audiences created through partnering with every single kiruv organization, from Olami to Aish to Inspire to Chabad to Oorah.

There were full sections in the stadium with public school students from across the country, Nefesh Yehudi groups from Eretz Yisrael — so, so many brothers and sisters who haven’t been home in a long time, maybe several generations, but there they were, welcomed back like the family they are.

This Siyum was expressed by arms being spread wide open, ready to welcome everyone back. A nekamah not just on Hitler, but on everyone before him too — all the way back to Lavan, who sought to destroy Yaakov, to uproot everything.

Yaakov Avinu lo meis.

The Siyum itself, the Hadran, is the culmination, the high point of the event. A crowd that had been shuffling, moving back and forth to stay warm, seemed to freeze in anticipation of the moment, the actual siyum. Philadelphia Rosh Yeshivah Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, beloved and revered Rav Shmuel — whose own father, Rav Yaakov, had learned through Shas many times, but had first taken on learning daf yomi at a public Siyum HaShas in 1975, and who himself merited to say the Hadran in 1982 — approached the podium. And then it started, hoarse singing of “Yamim al Yemei Melech Tosif” coming down from this section and that one, an army paying homage to its general.

He smiled and waved, as if pushing it away.

The Friday before the Siyum, Rav Shmuel had made a request. He wanted to know if he could have an extra half a minute to speak, aside from the actual Hadran, because there was something he wanted to say.

He wanted to thank Rav Dovid.

He believed that the kibbud rightly belonged to Mesifta Tiferes Yerushalayim Rosh Yeshivah Rav Dovid Feinstein. But Rav Dovid had turned it down, and Rav Shmuel wanted to thank him. Publicly. In front of hundreds of thousands of people.

A respected American askan, a great admirer of Rav Shmuel, once showed the Rosh Yeshivah’s handwriting to a graphologist. “This,” said the handwriting analyst, “is the script of someone very big who’s trying to appear small.”

Last Wednesday, on the dais of MetLife, the Rosh Yeshivah tried to appear small and came out so much bigger.

For 40 years, two men worked hand in hand, illuminating the way for this cobbled-together band of locals and survivors and newcomers and refugees called Yahadus America: Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov. Rav Yaakov and Rav Moshe.

They listened, they answered, they encouraged, and they taught. This week, their sons taught that very same lesson: the glory of the talmid chacham, the graciousness of the talmid chacham, the power of Torah to elevate and refine and bestow the one who learns it with royalty.

Rav Dovid wanted Rav Shmuel to have it, and Rav Shmuel wanted the people to understand that Rav Dovid ought to have had it. Hadran alach Talmud Bavli.

The Gemara in Rav Shmuel’s hands was printed in the DP camps when a nation that had lost everything discovered that its heart was still beating. The words of the Hadran were different than those which we’re used to, the nusach diverging at different places. Rav Shmuel read along, adapting where he felt it appropriate.

Rav Shmuel, as his talmidim know, is not a crier. He has delivered painful hespedim without breaking down.

But last week, he cried. He cried when he asked that the Torah not leave our mouths and the mouths of our children. He cried for a generation that prays and hopes and wants so desperately to see nachas — and how well he knows this, the rosh yeshivah who takes the phone calls from worried fathers and anxious mothers — and he cried for the hundreds of thousands who don’t even know what the Gemara is. Then it was complete, and there was a moment of perfect silence before the cries of “mazel tov” rang out and the stadium erupted in joy.

And later, much later, NCSY’s Dovid Bashevkin, took his group and they read the dedication in this edition of the Gemara, teenagers fingering the brittle pages — their own heritage — touching eternity and nodding. Understanding something, perhaps, that they hadn’t understood before.

As did we all, regardless of background. It was bigger than the speeches, the weather, the videos, the production, well-run and efficient as it was. Bigger, even, than the crowd, the number of people there. On Wednesday, we understood, just a bit, what Torah means to us and what we mean to the Torah.

In the words of Rabbi Scherman, “Mazel tov. Mazel tov, Ribbono shel Olam.”

HaKadosh Baruch Hu, You chose so well….

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Bassi Gruen

It's Your Simchah

Exactly a month ago, my husband and I were zocheh to marry off our first child. A number of acquaintances told me they were waiting to read about the experience in my letters, and expressed surprised when that didn’t happen.

