| Magazine Feature |

On Speaking Terms

Six popular speakers put down their mics to share what it’s really like on the job, beyond the spotlight and podium

On the Dais

Rabbi Manis Friedman
author, public speaker, dean of Bais Chana Women International in Minnesota
Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson  world-renowned lecturer and dean of TheYeshiva.net
Rabbi Paysach Krohn mohel, writer, world-acclaimed speaker and author of the Maggid series
Rabbi Avrum Mordche Mallach popular Yiddish inspirational speaker, maggid shiur in Brooklyn’s Yeshivas Meor HaTorah
Rabbi Yisroel Stern international badchan and speaker from London


ometimes even the most polished speakers find themselves derailed by circumstances beyond their control. Just a week before the Israeli elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was rushed off an Ashdod stage by his bodyguards as an air-raid siren went off, yet those 15 seconds of security protocol were fodder for his opponents, who leaped at the opportunity to criticize his cowardice. Returning to the stage 20 minutes later, he tried damage control, quipping that it wasn’t clear who celebrated the incident more — his rivals or Hamas leaders in Gaza. But even his supporters remembered a fearless Bibi who, smack in the middle of an international CNN television interview during the First Gulf War in 1991, donned a gas mask when an incoming Scud missile air-raid siren wailed — and calmly continued the interview.

Rabbi Yisroel Stern, international badchan and speaker from London, had a similar experience when a bomb alarm went off in Lakewood. The hall was evacuated, the emergency squad piled in, and when the building was deemed safe again and the crowd returned to their seats, Rabbi Stern took the mike and announced, “Rabbosai, I’ve spoken at many dinners, but this one was a bomba fun a derashah!” The crowd erupted in laughter, and although his speech might have started off as a “bomb,” he quickly recouped his losses and got his audience back.

Speakers often start with a joke to engage their audiences — it’s good advice that comes straight out of the Gemara. Sometimes, the audience itself can serve as an unplanned springboard. International lecturer and educator Rabbi Manis Friedman of Minnesota once quipped to a crowd, “Every daughter eventually turns out to be like her mother,” a remark which always elicits reactions. One lady got up and started ranting in front of the audience, “That’s absolutely not true. I’m nothing like my mother. She was a loud, opinionated woman!”

Rabbi Friedman, a professionally ranked member of the National Speakers Association, remembers one time he was introduced as a “father of 11 children.” Before he even had a chance to open the floor, a woman raised her hand and demanded, “You actually have 11 children? Do you know there are some people who don’t have any?”

“For a fleeting moment,” Rabbi Friedman (eventually the father of 14 children) divulges, “I actually felt guilty.”



imilarly, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson of Monsey, world-renowned lecturer and dean of TheYeshiva.net who characteristically weaves wit into his wisdom, once told an audience in Toronto that he would tell a story of the Jews of Chelm who, he added, were foolish people. A frail woman got up and wagged her finger, “Don’t you say that about Chelm. I was born and bred there!”

“What are the odds of that in 21st century America?” chuckles Rabbi Jacobson, “I quickly fixed it and said that really people say that the Jews of Chelm were very smart, but others were jealous, so they concocted tales about how stupid they were.”

It’s not pleasant being rebuked in front of 500 — or 2,500 — people, but good speakers have to grow a thick skin and learn to quickly switch gears — because they can never know which audience harbors a hyper-sensitive or short-tempered person.

Rabbi Jacobson once did his usual, starting off with a joke before launching into his lecture. One of his many subsequent points touched on the Holocaust. After his speech, an elderly lady came over scolding him that it was very insensitive to relate a joke in the same speech where he mentioned Auschwitz.

“Then she told me that she had already been inside the gas chamber but it had malfunctioned, so the SS guard threw all the Jews out, scowling, ‘I’ll still get you.’ Just then an SS truck passed by, officers barking that they needed 50 prisoners. She was taken and thus ultimately saved, but was the sole survivor of her family. I totally understood her pain. I listened to her and apologized profusely.”

Rabbi Jacobson was lucky that that conversation took place in private. Another time, he was practically bombarded at a huge gala dinner. He was expounding on the Holocaust and what we have to learn from it, explaining how one should never think that a Jew is too distant to be called a Jew, because if he was Jewish enough for the Nazis to kill him, he is Jewish enough for us to embrace him. You could hear a pin drop, when suddenly an old man shuffled to his feet and started screaming, ‘How dare you speak about the Holocaust and what happened in the death camps when you are an American young man who knows nothing of what we suffered!’

