| One Day Closer |

The Lone Learner

As told to C.S.Teitelbaum by Rabbi Akiva Naiman


y younger self wouldn’t easily recognize me today. As an outreach director in the Bay Area of Northern California, I juggle three jobs helping overseeing 750 NCSY students. My wife Chani has a full-time job as well, and we have four children. In the last two months alone, since the start of the new year, our staff has run over 200 events.

As a teen, I wasn’t the committed type of kid. When I was ten, my family made aliyah from Baltimore. Miserable about the move, I refused to go to school, refused to learn Hebrew, refused to do anything really. I floundered through a record nine schools; by the time I reached 11th grade I had very few academic skills.

One Friday night, my friends and I were hanging out on the streets when former New Yorker Rabbi Yosef Amar gathered us inside, we played a game of ping-pong and he warmed  us up to an oneg Shabbos. That scene soon became a regular fixture in my life, and with Rabbi Amar’s infinite patience and my parents’ support, I slowly turned my life around.

With time I grasped Gemara learning and began to enjoy it, and I eventually made my way to Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh (KBY), a hesder-style yeshivah in Kvutzat Yavneh. In yeshivah I’d sometimes watched a daf yomi shiur in progress and I envied the way those people were actually covering ground.

“I’m gonna finish Shas one day,” I told myself. “I don’t know how and when, but I’m gonna do it.”

Then I joined the IDF. My training coincided with the Lebanon War, and even though we begged to go to the front lines, we weren’t allowed to go since we hadn’t finished our combat training. Instead, I served as a medic.

I have a war pin, awarded in tribute to my work. But my real accomplishment was that I was the only religious Jew in my entire base and, because I always had a Chumash, Mishnah, and Tehillim bulging out of my army pant’s knee pocket, I became the go-to comrade for questions about religion. “What was G-d doing before He created the universe?” “Why are you washing your hands?” — all sorts of questions that I’d never entertained and now had to ask my rosh yeshivah. In hindsight, it gave me the best background for my future kiruv role.

During my second half of army service, I was able to spend the hours of 6 p.m. to midnight in yeshivah. That’s where I finally took up my Shas dream, joining a daf yomi shiur and experiencing that gratifying feeling of covering ground every day. During the day I would lug my Gemara around in a bag on the bus, the train, at the base, sneaking spare moments for chazarah.

Then life got busy. I got married, settled down with regular chavrusas, landed a job in outreach in California, and poured endless energy, time, and effort into kiruv programs. I was soon drowning in my kiruv work. My students are largely unaffiliated. They ask not, “How do we keep Shabbat?” but “How often does Shabbat come?” Of course their Yiddishkeit took precedence.

It just didn’t seem possible to continue the daily daf. But a lesson from a shiur in yeshivah kept buzzing in my head. “You should come to the next world with talmudo b’yado, with your learning strongly in your hand.”

I truly longed to acquire those 2,711 pages of Gemara in my lifetime. Eventually, four kids later, I decided it was now or never, and began daf yomi once again. But what had been a challenge back during my army days was close to impossible now. Running all my programs, being there for my family, and holding down the equivalent of three jobs doesn’t exactly give me eight-hour nights.

Also, besides my trusty ArtScroll, it’s not like I have anything to motivate me, certainly not company. The Bay area is the fourth biggest but most unaffiliated Jewish community in America. Of the 350,000 Jews in North California, only about 1% or 2% are observant. So I’m one of the only people learning Gemara here, let alone the daf.

But two years ago, when I was 20 daf behind after a summer NCSY program in Europe, I touched base with a family friend, Chaim Spero, an uber-conscientious daf yomi learner (he’s currently 40 daf ahead!), who urged me not to give up.

“Everyone wants to quit at some point,” he told me, “but if you don’t push yourself, you fall further behind and you’ll soon be off the wagon. I’m on my third round of Shas and every time I get to Zevachim, I want to quit. You just gotta push through and keep going.”

His words hit home and changed my whole approach so that, although right now, I’m ten daf behind, it’s no longer, “Oh, I’m ten daf behind, maybe I should just quit,” but, “I have ten daf to catch up on. I gotta do it.”

It’s two years since that conversation, and I’m still going strong. I can’t say I never miss a day. Right now, I’m ten daf behind, but I’m lucky my work affords me lots of travel, so I have plenty of plane time to catch up. And when I’m home, you’ll find me burning the midnight oil in front of the daf after a long work day. It’s a struggle, but I’ve realized that when you commit to the daf, you become part of something bigger. We’re all looking for connection, and this is a sure path.

The say everyone’s entitled to a dream. I have a dream called “30 by 30.” I want to motivate my more affiliated students to cover 30 daf in 30 days. I’m too busy right now to launch the program, but watch this space — and remember that disenfranchised boy wandering the streets on Friday night, an eon away.

(Originally featured in 'One Day Closer', Special Supplement, Chanuka/Siyum HaShas 5780)

Rabbi Akiva Naiman is the Northern California East Bay Chapter Director, now on his seventh year of working for West Coast NCSY. He received his rabbinical inauguration from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg through Aish HaTorah.

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