I struggled to explain my reticence. There are some events so enormous, so awe-inspiring, that putting them into words feels like a diminishment. When you experience an occurrence through your soul, how can the mouth, the pen, possibly record it faithfully?

Trying to describe what it was like to attend the Siyum HaShas puts me in the same dilemma: How does one reduce such an event to words on a page?

When you marry off a child, you are not the chassan, you are not the kallah. And yet, it is your simchah in the fullest sense of the word. When that wedding day arrives, and you watch your daughter become a wife, you stand at the edge of eternity. There’s a sense that all those sleepless night, all those tefillos, nursing her through the flu, studying multiplication tables with her, baking cakes for class parties, listening to her high school woes — the tens of thousands of little things we did for this child over the past two decades reach a completion of sorts in one luminous moment. We have done our best to raise an eved Hashem, and now we close a circle, and they begin to build a Torah home of their own.

At the chasunah, we are not the main players, but our love and support and physical assistance have helped make the moment possible.

That’s what it felt like to be a woman at the Siyum HaShas. We are not the chassanim, but we have helped bring them to the chuppah. We are their wives, their mothers, their daughters. Day after day after day, as we enabled their learning.

And now, we stood there with them as they celebrated this incredible achievement. The hadran felt like the chuppah, that moment when we say, This was the goal, and we have achieved it.

And then, that explosion of joy, a joy that bubbles up from the deepest part of your soul, a joy that runs through your veins, and pulses in your heart. And you dance, because when Heaven touches earth, the body yearns to rise higher, and feet lift off the ground. And for a few hours you feel above time, beyond time, connected to the very purpose of existence.

Mazel tov!

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Yael Zoldan

What Chosen Feels Like

Iam scared of heights and dogs and crowds and it was freezing and the wind was blowing through the bleachers. But I didn’t feel it.

Was it loud? Ninety-two thousand people in one place, surely some of them coughed or sneezed or rustled their bags. But I didn’t hear them.

Did the people look like me? Were they more religious or less? Were the circling helicopters frightening, the security, the fierce dogs? Honestly, I didn’t really notice — and I think we all looked the same.

In a world that has gone mad, where Jews are threatened and frightened and beaten, this day was a triumph, the sweetest, most beautiful day I have known.

What did I feel? I felt the joy of a gathering family, I felt the spiritual high. I felt the smile on my face and on the faces of my neighbors as we danced. I felt the warm hands of a stranger who reached to steady me when I stood. I squeezed close to a woman I had never met before who was suddenly my friend. “My husband does the daf,” she whispered. “Mine too!” I answered back.

What did I hear? I heard the vast and complete silence as more than 90,000 Jews from all walks of life prayed fervently for the same things: Redeem us, rebuild Your Temple, forgive us, raise us up. I heard the thundering Kaddish. I heard the most illustrious and learned men of our nation speak to us from the podium and tell us again and again: You are all beloved children of one Father, you have all come with the same hope — to be one again, to show Him your love for His Torah. Your Torah builds worlds. I heard their message resonate in my soul.

What did I see? I saw the graceful swaying in the stands as the great mass of people danced for the Torah. In the crowd, I saw the vindication in the faces of the surviving remnant, Holocaust survivors, who remember another time — when masses of Jews gathered in one place, herded against their will and it seemed the Torah would be lost. I saw the glowing eyes of women in wigs, in kerchiefs, bareheaded, glorying in their portion as daughters of the King.

The news has been dark for Jews of late. Even here in America, where we have always felt comfortable and protected, we have become afraid. But not today. Today, we gathered strong and sure to celebrate our dedication and our mission.

The singing and the dancing and the powerful words thundered through the crowd. How beautiful we were, exactly as we should be! Unified, brothers and sisters coming together, in our deep love for each other and for our Torah, our eternal portion.

In the car home, I shivered. I thought of what it must have been like at Sinai. The awesome silence and the people standing together, tiny and proud and chosen. The inspiration and the joy and the dancing and the unity and the love.

And I repeat what my soul spoke all those years ago: Naaseh v’nishma — I accept. I want to be part of this nation. How fortunate we are. How sweet is our portion!