“I stopped,” says Rabbi Jacobson, “and just listened. I realized I had triggered deep pain. He went on, screaming about my chutzpah and shouting that I should get off the podium, sit down, and be quiet. Luckily, I was at the end of my talk, but before wrapping up, I thanked him for sharing that and for reminding us how little we indeed understand — and then I blessed him with long life. It was a most humbling experience.”

Indeed, a speaker can have the best intentions, but it could be received in a most unexpected way by a listener. Rabbi Yisroel Stern of London says he has managed to avoid such confrontations due to a particular rabbi’s confession to him at the onset of his own career. This rabbi had given a derashah at a Shabbaton for parents of sick children, and he waxed lyrical about their children being heilige neshamos and what a zechus the parents had for being endowed with them. A father raised his hand and asked, “Rebbe leben, how about trading places with us?”

“Ever since he shared that with me, I think a thousand times about every word I say.”

But for Rabbi Stern, who is also a badchan and expected to keep his listeners entertained, it’s a tricky balance.



n the Orthodox Jewish world, good speakers rarely reach their level simply for being good entertainers. They’re called on because their impact can trigger physical, emotional, and spiritual change.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn of New York, world-acclaimed speaker and author of the Maggid series, once spoke at a yeshivah fundraiser urging the audience to respond warmly, unaware that most guests had already pledged their donations in advance. He almost felt bad about the extra pressure he had put, but then he heard that after his passionate speech, one donor topped his initial donation with another $10,000.

Rabbi Avrum Mordche Mallach, a passionate gifted speaker and maggid shiur in Yeshivas Meor HaTorah in Brooklyn, was once stopped by someone on the street who took him aside and broke down crying. When the man finally composed himself, he explained that he and his wife had one child, followed by years of waiting. One day, they were at home listening to a lecture by Rabbi Mallach on Torah Anytime, which expounded on the dangers and distraction of technology. To illustrate his point, Rabbi Mallach happened to use the example of a couple waiting for a child. “Imagine that Hashem has a baby, and He wants to give it to a certain couple, but He looks down and sees how they are so engrossed in their phones that He thinks to Himself they won’t even have time to look at the baby, why should He put the baby in such a home? So, He decides to wait and see if things change….” Both the man and his wife owned unfiltered smartphones and were busy on social media, and although they knew it wasn’t ideal, they never took the initiative to change things. The couple looked up, locked eyes with each other and, without a second’s hesitation, they committed to get rid of social media. A few weeks later, they replaced their phones with kosher ones, and exactly nine months later, they were blessed with twins.

Now, it was Rabbi Mallach’s turn to cry. “I didn’t even remember giving this example,” he says. “But that’s what Hashem wanted them to hear.”

“I field around 200 e-mails a day,” says Rabbi Jacobson, “and the greatest feedback I get is when someone tells me they were about to give up on life due to abuse, trauma, or illness, and then they heard a shiur of mine, and it gave them a new lease on life. My work is very hectic, and I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it, but getting such a call or e-mail propels me on.”

Rabbi Jacobson was once speaking to a group of secular college students in Eretz Yisrael about Matan Torah, explaining that it isn’t just a dusty bible story. Suddenly, a girl burst out crying and fled the room. He couldn’t fathom what he had said to insult her and even speculated that perhaps she was angry about his claims. Afterward, he went over and asked what he had said to offend her. “No, Rabbi,” she answered, “you didn’t offend me. It was just the first time in my life that I felt like I was actually standing at Har Sinai and G-d was giving me the Torah, and my emotions just overcame me.”

Rabbi Jacobson was taken aback. “I don’t know if I ever cried thinking about Matan Torah,” he admits.


everal years ago, sought-after lecturer Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg, rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst, spoke at an event on the topic of shalom in the home and the importance of seeking help if necessary — one of the subjects he’s passionate about. He later heard from the event organizer that 15 members in the audience who had seriously been contemplating divorce decided to change course and go for help, saving their marriages.

Rabbi Manis Friedman, whose chassidic-based teachings can be transformative for those dealing with the pain of life, says that people who had been suicidal have told him that after hearing his lecture or watching his cable television series, Torah Forum with Manis Friedman, they were literally saved from the brink. But he says his favorite feedback is nothing dramatic. He’s thrilled when someone simply tells him, “That’s just what I needed to hear,” or “That’s exactly what was on my mind.” That, he says, means he’s accomplished his mission.

