| Magazine Feature |

The Vision, the Voices, the Victory of the Dirshu Movement

An innovation in accountability, capturing the sweetness of what it’s like to own your learning and master page after holy page
Outside or Inside?

Yisroel Besser

Last Thursday night, Montreal was hit by blinding snow, the sort that makes you walk bent over against its assault. Even the hardy drivers of a city used to such weather stayed home, the roads nearly empty against what would end up being a 40-centimeter snowfall.

But outside a small shul, an old building holding worn benches and bronzed yahrtzeit plaques and siddurim that feel right in your hands, clusters of cars were parked at haphazard angles to avoid the snowdrifts.

Three nights before Dirshu’s grand North American Siyum HaShas — the final event capping a month of celebrations around the world — this group of men had driven to shul to take a test on the first 30 blatt of Brachos. They’d be coming to the massive celebration not just with dreams, but with a gift: 30 blatt in their pockets.

Dirshu’s final Siyum was the last celebration in this wave of celebrations. This Sunday night, it wrapped up weeks of festive siyumim with its final clarion call of Hadran Alach in a season of nearly uninterrupted simchah. And, really, it couldn’t be any other way.

Every siyum is special. Every siyum generates ripples of excitement and joy in the Heavens, but America saw two siyumim in recent weeks that were extraordinary in scope and impact.

There was the one in MetLife six weeks ago, and the second one took place in Prudential Center this week.

The first one was special, a wise observer remarked, much in the way that marrying off an oldest child is special: incredible joy, incredible hope, incredible tefillah that the magic never wane.

The second one, he said, was special in the way of marrying off a youngest child: waves of gratitude for what was, a sense of accomplishment as one turns to look back, the sort of ecstasy that’s fused with realism and whispered prayers for a new road that suddenly appears.

As timing would have it, the Divine Scheduler orchestrated things so that the Dirshu celebrants arrived at Prudential Center with bechinos already completed, knowing full well the rigor to which they were committing — or recommitting.

A few years ago, I had opportunity to sit in at a major Dirshu bechinah in Brooklyn: It was cumulative, covering several masechtos. In the shul in which it was taking place, there was also a simchah hall and the Kossover Rebbe, Rav Shraga Hager — himself a master of Shas — happened to be headed into the downstairs hall. On his way down, he stopped and looked inside the testing room. He saw the figures, hundreds of men folded in two over small tables as they wrote, intensity and focus and determination creating ripples of tension and mild excitement in the room.

When he was informed that this was a bechinah not just on the recent blatt, but on all the blatt back to Brachos daf beis, the Rebbe exulted. “Incredible,” he said. “That takes courage!”

Courage of the lomdim. Courage of their wives. Courage of their families.

Because from the outset, the vision included the families as well. More than 25 years ago, when Dirshu was a pre-Shacharis learning program in the Toronto offices of its founder, Chanukah was celebrated at the Hofstedter home with a party for the lomdim — and their wives. Reb Dovid, the host, made a promise then. “Torah,” he said, “will transform your homes, your lives… your husbands will live for something higher, and all of you will be swept into it.”

The promise was fulfilled, again and again and again, in every sort of home: the father’s schedule, his bechinos, his chazzaros — and of course, his accomplishment — painting entire houses in shades of holiness and meaning. During this season of siyumim, Dirshu has hosted events for women too — not as supporters, but as celebrants, for who like they have realized the role of the Jewish woman, to encourage and motivate and inspire and facilitate? Torah has transformed their lives, as Reb Dovid Hofstedter promised on a cold winter morning in a different century.

From the perspective of 25 years, we can assess what they’ve done at Dirshu and say, “Mazel Tov,” for they have succeeded in introducing something new to the legions who learn Torah.

When I sat with Dovid Hofstedter several years ago, he didn't want to go the conventional interview route. He had no reflections on current events or insights into the wider Jewish world to share. His story was simple, reflecting thousands of others that might never be told.

He was a child of Hungarian survivors, raised by a father who had to work long hours to pay rent, to put food on the table, and a mother who’d never gone to Bais Yaakov but fed her children a tangible faith along with their breakfast.

He grew up haunted by what had been lost, the Torah that had been snuffed out, the determination and commitment and reverence for Torah scholars of the Yidden who’d been swallowed up by Hitler’s flames.

He married into a world in which the rich heritage of Poland, the gaonus and fluency and breadth of knowledge, was a currency more valued than money.

And he dreamed of restoring it.

He would create not just programs and shiurim and opportunities, but something else.