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Yochonon Donn

The World's Largest Book Club

The Siyum HaShas brought out an eclectic mix of people, proving that Jews still unite around Torah in 2020.

There is no celebration, for example, for the completion of all 4,224 pages of the Harry Potter series or Shakespeare’s novella. The Siyum HaShas, therefore, marks the largest book club in the world.

Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s governor, laughed when I asked him at the MetLife Stadium if he’d ever attended such a large book club before.

“This is really incredible. It’s very humbling. It’s awe inspiring,” said the governor, who was wearing a black yarmulke for the occasion. “I’ve been hearing about it for a long time but I’ve never yet been to one. It’s an incredible honor to be here.”

The Siyum, of course, was an apolitical event, with hardly even a mention of the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the region. But it’s hard not to deduce a political advantage to having 100,000 people gather in one place, united in their love for their religion. Many politicians, Jewish or otherwise, shared the frost and the camaraderie in attending what organizers billed as the largest single gathering of Jews in US history.

The highest ranking official to make the trek was Murphy, a Democrat who just started his third year leading the Garden State. He was the only elected official to be greeted by the announcer and welcomed with a roar from the crowd.

Governor Murphy’s way out cut a passageway through the many people trying to get a word with him, blocked by a few sturdy state troopers who would put any gabbai to shame. But Rabbi Abe Friedman, the state police chaplain leading the governor, had already given me the nod for a couple of questions.

How, I queried, do you feel after seeing the Orthodox community of your state in the news twice in one month, once for a deadly terrorist attack in Jersey City and a second time for a once-in-seven-year celebration?

“Listen,” Murphy responded. “These are fraught and challenging times. I want to say unequivocally that we have the back of Jewish communities all across the state and we’ll endeavor to continue to do so.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Refoel Pride // Jerusalem

It's Not Graduation

Last Wednesday night, English-speaking crowds streamed toward Jerusalem’s  Binyanei Ha’umah convention center to take part in a gathering timed to coincide with the massive MetLife Stadium event seven time zones away in New Jersey — and the world seemed poised for Geulah.

The Siyum, under the auspices of Kollel Iyun Hadaf and IMP, drew together a cross-section of Yiddishkeit of about 4,500 men and 3,500 women in four sold-out halls — yungeleit and balabatim, bochurim and zeidies, chassidim and Litvaks and Sephardim, from all over Eretz Yisrael. Such a confluence inevitably produces encounters like this one: a rosh yeshivah, a shul rav, an attorney, two photographers, and a member of the press converged in a hallway and instantly recognized each other from their old neighborhood in East Denver.

After the proceedings got underway with kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim led by the Trisker Rebbe, Rav Moshe Mordechai Eichenstein, emcee Rabbi Chaggai Preschel called for a standing ovation for Chaim Yitzchak Reznik, an ALS patient from Tzfas who had traveled with a medical team to the siyum to complete his second cycle of learning the daf.

In his keynote address, Aish HaTorah Rosh Yeshivah Rav Yitzchak Berkovits emphasized the sweetness and pleasure of learning Torah. We say “Hadran alach — We will return to you” at a siyum, he said, because, “it’s not the end. It’s not graduation, we’re not done. It was so sweet… we can’t wait to do it again and again and again.”

Rav Berkovits parried a charge leveled by some: With yeshivos full of ameilim b’Torah, what does daf yomi add? He answered by way of a kal v’chomer: “When it comes to all the fruits that Hashem created, they’ll ask, Why didn’t you taste this one? Hashem created it for you. How much more so when we’re dealing with kol haTorah kulah. How could it be we didn’t even bother tasting the mesikus of another masechta, of another seder? It’s all made for us.”

Later, Rav Yitzchak Scheiner of Kamenitz, the eldest among the roshei yeshivah, came to offer words of blessing and encouragement to the assembled. Prior to that, when it was announced his arrival would be delayed, a bochur up in a balcony started an impromptu rendition of the Berditchever Niggun. His lone voice became a chorus as his chevreh piped up behind him; the melody of yearning spread among the crowd and was picked up by the band. The energy built inexorably, and when the swaying bochurim picked up the tempo and started dancing, a charge went through the auditorium; all the rabbanim onstage rose, joined hands, and became one with the song. It was a reminder that Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, too, had once started as a lone voice.