But times have changed, and even for the most seasoned speakers, what worked even just a few years ago doesn’t necessarily work anymore. For one thing, in our technology-addicted world, people do not have the attention span that they used to. Their phones are beckoning.

“It’s not just that people can’t focus on the moment,” observes Rabbi Ginzberg. “They’re not focusing properly on anything. You can see that with shalom bayis cases. Ten years ago, of every ten couples who used to come for a problem, nine were able to be resolved. Today it’s the reverse. People are too into themselves, they are not interacting and communicating enough.”

Rabbi Friedman says that today, one of the biggest problems in reaching an audience is that the younger generation no longer feels obligated by anything. “No one today wants to hear ‘You have to make a brachah, you have to daven, you have to eat kosher.’

“Today there’s pushback. They’re saying ‘I don’t have to.’ A guy in India sued his parents for giving birth to him. He argued that he wasn’t consulted and therefore doesn’t have to pay his bills — and maybe in principle, using his logic, he’s correct. So what should we tell our young ones? We can tell them, ‘Bereishis bara Elokim,’ that Hashem created the world for Himself, not for our needs, and we are here only to serve the Creator. And when you eat, dress, work, live, you are fulfilling the tachlis for which He created the world.

“We coddle and spoil the young generation,” he continues, “but they don’t really want it. They want to be challenged. They want to be told that their life has a Divine purpose.”

“People say that you can’t give mussar to today’s generation,” offers Rabbi Mallach, “but I disagree. You can say everything, it just has to be repackaged — with humor, for example. The pintele Yid hates sheker, it wants to hear true, honest hashkafah, however sharp it is. People love to hear about themselves, to see themselves in a mirror, even if it faults them, because inside they know the truth, and they want to get better.”

He’s a regular speaker at V’Keiravtuni Shabbatons, which cater to a niche in the frum community of people who are Torah-observant but want more growth. “When I speak at dinners,” Rabbi Mallach explains, “the guests come because of their affiliation to the organization, and I’m just the noisemaker, someone to fill the program. At these Shabbatons, however, every guest is interested and engaged because they want to become better. By the time Motzaei Shabbos comes around, everyone is intoxicated from the round-the-clock chizuk and inspiration, and they’re laughing and crying through the night. It’s an incredible experience, and I always come home on a high.”

Rabbi Ginzberg asserts that we are living in times of turmoil, and people are looking for chizuk. “Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita said clearly in the last year or two that Mashiach is not just around the corner, he’s on the rechov. Chazal say that in those days there will be turmoil in every home. Lo aleinu, there is such heartbreak — you even see married parents walking away from Yiddishkeit. People are in pain and are looking for something to take home.”


ne positive phenomenon of all that turmoil, says Rabbi Krohn, is an interesting observation: Over the years, more men are coming out to hear words of chizuk. It used to be a women’s thing. And his fans know his no-fail magic recipe: Devarim sheyotzim min halev — words that emanate from the heart penetrate the heart. Plus, a good, true, meaningful story.

Rabbi Mallach offers his own public speaking advice: “If you want people to listen to your derashah,” he says, “one, tell plenty of stories, and two, keep it short. In Maseches Berachos, it says one should be mesameiach a chassan ‘b’devarim,’ with words. So here’s my take: Of all Chumashim, why davka cheer a chassan with Sefer Devarim? Bereishis is a story of 2,000 years, Shemos is a few hundred years, Vayikra and Bamidmar are 40 years, and Devarim is all of 36 days. So you want to make a chassan happy? Keep it short!”

He might say that, but in reality, Rabbi Mallach can speak for well over an hour and still keep his audience wide awake and engaged.

“Well, I make sure to take the audience for a ride,” he divulges. “I don’t sit on one point for more than two or three minutes. I keep it fast-paced, moving from a story to a mashal to a joke to an anecdote.”

Rabbi Stern agrees. “Never overstay your welcome,” he says. “My maximum is 25 minutes. Oh, and I have a kabbalah that I don’t cite Gemaras or midrashim after 9 p.m.”

Given a recent experience, Rabbi Stern adds another piece of advice. “You have to connect with the crowd. I was speaking in Hangar 11, a huge hall in Tel Aviv. There were three endless tiers of dais, and the shtender was perched up above them all. I started speaking, and I immediately saw it wasn’t working. I picked up the shtender and carried it all the way down in front of the audience and started again. An audience likes to feel that they’re having a schmooze with the speaker.”