Accountability.

The incentives he offered weren’t just a means to get people to know Torah, but for them to realize what knowing Torah does to a person.

“Ki im beSoras Hashem cheftzo, uv’Soraso yehegeh yomam valaylah — But his desire is in the Torah of Hashem, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Tehillim 1:2).

Also, why only by “His Torah,” does it say he will be immersed day and night, and by the Torah of Hashem we do not find this term?

There are two types of learning, both done with true yearning. There is one for whom the Torah of Hashem is his desire, Torah that is learned amid the comforts that give man the expansiveness to learn — such Torah will impact him and uplift him, but it will not be transformed into part of his essence. It will remain the Torah of Hashem.

How does the Torah become part of man? How is it changed from Soras Hashem to Soraso? Only through true toil and work, through learning amid hardship and exhaustion, through fighting off sleep and the pleasures of this world. The way to earn the Crown of Torah described by the Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:6) is through complete and total dedication to Torah, and a life of “in His Torah he will be immersed day and night.” If the Torah consumes him day and night, it will be his.

Uv’Soraso, a Torah that a person owns and incorporates into his very self, becomes his for “yomam valaylah.”

(Dorash Dovid, Kisrah shel Torah, parshas Chukas, p. 158)

This might be the enduring gift of this man, this movement, the secret of the euphoria that swept through the aisles and sections at Prudential Center on Sunday night.

Torah is life, the oxygen of creation. But it can be outside of man or inside of man, outside the home or inside the home, it can be an idea or an essence.

This was the last Siyum, the one that celebrated the Divine gift around which all the others revolved, the culmination of a winter of accomplishment and ecstasy. For in its Hadran Alach, there was an added note: We will return to you, will we not forsake you, we will never let go… not just the Torah that is a beloved friend, across the table, but to the Torah that you know — now you know — resides within your very own heart, part of you.

Of course we never leave you, heilege Torah, for you are us.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)

“Once I found the keys, I knew I had to act on my dream” Rav Dovid Hofstedter, Nasi of Dirshu

As told to Yitzchok Katzman

When I was 17, I had a dream, although I had no idea if it would ever really happen. I dreamed about creating a way to learn with shleimus, with the wholeness that inevitably involves tests and accountability, so that a person can prove to himself that he knows the material and is advancing, which naturally propels him further forward.

Take the fellow who is working longs days in an office, coming home at night exhausted. He has family responsibilities to his wife and kids. But he also had a sophisticated yeshivah education and an appreciation for lomdus, yet here he is, in his 30s or 40s, with a mature method in learning, but no time to apply it. And the steady assault on traditional values and the breakdown of modesty has made it even harder for an ehrliche Yid to get through the day. It was clear that something had to be done.

When my wife and I came back from Eretz Yisrael to Toronto, I made sure to keep one eye focused on the Gemara while easing into my father’s real estate business. Still, it was very hard. I immediately tied myself down to the beis medrash by finding good chavrusas, but not everyone has those opportunities. As both the family and business responsibilities grew, I looked around and saw a generation of people like me, young men who’d given their best years to the Gemara, but were lacking a framework for moving forward. So in 1997, I started a morning program in my office. We built a nice beis medrash and offered chavrusas and a shiur, followed by a warm davening and hot coffee. At first it was a challenge to get people to commit to the program, so we instituted a chiddush: We offered a stipend for joining. It wasn’t a lot of money, but just enough to give people that push.

Early on I discovered the key to the program’s success: the exams and the accountability they demanded. There’s nothing that can compare with knowing something well, having clarity in a sugya or topic. The tests, along with the stipends, have created the impetus for people to do well. Another key factor is the wife. No man can give this program the time and effort it needs without a supportive wife. Early on, we had a Chanukah gathering in my home for the whole chaburah, and the wives were the most enthusiastic, talking about what the learning was doing for their husbands.

And it really happened. Did anyone believe that in the 50 best yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, literally thousands of bochurim would have a Dirshu seder? That they would get up before davening to learn for an hour? That they would learn in between the regular sedarim and take the tests, that they would make a seder on long Fridays in the summer and the long Motzaei Shabbos nights in the winter and be tested on what they’ve learned? In Ponevezh, Mir, Chevron, Tifrach, Ger, Vizhnitz, Belz, and dozens more yeshivos. It happened!