Before reciting the siyum, Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky, rosh yeshivah of Heichal HaTorah, spoke in the mode of a general seeking to fire up the troops.

“Who would have imagined after the Holocaust that today we would have hundreds of thousands of bnei Torah learning daf yomi?” he asked. He explained why he extended the usual sense of the term ben Torah beyond those learning in kollel. “Anybody who needs to work and sets aside time for learning — that is a ben Torah! It’s very easy to get swept along and get lost in what’s going on around us. Someone who attaches himself to Torah will be saved from the sea of materialism that surrounds him.”

While Yosef Chaim Shwekey (younger brother of Yaakov) provided musical interludes throughout the evening, toward the end he was joined onstage in a duet by none other than Jerusalem mayor Moshe Leon, who has been trained in chazzanut.

“The Sephardim bring a special touch,” said Shwekey later that night. “You can tell it with Moshe Leon, by his big smile, by his big heart, and by the way he sings — you can feel the regesh.”

As for his own role, Shwekey says he was well aware of the significance. “I had to make sure, for myself, that it was about enhancing the simchah, not making a concert. It was a privilege, seeing all the rabbanim onstage. We had all the usual logistics in place for a performance like this, but we didn’t need to worry — we had Torah on our side, so of course it all worked out.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Rabbi Efrem Goldberg // Boca Raton Synagogue, Florida

Can't Wait for My Own Siyum

Seven and a half years ago, fewer than a hundred people gathered in our shul in Boca Raton to watch the livestream of the 12th Siyum HaShas. At the time, my wife was expecting, expressing her hope that the Siyum should signal our child’s future love of Torah learning.

Fast forward to last Wednesday, when several thousand gathered in an outdoor amphitheater in Boca Raton on a magnificent South Florida sunny day, first to participate in a local siyum and celebration and then to join Klal Yisrael by watching a live hookup from MetLife stadium. It was a great zechus to host Rav Yisrael Meir Druk of Jerusalem, who shared inspirational words and read a special letter of brachah from his rebbi, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, to our own South Florida community.

The keynote speaker, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach, moved the crowd with rousing reflections on what this milestone meant to our greater Florida community and offered a challenge to the energized crowd to take on greater Torah learning daily.

I had the great honor to dedicate our special siyum in memory of a young man who tragically left us this year, Rabbi Dr. Brian Galbut z”l. Brian was not only incredibly dedicated to learning the daf, but when he was diagnosed, he recruited dozens of others to learn it in his merit, something they’re still doing.

The Hadran was read from a volume of the “Survivors’ Shas,” printed in Germany for Jews in the DP camps who were as starving for Torah as they were for food. Simcha Leiner electrified the gathering who were drawn to their feet for singing and dancing, and Rabbi Yisroel Edelman of Young Israel of Deerfield Beach, who gives the largest daf yomi shiur in North America, taught the opening Mishnah of Berachos.

For me, by far the highlight of this extraordinary and most memorable day was when my son, now almost seven and a half, grabbed my hand, looked up at me and said, “Abba, I can’t wait to make my siyum on Shas.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Sandy Eller // Melbourne, Australia

Just One Step

While organizers of the MetLife Siyum spent many hours preparing for the possibilities of facing ice and frost, their counterparts in Melbourne were facing a very different challenge — summer vacation. Hoping to avoid any potential conflicts, Australia bumped up its Siyum to December 16th, with over 1,000 people gathering at the Pullman Albert Park for a gala celebratory dinner.

There are about 15 regular daf yomi shiurim in Melbourne, drawing a diverse crowd that attracts people from every segment of the Jewish community.

“We saw after the last Siyum how one night can change so many people and their families,” says Rabbi Yossi Fromer, chairman of the Melbourne Daf Yomi committee. “New shiurim were started, resulting in hundreds of thousands of hours of Torah learning.”

While the evening included inspiring words from luminaries of the Torah world from near and far, including guest speaker Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of Congreation Shaaray Tefilah in North Miami Beach, two unlikely misaymim grabbed the hearts of the crowed.

One was 56-year-old Lenny Faraday, who spoke about how the inspiration he got from the last Siyum wound up changing his life. “I started to think, what if I started? Could I do it? I was 49 years old and had never completed a masechta in my life.”