They also want to hear about things that are relevant to their lives, but for rabbis on the lecture circuit, staying fresh, up-to-date, and not repetitive can be a challenge.

Rabbi Krohn, who leads inspirational trips to mekomos hakedoshim and places of beauty to experience the niflaos haBorei, says he makes sure to prepare. “I do a lot of research to make these journeys a learning experience,” he says. “For example, I recently took a group to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway for the first time. I dug deeper to learn which gedolim lived there. I learned that Rav Yonoson Eibeshutz and the Oruch L’ner lived in Altuna and Vansbeck, today part of Germany, and Rav Yaakov Emden lived in Hamburg, their sister city, so I was able to tell over their history as well as discuss the controversy between them. Another fascinating thing I learned was that Rav Shlomo Wolbe couldn’t escape with Mir to Shanghai as he was a German citizen, and they were afraid he’d be considered a spy, so a fellow Mirrer who was from Sweden invited him to his family, and he ended up starting a Bais Yaakov there, which educated some 150 girls who survived the camps and built up fine Jewish homes.”

For Rabbi Jacobson, preparing is an ongoing process. “You never know what you’re going to see when. My ears and eyes are always open.”

Every time Rabbi Mallach hears something of interest, he writes it down and files it in a list of categories — chinuch, middos, etc. “I also get amazing feedback and stories from the listeners of my shiur on Torah Anytime,” he shares, “and I glean mussar from the seforim of previous maggidim, like Rav Sholom Schwadron and Rav Yankele Galinsky.”

For Rabbi Ginzberg, it’s about getting the message out. “I learned from my rebbi, Rav Henoch Leibowitz of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, never to tailor my style or hashkafah to suit an audience. I heard the same things from my rebbi when I was 15 years old and 50 years old. He never changed what was important to him and to Klal Yisrael.”

In the last two years, Rabbi Ginzberg has been traveling to various venues to lecture about Ohel Sarala, the organization he and his rebbetzin dedicated to the memory of their daughter a’’h, who was niftar at the young age of 17. Inspired by Rav Steinman ztz”l, Ohel Sarala pairs childless couples and singles to daven for each other. “There have been 600 engagements and 200 babies born on our list,” he reveals with genuine fatherly nachas.

Rabbi Friedman, who often lectures about relationships, says he doesn’t specifically prepare. “It’s life. If you’re familiar with what you’re teaching, and you live it, you don’t have to prepare.”

Clearly confident in his field, it’s really not surprising to hear that Rabbi Friedman doesn’t get stage fright. After all, as a born-and-bred Lubavitcher, he has been involved in outreach from the age of 17. I ask him how his brother, singer Avraham Fried, fares in that regard. “He says he still gets nervous going on stage. I guess if his voice cracks or if he has to cough, he’s in trouble, whereas for a speaker it’s fine.”

I add that the singer’s audience is usually paying hefty concert fees, so they expect a flawless performance. “Yeah,” he remarks wryly, “with me you always get your money’s worth.”


aving first been in the spotlight at a similar age to Rabbi Friedman, Rabbi Ginzberg’s stage fright has long been left behind — to a night over four decades ago, when as a 13-year-old living in Forest Hill, Queens, young Aryeh Zev was chosen to address Young Israel’s annual Yom HaShoah event. His father Rav Avraham was rabbi of the kehillah, and they wanted a post-Holocaust generation face. He assumed it would be a cozy room and a round table, but when he arrived to a cavernous auditorium with 1,600 people in front of him, he froze. “The first hour of the program I sat there shaking, looking around and observing the faces of the audience and wondering how I’d possibly do it. I think that hour of torture knocked the fear out of me, so that when it came my turn, I somehow sailed right through it.

“Today,” he says, “I’m so passionate about the specific topics I speak about that I don’t get stage fright. Maybe that experience at 13 used up my entire fear allotment.”

On the other hand, when you look at Rabbi Jacobson exuding a natural confidence at the podium, you’d never guess, as he insists, that the anxiety is right up there with him. “I’m glad it’s there because, as I tell my students, the moment you get up to speak and you don’t feel any anxiety, you probably shouldn’t be speaking.”

Ditto, says Rabbi Stern, “If I’m not nervous, es toigt nisht (something’s amiss)!”

