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Frontline Forces

“We closed the store five weeks ago, at 4:15 on Friday, closed on Saturday, and started the best chapter of my life, which I believe is to celebrate Shabbat.”

Where: Project Inspire Convention at the Armon Hotel and Conference Center, Stamford, Connecticut
Who: A thousand Orthodox Jews from across the US, committed to engaging their unaffiliated brothers and sisters and drawing them closer to Yiddishkeit
My takeaway: There’s a war raging — not only in Gaza, but in the hearts of Jews around the world, and we’re all part of it

When we first arrived at the Project Inspire Shabbaton, I was astounded by the attendance of 1,000 participants and thought, Wow, that’s massive! But by the time it ended, I was thinking, What? Only 1,000? Where is everybody?

This year marked the 15th annual convention of this remarkable initiative, founded and emceed by Rabbi Yossi Friedman and powered by Aish HaTorah. Its mission is to transform frum Jews into activists who introduce Torah and mitzvos to their not-yet-frum brothers and sisters. This was the first shabbaton since Simchas Torah — and the atmosphere was charged with a new sense of urgency: Every Jew with a Shabbos table needs to be here so that they’ll invite someone for the following Shabbos.

I came to the convention as a speaker, but in retrospect, I feel Hashem sent me here to listen to the other speakers and bring their messages from Connecticut to Israel and to every Jewish community around the world. We’re engaged in a battle over the hearts of Jews everywhere. Each person reading this is a soldier in an elite unit.

In the course of the shabbaton, we heard dozens of incredibly inspiring, impactful stories. On Motzaei Shabbos, we watched a viral video of a young man named Ilan Moalem, a guy tattooed from head to foot who stated that post October 7, he feels more Jewish than ever before. A fellow named Michael Brandt then went up onstage and shared that instead of responding, as many did, with a “like,” he offered to learn with him, and they’ve since set up a daily chavrusa that’s still going strong.

Avrumi Scheinfeld related that on a flight, his offer to help his Jewish seatmate don tefillin led to the creation of a WhatsApp group that now shares thousands of “tefillin selfies” daily.

Businessman David Magerman shared how one Torah lesson propelled him toward observing Shabbos and advanced Torah study.

So many stories of Jewish neshamos who were offered a tiny taste of Yiddishkeit, and — fell in love. The lobby was filled with signs reading, “When you see something, do something. Now’s the time.” And really, what could be simpler?

Rabbi Chaim Sampson, founding director of Project Inspire (who many years ago embarked on a “rescue mission” to extract his baal teshuvah brother from yeshivah in Jerusalem and wound up learning and teaching at Aish HaTorah for the next decade), raised the very relevant issue of kiruv kerovim. At the Nova music festival, there were many who came from frum families, he pointed out. “Why did they go to that festival? They were looking for spirituality, for some connection, and in the place where they were, they didn’t find it.”

Quoting Rav Yaakov Weinberg, he said, “Our job is to spread the light. And how do we do that? By loving people — not in order that they should grow, but just by virtue of their being our brothers and sisters.”

And then Dovi Weiser came onstage. Unlike the previous inspirational stories, the experience he shared was, in his words, “deflating.” On a trip, he met a Jewish man who admitted that he hadn’t put on tefillin for decades, although, he said, he did make sure to send an annual large check to a Brooklyn yeshivah. Weiser tried to persuade the man to meet him the following morning to put on tefillin, going as far as promising to donate a significant sum to the man’s favorite charity. But the fellow never showed up and Weiser never saw him again.

“I’m telling this story,” Weiser said, “because it’s important to know that we have to do our best, without knowing what will happen, or when. We’re not responsible for the results.”

However, Weiser continued, he hasn’t given up hope that the seed that he planted then will eventually take root. He shared another story, one that began some 30 years ago. He’d gone to the iconic Tops liquor store in Brooklyn to buy wine for Shabbos. Since he was lacking ID, they didn’t allow him to make the purchase until he brought his father into the store. That encounter sparked a conversation with store’s owner, Howie Cohen, eventually leading to a friendship over many years that included invitations for Shabbos meals.

Fifteen years ago, Weiser shared, he received an urgent phone call from Howie’s son, Jeff, the current proprietor, who complained that he was losing business to the Shabbos-observant stores. Weiser tactfully suggested that they close the business on Shabbos, too, but Cohen felt that closing on Shabbos wouldn’t be feasible.

This past January, Weiser got an unexpectedly call from Jeff Cohen who said simply, “I’m ready.” The two met, and Weiser helped him make all the arrangements. That, he said, was the first Shabbos in 83 years that the Cohen family’s liquor chain was closed for Shabbos.

While the crowd gave a standing ovation, the screen lit up, showing a video with a smiling Jeff Cohen on the screen. “We closed the store five weeks ago, at 4:15 on Friday, closed on Saturday, and started the best chapter of my life, which I believe is to celebrate Shabbat.” Jeff said that what he hadn’t expected was the outpouring of support from the community — “the gifts, the hugs, the kisses, the thumbs-up and people telling me that they’re proud of me and what I did. I’m excited for this new journey, I’m excited to see where it takes us, and I want to thank everyone for making us feel like we did the greatest thing ever.”

“You have to plant seeds, you have to reach out,” said Weiser, who told the audience he’d never dreamed he’d be on stage telling the story and seeing the clip.

With all the breaking news about the IDF, the UN, Hamas, and the White House, the Cohen family closing their store on Shabbos isn’t exactly in the headlines; but that, together with countless other acts, large and small, done by Jews everywhere, is the real story.

And what about us? For me at least, the message resonated loud and clear. Now’s the time.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1011)

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