Lenny set his alarm for 4:45 a.m., hoping to make it to a daf yomi shiur that started at 5:30. Then the alarm went off. “I knew that if I’d get out of bed I’d begin, but if I’d go back to sleep the inspiration would go up in a puff of smoke. Baruch Hashem, I got up, and as a result I’m standing here tonight,” said Faraday. “There’s a profound sense of satisfaction along the journey, knowing that you’re working toward both a daily goal as well as the end goal of completing Shas. It’s almost like an unspoken understanding between fellow daf yomi participants that you’re involved in something so significant and so big that you can’t give up.”

Yonatan Rosenblum, a 26-year-old Leibler Yavneh College graduate, was inspired by his father, who’d decided to complete Shas.

“At the beginning, the journey was daunting and challenging,” said Rosenblum. “The mountain seemed too steep to climb and never did I think I would successfully reach the peak. And yet this journey, as all journeys do, begins with only one step, it ends with one step, and as is only, ever, one step at a time.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


C.S.Teitelbaum // Manchester, England

Taking it over the Top

Rav Dovid Hofstedter, head of Dirshu, once asked the Shevet Levi, Rav Shmuel Wosner ztz”l, if the Dirshu siyumim should be kept modest or done on a grand scale. “Make it as grand as you can,” declared the posek, “so that you’ll attract more lomdim to join.”

True to his word, Rav Hofstedter has taken the siyumim to a whole new level, and the Dirshu Siyum in Manchester this past Sunday night was no different. Held in the huge Event City exhibition centre, the Siyum was actually a lavish 2,500-people sit-down banquet (with round tables instead of rows and bleachers).

“It was the biggest siyum banquet in the world,” says Rav Chanoch Greenblatt, head of Dirshu Manchester, who organized the event together with Reb Yanki Silber and Reb Boruch Ber Bamberger. “After all, Rav Wosner said to go big!”

If truth be told, the idea of an actual seudah was built on a longstanding tradition in the kehillah. Rav Simcha Bamberger, the foremost daf yomi maggid shiur in the community who has been giving the first and biggest shiur in Manchester and is today rav of Beis Midrash Daf Yomi, has been hosting a huge communal seudos mitzvah, open to the entire kehillah, every time his shiur was mesayem Shas. This year Dirshu stepped in and offered to upgrade his siyum, an offer he couldn’t refuse, knowing what a kiddush Hashem it would generate.

The event included music sensations Mona Rosenblum and his band, Ahrele Samet, and Malchus choir, all projected onto a mammoth 20-meter-wide screen. And in splendid British style, 50 senior rabbanim entered the hall in single file and ascended the dais together, while the entire audience rose in a moving display of kavod haTorah. In total, 200 rabbanim graced the three-tiered dais.

Rav Bamberger always memorialized shiur members who had passed on before the subsequent Siyum HaShas. Alas, this time he had several shiur attendees who were niftar in recent years and therefore did not complete the cycle. An audio-visual production paying tribute to each one of them left the audience profoundly inspired, while a chazzan sang “Keil Malei Rachamim.”

Among the esteemed lineup of guest speakers were Rav Aharon Schiff, rav of Machzikei Hadas Antwerp, who addressed the MetLife Siyum last week; and Rav Nissan Kaplan, Rosh Yeshivas Daas Aharon and rav of Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood, who lost his much-beloved rebbetzin, Gittel Kaplan a’’h, mere weeks ago. At the shivah, Rav Kaplan had already confirmed that he would be keeping the speaking commitment. He didn’t come alone though — he brought along some of his children, and there was hardly a dry eye when his three sons took the mic to recite Kaddish after Rav Saadiah Greenfeld, a daf yomi maggid shiur, was mesayem.

Speaking of commitments, Rav Kaplan words made a huge impact. He urged everyone to take on a daily learning commitment, and for those who already did, not to leave the hall without taking their current commitment up a notch.

Following the moving Kaddish, the eruption of music transported the audience from their solemn mood to one of electrifying joy, with the entire packed hall breaking out in dance.