Dirshu isn’t an organization, but a movement. The letters we’ve received from yungeleit who’ve found a new purpose in life – and these are people who were learning well before Dirshu came along – tell the story. They are thrilled to be part of it, to be so empowered by what Dirshu gives them – the goal, the incentive and, no less important, the siyata d’Shmaya that comes from being part of something big. Is there another group in the world as diverse as this one? We have every demographic within Torah Judaism taking these tests. People who wouldn’t notice each other on the street are bound by their shared objective – and shared triumph.

Of course there were challenges along the way, but when you follow the path you believe in, and especially when you can realize a Torah vision with the guidance of gedolei Yisrael, you can reach your goal. Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz ztz”l, who was known as a conservative and a preserver of the traditional mesorah of the generations, accompanied the establishment of Dirshu, even though to some it looked like a new innovation, divergent from the traditional way. When it comes to a kinyan Torah, when you want to present a path that people might not be used to, you need to know that it might be a long journey. But nothing gets done by sitting back, only by pushing the vision forward.

I believe that gedolei Yisrael saw with their holy vision an image of the “Dirshu Yid.” The entire program was designed in the homes of gedolei Yisrael, with their guidance and set of guidelines. The Daf Yomi and Bnei Yeshivos tests were created in the home of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, the Kinyan Halachah tests in the home of Rav Wosner ztz”l and Rav Nissim Karelitz ztz”l, the Daf Yomi B’Halachah in the home of Rav Elyashiv ztz”l, Kinyan Shas in the home of Rav Steinman ztz”l, and the program for the study of mussar in the home of Rav Mattisyahu Solomon. Our newest program, Daf Hakollel, was created in the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

There are two figures who have remained my role models throughout my adult life. The first is my father, Reb Sandy Hofstedter, an elderly Holocaust survivor who endured what no one should ever experience, yet who never veered from his achrayus to the klal. He would be up at dawn every day no matter what, strictly adhering to his learning sedorim – and he still starts his day like that. It’s non-negotiable.

The other is my father-in-law, Reb Avrum Bleeman, a Gerrer chassid whose adherence to learning daf yomi is one of my great inspirations — as he finishes Shas over and over again, cleaving to Torah with such energy and in an uncompromising way.

People ask if I have time for anything else besides Dirshu. Well, we hear from people in the program all the time that they live it every day, every minute. And I believe that, because that person’s life becomes a life with a mission, with a goal. And I’m not just talking about yungeleit. I’m talking about business people in offices all over the world — and I feel the same way.

In terms of my family, the Torah impacts them the same way it does every Jewish family. We recently read in Parshas Bo about the first mitzvah that Bnei Yisrael were commanded — Kiddush Hachodesh. The mussar giants say that the essence of Kiddush Hachodesh is the renewal and freshness each and every month of Torah life. This is an apt analogy for the learning and review and tests built into the Dirshu program, which touches every single day of the month. It’s not tiring and repetitive – just the opposite. We hear from so many people how the program caused them to feel a renewal in their learning, to feel refreshed in their learning and their knowledge of Torah.

Was there a moment when I felt, “this is why I built Dirshu”? I would say yes, from the very first moment. Because for me, the success of Dirshu is not only about future growth and success. In business, there’s either success or failure, based on long-term profits. In spirituality though, success is also measured by what’s happening at the moment. If you’re doing it right at a specific moment – that’s success, that’s shleimus.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)


“The tests are the game changer” Rav Uri Kessler, Director of Dirshu’s testing team 

As told to Yitzchok Katzman

There are a lot of ways to do daf yomi, to finish Shas — even a cursory read of the blatt is a good thing — but there’s nothing that propels a person forward like being tested. The tests are really Dirshu’s big chiddush, because they create a structure of accountability that even the most dedicated, self-disciplined learners can’t maintain on their own. In fact, today many kollelim have begun administering their own tests, because they see how testing pushes the learning forward, and it’s really in great part Dirshu’s zechus.

As the director of the testing team, I can personally attest to the improvement in the quality of learning that is fostered by this system. But I want to stress that these tests aren’t university entrance exams: They aren’t made to weed out everyone but the best — just the opposite. The point is to improve every person’s cheishek and ability to learn.

So yes, the tests are real and we try to make them fair — we don’t want to flunk anyone, but we also want it to be fair and honest and to give people accurate feedback about how much they’ve mastered, for their own accountability and benefit. A person who didn’t learn the material won’t pass, and a person who did should be able to. Of course, it’s very unpleasant if someone doesn’t pass, but we don’t dumb down our tests and serve people fluff, because then they’d lose more than they would gain.

