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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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.”

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.”

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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.

(Excerpted from 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!

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 793)

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