Rav Yisroel Friedman, rav of the Chortkover Kloiz in Manchester, began the new cycle. He was honored as an einekel of the Chortkover Rebbe, the rebbe of Rav Meir Shapiro and the one who originally came up with the idea of a daf yomi cycle. The Rebbe, however, tasked his talmid with promoting the idea so that it should be become accepted by all of Klal Yisrael, rather than Chortkover chassidim alone.

Wrapping up the event with a special personal touch was a presentation to each daf yomi maggid shiur from the shiur members. It was a personalized bottle filled with wine from the famed siyum wine of Rav Chaim Kanievsky — leaving them with the authentic taste of Torah to linger and carry them through the next seven-and-a-half year cycle.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Shoshana Friedman

In Their Own Language

It wasn’t lofty or sweeping or dramatic. It was prosaic, it was practical, and targeted to the little people in the audience. It was a master pedagogue at work.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman began his speech surrounded by earnest cheder boys proudly displaying their navy Masmidei HaSiyum scarves. It was clear at once that this speech wasn’t targeted to the adults — but still, we were drawn to every word. With clear and simple language, a charming visual aid, and real-life examples that they could relate to — a new Borsalino, a ten-speed bike, a leaky barrel — he took them by the hand and gently led them through the last Mishnah on their own terms, in their own language, using their own frames of reference.

We adults found ourselves smiling at our neighbors in the bleachers. There was something so sweet about this moment, watching the next generation step into the simchah and savor their own taste of what it means to finish.

But there was something we could savor too. Yes, this is the biggest stage ever afforded a frum speaker; and yes, this particular teacher played a pivotal role in crafting the game-changing translation that has made Gemara accessible to so many; and yes, this moment was a rare opportunity for a gifted scholar to share lofty words of inspiration and enlightenment with the crowds. But a true teacher knows his students and tailors his message to their level. It’s not about me, it’s about the people I want to reach.

He reached them. And the bigger message reached us too.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Yehudit Garmaise // Los Angeles

Don't Stop Dancing

Just like Los Angeles Yidden at the end of the time zone say the last Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur every year, on January 5th, 1,800 people packed into Royce Hall at UCLA to celebrate the last of the worldwide Agudath Israel Siyumim.

Rabbi Yisrael Gelb, Agudah’s California CEO, smiled as he compared the Southern California Siyum to Shevet Dan in the desert, who traveled in the back in order to collect lost things and lost people.

The Siyum paid tribute to many local heroes, such as the first and perhaps most popular online daf yomi teacher, Rabbi Dovid Grossman a”h, who passed away in a car accident in 2018, but continues to teach and inspire tens of thousands of talmidim with his online shiur.

Rabbi Grossman had L.A. roots, as he had helped to start such stalwart L.A. institutions as the Los Angeles Kollel, Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, and Yeshivas HaChaim for working adults and college students.

Another honor went to L.A. native Sal Litvak of The Accidental Talmudist blog. Years back, Litvak sought out an Orthodox shul in which to say Kaddish after watching his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who had somehow gotten his mother through Theresienstadt, breathe her last breath.

Although Litvak had been uninspired by the non-frum Judaism of his youth, he was surprised to find the Orthodox services inspiring and interesting. After starting to sit in on some shiurim in which the rabbi mentioned the word “Talmud,” Litvak became intrigued.

On one visit to The Mitzvah Store, one of L.A.’s seforim stores, Litvak chose a large leather-bound tome, a Gemara Berachos.

A friendly cashier asked Litvak whether he was doing daf yomi. Litvak looked at him blankly — he’d never heard of it — but after the cashier explained the daily program of study, he turned that day into Day One of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle. And with no previous Jewish education, Litvak dived in and committed himself to a local daily shiur — and 14 years later, has just celebrated his second Siyum HaShas.

Rav Binyomin Eisenberger, rav of Khal Heichel Hatefillah in Boro Park, ended the afternoon’s celebration by paying tribute to the thousands of Jewish men who both learn Torah and also provide for their families, like Yaakov Avinu who sat and learned, but also like Eisav, who interacted with the world. The combination of these two crucial roles of Yitzkak’s sons were symbolized by Yaakov, who did not change his own voice, but who wore Eisav’s clothing to get his father’s brachah for both Heaven and earth.