The development of the tests is multi-phased. Rav Baruch Dov Diskin, rosh yeshivas Orchos Torah, is the one who creates the first draft. Then the material goes to a group of talmidei chachamim for review and polish, and my job is to check the final product, to decide which changes to keep and to sign off on a final version. After the tests have been administered and collected, I direct a team of about 60 bodkim, most of them veteran daf yomi maggidei shiur, as they check and grade the tests.

In Israel, tests are administered on Friday, and in the US on Sunday, but we develop different tests for each country so there won’t be any possibility of getting hold of a copy of an earlier test.

We have a few different types of tests, but by far the most popular is the monthly test — 30 questions covering 30 daf  — following the daf yomi schedule. And it’s quite amazing to see who’s there — from seventh and eighth graders to retired folks to roshei yeshivah, and every hat or yarmulke you can imagine. And there are different test levels as well: There’s Gemara-Rashi, primarily for those learning bein hasedorim, and Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos for those who can handle a more rigorous test.

There is also a test every four months on 120 daf, which comes with a substantial cash raffle prize, and then there’s the Kinyan Shas, for those on a very rigorous track of being tested on all of Shas. These men are tested every six months on 180 daf plus on all the previous dapim cumulatively, and complete 14 tests at the end of the cycle, the last one on all 2,711 blatt in Shas. At the close of this past daf yomi cycle we had close to 400 people — chassanei Shas — completing it, which was truly amazing.

It’s astounding to see how people schedule their personal lives around these tests. One man I know took a test on the day of his son’s bris, another on the day of his child’s wedding. Technically, you can get a dispensation and take the test later, usually the chutz l’Aretz version, but honestly, we don’t have too many of those requests.

The enthusiasm of this system is contagious. I know a fellow who never learned daf yomi, but he was at Yad Eliyahu at the last Siyum in 2012 and, looking down at the chassanei Shas, told himself, next time I’m going to be down there too. And every single day for the next seven and a half years, no matter what time he came home, even at 1 a.m., he wouldn’t go to sleep until he learned the day’s daf, plus the previous four dapim for chazarah. He never gave up, even when there was a power outage and he had to learn by candlelight, and on Yom Kippur, Leil HaSeder, and when he was in the hospital with a sick child and scanned every ward until he found a copy of his masechta. When he invited me to his siyum, I knew that all our hard work, all those hours spent revising, checking, tallying the marks — it had all been worthwhile.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)


“Once they’re in it, they won’t miss a test for anything” 
Rav Yisrael Layosh, Maggid shiur in Yeshivas Ahavas Aharon and head of Dirshu’s testing department

As told to Yitzchok Katzman

I’m not the type to get overwhelmed, but it really was unbelievable — after the big siyum and all the energy and enthusiasm of starting the daf yomi cycle again, close to 50,000 people around the world — about 30,000 of them in Israel — signed up to take the Dirshu test on the first 30 dapim this last Friday.

We were prepared for a large turnout for this first test, and we’d opened an additional 45 testing centers, but we still had to run out and make extra copies of the test at the last minute, and make sure everyone had a seat. In some locations, people were writing their tests on the bimah, on the backs of chairs, or leaning against pillars, wherever they had a surface to write on.

Of course, I doubt the momentum will continue through the months and years down the line, but it’s an indication of how so many thousands of learners want to share this program of accountability with tests. And we’re thrilled that we can give out more and more stipends for these learners.

We know that for the first test of the cycle, there’s always a bigger turnout. Seven years ago we had 15,000, and that was considered massive. But with our current numbers, we’ve had to hire an additional 40 bochanim to check the tests. We now have about 100 of them — all daf yomi maggidei shiur — for this early surge, but that still means bochein will have to check about 300 tests.

We have about 100 testing centers around Israel, and we actually prefer when the center draws a big crowd, because it creates a certain energy — camaraderie and enthusiasm for a shared goal and accomplishment. Before a test last Erev Pesach, one fellow wanted to know the date of the test that would fall out around Succos. “We’re holding by Pesach, why Succos?” I asked him. He told me his son is having a bar mitzvah, and he wants to make sure the dates don’t coincide.

Because once they’re in it, it’s like an addiction. They won’t miss a test for anything. One time a wife called me, they were supposed to go away to a hotel for Shabbos, but the test was on Friday. Could he take it earlier? We don’t usually do that, and in the end, he told his wife that they’d switch to a different week. “How can I go to a hotel when my chaveirim are taking a Dirshu test on 30 dapim?” he told her.