Rabbi Mallach says he doesn’t have a problem with nerves on stage; it’s before he’s done preparing that he’s filled with a certain dread. “When I wake up and say Modeh Ani and remember that I am addressing an event that night, that’s when I chap a tzitter (panic), and I throw myself into polishing up the speech. But once I have it ready, and I’m clear on what I’m saying, I am not nervous. Of course, I daven that the Eibeshter give me the right words.”

“It sometimes happens that the mic goes kaput,” Rabbi Mallach shares, “and it can ruin everything. The audience starts rumbling, ‘We can’t hear, louder, louder!’ To keep the audience engaged while the technician does his work, I’ll tell a joke about how a technician comes to repair the mic, but after doing his checks, he announces, ‘The mic is not the problem — I would say the speaker has a few screws missing!’ The audience cracks up, and by then, the mic is usually back and running, and I’ve got them again.”

A faulty mic actually turned out to be a blessing for Rabbi Ginzberg. Years back, he was invited to speak at a community kenes about tzniyus. When he was introduced, the chairman announced a completely different topic that had nothing to do with tzniyus. Rabbi Ginzberg stiffened. “I got up, literally tongue-tied, and murmured the words ‘Hashem sefosai tiftach,’ pleading that He help me out. All of a sudden, the PA system went out. While they were fixing it, I pulled the chairman aside and whispered, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He explained that I had not been misinformed, and I should stick to the topic of tzniyus. They just felt they had to market it under a different theme so that people would show up. In those blessed few minutes Hashem granted me, I managed to figure out a way to weave in the topic in a way that people could be mekabel.”

But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is the part that might seem the most exciting. Traveling the globe and leaving behind family and ongoing commitments is its own juggling act. Rabbi Mallach rarely travels abroad, due to both family and yeshivah obligations, although he admits he’s losing out financially.

And snags are inevitable. One time, Rabbi Krohn’s luggage didn’t arrive to the remote city where he was speaking for Shabbos. The directors of the event quickly purchased him basics and borrowed a suit from a community member. They meant well, but the esteemed guest of honor ended up standing at the podium in a suit that, let’s just say, was not a custom fit.

Although today Rabbi Krohn is in a position to travel extensively, he says that, “You’ve got to be crazy to do this when you have kids at home. Every one of my children and grandchildren will tell you unquestionably that for me, between family and public life, the most important thing is my family. In fact, one of the non-negotiable things in my life is the Thursday night ‘Zeidy conference call.’ ”

He describes his weekly 15-minute chat to his entire family, the topics of which range from interesting experiences to sh’eilos he’s encountered that week. “If I have a speaking engagement Thursday night, I’ll pull over on the way home to make that call. I was once in Australia, and I made the call Friday at noon, when it was 11 o’clock Thursday night back in New York. I try not to miss the call for anything.” And the traveling itself? “I’m not the pilot,” he says. “I can sleep on the plane.”

“I travel way too much,” confesses Rabbi Friedman, another empty nester. “When people ask how often I’m away from home, I tell them to ask how often I’m home — maybe I’m home for Shabbos 12 times a year. When my kids were young, I was very blessed that they were completely sold on what I was doing, and they grew up wanting to do the same. Today, all my 14 kids are baruch Hashem all over the country doing good things.”

“I’ve made mistakes in the past,” Rabbi Jacobson admits of juggling globe-trotting with children at home. “It’s easy to say yes to a trip across the world, but your children need you. Today, I’m very makpid to maintain boundaries.” And even across continents, he doesn’t let jet lag sideline him. “I just don’t have time for it,” he says.

With his children married now, Rabbi Stern no longer has to contend with leaving little ones behind — but in days gone by, they called him “avinu shebashamayim.” Rabbi Stern, who can fly from London to New York a staggering three times in two weeks, says he has such a jumbled circadian rhythm that jet lag is no longer part of his jargon.

But this year, he has a new obligation to contend with. He’s an avel for his mother, Rebbetzin Beily Stern a’’h, a popular speaker in her own right, and he therefore needs the amud no matter where he finds himself. On a return stopover from Melbourne, he davened in the Chabad House in hot, humid, congested Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The shaliach kindly picked him up in a rickshaw, weaving between a chaotic jumble of people and vehicular traffic in an unbearable 46°C  heat and 100 percent humidity.

For Rabbi Stern and his colleagues though, always on the lookout for wisdom and inspiration wherever it’s to be found, all those people in every corner of the world thirsting for words of support and inspiration might be the best stories of all.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 779)

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