Following the Hadran and lively dancing, the music eventually stopped — but that didn’t deter a lively group of bochurim from keeping the dancing and jumping going.

“You see, we are unstoppable,” says Baruch Cohen, a L.A. civil trial lawyer, who wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to learn. “The Torah is unstoppable. There is no limit to it, and it is greater than all of the enemies of Klal Yisrael.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


“What Do You Need?”

Yochonon Donn

The browned volume presented to Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky as he stepped up to the podium to complete the Shas has a captivating story, eloquently told by Rabbi Paysach Krohn in a video beamed to the Siyum participants at MetLife stadium. It weaves together an account of survival and faith, of one Yid’s determination to not allow the Nazis to define Yiddishkeit post-1945, of the primacy of Torah for all Yidden, no matter how fraught the situation.

“In a few moments,” Rabbi Krohn said in the video, holding up a Maseches Niddah from the set printed in Klal Yisrael’s most heartbreaking time, “we are going to be mesayem Shas with this Gemara. This precious Gemara is one of the only ones left from the DP camps. By making the Siyum HaShas with this Gemara, we make a bridge to the difficult past. But we also make a commitment to the future.”

Then, Rabbi Chaim Sieger and Rabbi Zev Paperman approached the podium carrying the volume. Rav Kamenetsky accepted it with a broad smile and began reciting the Hadran.

But there is a story behind the story. In a riveting chronicle told to Mishpacha, the Sieger and Paperman families reveal their personal connection to a Gemara printed on cheap paper in a Displaced Persons camp after the Holocaust — emblazoned with the picture of a Jew being buried behind a barbed wire fence — which would be used to celebrate the largest gathering of Jews in US history.

It was, in fact, a Gemara that brought the Sieger and Paperman families together so many years ago. It happened in a DP camp in Bari, Italy, where Reb Yaakov Hersh Sieger, a Polish-born survivor of Auschwitz, was staying as he contemplated putting his life back in order after so many years of devastation.

Reb Yaakov Hersh was one of the survivors designated to greet a visiting general — the family doesn’t recall if it was Lucius Clay, the commander in chief of US Forces in Europe after General Dwight Eisenhower’s retirement, or Mark Clark. Standing near the general was a chaplain, Rabbi Aaron Paperman, a Baltimorean who had come to assess the condition of the survivors and help alleviate a bit of their concerns.

“Vos darfst du — what do you need?” Rabbi Paperman asked the emaciated survivor in front of him. The usual requests were extra food or help with a visa. He was stunned when Reb Yaakov Hersh, a staunch Bobover chassid, responded that what he needed desperately was a Gemara — Maseches Bava Kamma, to be exact.

“Hitler, yimach shemo, took me away to Auschwitz five and a half years ago,” declared the survivor, who hailed from Pshemesh in Galicia. “I have not seen a Gemara since. Ich darf ah Bava Kamma — I need a Bava Kamma.”

Incredulous, Rabbi Paperman explained to the general the nature of the Jew’s appeal. The military man was taken aback, but he said that there was a bombed-out mansion in which the Nazis dumped Jewish books and artifacts. The US Army had not yet had a chance to sort through it, but he was willing to take them there.

So the general, Rabbi Paperman, and Reb Yaakov Hersh went to the building, and the chaplain sifted through the seforim until he found the masechta. “On the spot,” said Gitte Miller, Reb Yaakov Hersh’s daughter, “my father asked Rabbi Paperman if they could learn for a few minutes together. And they did.”

“I salute you,” the general declared, moved by the encounter, “for your unwavering faith.”

The one-time chavrusas drifted apart. Both moved on and established their families — Rabbi Paperman to Wickliffe, Ohio, and Reb Yaakov Hersh Sieger to Crown Heights, where the Bobover Rebbe reestablished his chassidic court.

In the early 1960s, Reb Yaakov Hersh rented his basement to a few girls from Wickliffe who had come to New York to acquire teaching positions in local yeshivos. The girls would come upstairs to have their meals with the Sieger family.

One of the girls was named Dena Paperman. A daughter of Rabbi Aaron Paperman.