We try to accommodate Klal Yisrael with the tests. That means that if a test falls out around Rosh Hashanah, we’ll set up a testing center in Uman. When the Skverer Rebbe spent Shabbos in Meron two years ago, it was the week of a test. He came with a huge entourage from abroad, Skverer chassidim from all over the world who thought they’d have to be mevater on the test that month — but they were thrilled to find a testing center that Erev Shabbos in Meron.

Isn’t that the whole point of daf yomi, to make sure everyone is always on the same page?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)


“Experiencing love of Torah on this scale affects anyone who sees it” Motti Steinmetz, Lead soloist at the Dirshu Siyumim

As told to Gedalia Guttentag

I’ve always seen music as a form of avodah, akin to tefillah. When we Jews sing, we’re really davening, expressing our yearning for a relationship with Hashem.

Over the past month and a half, as I traveled the world singing at the Dirshu Siyumim, I discovered another facet of music — this time it wasn’t just about tefillah, but about Torah learning too.

When I was a bochur and my friends started getting married, I used to sing at the kabbalas panim before the chuppah. In our circles in Vizhnitz, the kabbalas panim is very emotional, with undertones of the Yamim Noraim davening. It became my job to break down the barriers and get the tears flowing. These days, even though I’m singing onstage for tens of thousands of people, I still feel the same sense of mission — getting people to connect to the deep, pure desires within every Jew.

The Dirshu Siyum took that mission to unprecedented dimensions. Perhaps nothing was as challenging as the Prudential event this Sunday: I had to reach the 45,000-strong crowd that had already experienced so many uplifting events during this packed Siyum HaShas season, and get them to feel the unique joy of the evening.

To help us accomplish that, tremendous effort and resources were invested in the music. With two major choirs from the US and Israel, accompanied by two separate orchestras, performing classics and new arrangements, the music had become a major draw all over the world, even for those not learning daf yomi.

Months of work went into producing these events. The organizers had to coordinate various choirs and singers, what kind of music to play for the gedolim, the best way to showcase the different singers.

And because it was such a complex event, we spent three days before the Siyum practicing in a rented hall, on a stage specially built to mimic the one in the Prudential Center, the main venue.

The string of Siyum HaShas events has been totally different from regular appearances. Singing in front of tens of thousands of Jews celebrating learning Shas is a tremendous zechus, and seeing love of Torah on this scale affects anyone who sees it. For me personally, it moved me to start learning daf yomi.

That hasn’t been an easy decision: over the last month I’ve spent so much time on flights and in hotels. But seeing so many people in so many locations all devoted to learning has helped keep my commitment firm.

I have a long-standing relationship with my producer Ruvi Banet: back when I was a little boy, he once heard me singing at the monthly Rosh Chodesh seudah for the previous Vizhnitzer Rebbe, and asked me to sing for a Seret-Vizhnitz dinner. Since then, he’s been like a second father and musical mentor.

As a second-generation composer and producer, Ruvi Banet put the Siyum events in the long view. He told me that his father, legendary composer Reb Chaim Banet, used to compare the Siyumim of years ago — a few Jews sharing some cookies in the shtibel — with those of today. These celebrations of long years of learning have become so high-profile that they’re being featured on TV programs in Israel, and they’re sparking interest way beyond the world of lomdei Torah.

In Paris, we saw that playing out right there in the audience. There were many people you wouldn’t connect to serious Torah learning, but they came to the Siyum and they were flying. The energy, the atmosphere — you could almost touch the excitement.

I was asked to say a few words before I started singing, and I mentioned how Rav Steinman ztz”l had visited France a few times, and then I sang a song composed in his memory. The crowd reacted in such an emotional, open way — they all sang along.

And when I sang “Nafshi,” they wouldn’t let me stop. We just kept singing the chorus over and over again: “Ye’erav na sichi alecha, may my prayer be pleasing to You…” That’s when it all came full circle for me: the music, the tefillah, the Torah. We all want the same thing, we’re all looking for connection. So we just kept singing and singing, the song that’s also a prayer, and no one wanted to stop.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)


“ I see the Dirshu siyum as a personal expression of kevod haTorah, not as a business assignment” Ari Frankl, Director of AF Production

As told to Yochonon Donn

You might say I’ve spent 35 years preparing for this week’s Dirshu siyum.