Dena told her father about the family she was staying with, and Reb Yaakov Hersh wondered if she was related to a Paperman who was a chaplain during the war and was now part of the Telshe Yeshivah in Wickliffe. He asked Dena if she had a picture of her father. She said she didn’t, but she had a picture of her brother, Zev. As soon as the erstwhile survivor saw the familiar face, he recognized it as virtually the same as that of the chaplain who gave him what he needed most after the war.

“But my father,” Mrs. Miller said, “never even thought his mesirus nefesh for that Gemara was a story. We probably would not have even known about it, if not for Dena renting the apartment and Rabbi Paperman retelling the story. In fact, the morning after the Siyum, everyone in the Bobover beis medrash was talking about the gadlus of my father, how he didn’t even think it was a story worth telling.”

Reb Yaakov Hersh passed away in 1998 and Rabbi Paperman not long afterward, in 2002.

About a month ago, a grandson of Reb Yaakov Hersh met Rabbi Krohn at an event and told him the story. That particular Bava Kamma was no longer around, but Rabbi Krohn felt it would be appropriate to use a Gemara from the famed DP camp set for the Siyum. And so, with the presentation of the DP-camp Gemara, Reb Yaakov Hersh and Rabbi Aaron Paperman, through their sons Rabbi Zev Paperman and Rabbi Chaim Sieger, were partners once again.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)


Chaim “Hy” Safran // Detroit, Michigan

Bowled Over

Every January 1st, you can typically find me in a packed stadium with passionate, energetic people — mostly strangers brought together for a common purpose: to celebrate and cheer and bring meaning to the grand event on the field. This year was no exception. The difference was the action on the field.

This year, I was not at the Rose Bowl — and not even the Citrus, Orange, Sugar, Peach, or Cotton Bowl. This year I had a new game on New Year’s Day: the 13th Grand Siyum HaShas, with nearly 100,000 fellow Jews celebrating, cheering, learning, and davening.

I grew up very traditional (Conservadox, many would call it) with — thanks to my family — a strong foundation in Judaism and Jewish education. Over the past several years I have come to appreciate the middos, chinuch, and chaveirim that are so much a part of a committed Torah-life “within the eiruv,” as I term the more observant neighborhoods of my hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

When I learned that the Jewish world would be making a siyum on all of Shas, I knew I had to be there — to observe, to learn, and to celebrate this extraordinary achievement. I am familiar with the concept of daf yomi but have never attempted to learn the daily blatt; I take my learning seriously but am not yet at that level. I knew attending this event would be meaningful, yet I had no expectations: What was this happening really all about? I didn’t review the schedule; I didn’t Google pictures from previous Siyumim. I didn’t have an image in my mind of a packed stadium with nearly 100,000 Jews celebrating our faith, tradition, and joy of learning. And I didn’t have the stress of worrying about whether or not my team would score more touchdowns than our opponent. This, I learned by the end of the afternoon, was the real championship!

A few takeaways:

* I was struck by the achdus of it all — the ability of our tradition (in this case the study of the Talmud) to bring us all together as one, single, unified Jewish People. Every flavor of Jew had a cheilek in this event, and it was beautiful to share in this diverse spectrum. Klal Yisrael was represented well.

* I had the good fortune to hold in my hand Rav Meir Shapiro’s personal Kol Bo, a fragile sefer that had immense significance, as he was the one to establish the concept of daf yomi.

* I will never forget davening Minchah and Maariv in the bleachers — the utter silence of the Shemoneh Esreh and the roaring response of Kedushah.

* After the actual siyum, the spontaneous dancing accompanied by singing and music electrified the stadium — and my heart.

* I was heartened to see so many participants from all over the world go out of their way time and again to verbally and sincerely express their hakaras hatov not only to the organizers but to the first responders and security personnel.

While many of my friends spent their New Year’s Day cheering on our (ultimately losing) football team at the bowl game together with tens of thousands of fans, I was cheering on our (undeniably winning) Jewish team at the Siyum. And for that, I am grateful.

With anti-Semitism raising its head here in what some have called the goldeneh medinah, the Siyum brought great comfort and resilience. There is indeed much light during dark times, and I was thrilled to be able to partake in increasing the light. Like Beis Hillel teaches regarding Chanukah — ma’alim bakodesh ve’ein moridin — we as Jews should always increase in holiness and never slide down.

Hope to see you again in 5787.

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