I’ve always had a talent for organization and logistics — I was that guy who everyone trusted to “make things happen.” For some people, making things happen is a vague cloud. For me it’s a clear list of tasks, responsibilities, and contingencies. Back as a bochur in yeshivah, I used to organize the Chol Hamoed circuses in Jacob Riis Park, and in Floyd Bennett Park. Then I moved on to the popular Yiddish-language plays like Yosef Shpiel, Zahdener, The Spanish Inquisition, Varsha, and Bustenai.

At some point I realized that my talents could become a parnassah, and that’s how my events business was born.

Back when I opened my events business, there was no competition, and the field was small. Most of my jobs consisted of dinners for organizations. My first big break came when Satmar asked me to organize their Chof-Alef Kislev event, the day they mark the Rebbe’s safe arrival in Switzerland during the war. The second year I did it at the Javits Center.

With time the demand grew, and so did my business. And as our events got bigger and more ambitious, I realized that we needed bigger venues. That’s when I came up with the concept — bold and counterintuitive at the time — of holding Yiddishe  events in sports stadiums. The idea took off, and I planned the Citi Field technology asifah, and the Satmar gatherings at the Nassau Coliseum and the Barclays Center. At this point I can say I know all these stadiums inside out.

My first massive event was the Citi Field asifah, nine years ago. That was the first time I rented out an entire arena. It was a daring thing to do, but not only did we fill it, we actually had to add another arena when we realized at the last minute that Citi Field was too small.

After the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away in 1994, the beis hachayim in Queens started getting huge crowds, especially on Gimmel Tammuz, the yahrtzeit. After three or four years of uncontrolled crowding, they asked me to arrange the day’s events. I worked for them for three years and set up a system that works until today, even though I’m not involved with that anymore. It all revolves around organization — how to get people from the entrance to the area of the ohel, going into the ohel, leaving the ohel, how many people can get in at one time.

This year Satmar asked me to build a similar protocol for crowd control at the Rebbe’s kever on his yahrtzeit. I started by telling people, “move back, there’s room behind you.” Everybody moved back obediently. I taught them that by thinking of others, you ensure nobody will get hurt.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. At this point, I can walk into a room, sit there for 15 minutes, and be able to tell you how many people are going to be able to fit in there. I can tell you which color tablecloths will make the best impression in photographs. I can plan a program to fit a specific time frame and then keep it running on schedule — if a speech is supposed to begin at 4:57 and last for seven minutes, it ends at 5:05. I’ve also learned to anticipate problems. Once I organized a dinner for Yeshiva Darchei Torah at Floyd Bennett Field. An hour before it began, a bunch of police officers began running in. It seemed that a police sniffer dog had smelled gunpowder in a certain box. It turned out that we had brought gun powder for the high-power staple guns. That was the problem.

I once ran an event that entailed putting up a tent. A few minutes before Shabbos, I got a call that the electricity had gone out and the fire department was closing it down, because a dark tent at night is a fire hazard. I tried to stay calm and figure out my next step when I got a call from the fire chief. “You’re lucky,” he tells me, “that you had two backup generators.” Within 15 minutes I had all the lights back on. Now I have backup generators for every event I plan.

Take this wine-tasting event I’m doing in Manhattan. I’ve been doing it for 14 years, but now we’re planning very heavy security. Not because there are any specific threats, but because my policy is to think about these contingencies ahead of time.

When I worked on the Israeli Dirshu Siyum HaShas, I brought some innovative thinking. I decided to place a chair on the front stage for every gabbai — as you know, every rebbe brings along his gabbai to these events. But the key is that those chairs would be on a platform three and a half feet lower, right behind the gedolim, so no one would see the gabbaim.

Think about it: People want to see the rebbe or rosh yeshivah, not the gabbai. Now, instead of seeing a wall of gabbaim behind them, you see a nice background.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that you can scream all you want before the event, but once the event begins, you must remain calm. People have to feel that I’m there to make them feel comfortable, not to make someone else feel comfortable. When I sell myself as AF Production, I’m selling a product. And that product is a well-organized event that makes people feel like honored guests.

I’m not one of those people who leaves his job at the office. When it comes to family simchahs, I’m the organizer too. I made a pidyon haben for an einekel right before the Dirshu Siyum, and I’m marrying off a child in another few weeks. I do all the planning for these family simchahs, down to the menu.

And over the years, the organizing has become a family business — two of my sons, Moshe Leizer and Avigdor, have been helping me with recent events. As the events grow more complex and more ambitious, I definitely appreciate their help.

When I took on the Dirshu assignment, it became a mission for me. I see the Dirshu Siyum as a personal expression of kevod haTorah, not as a business assignment. It’s a holy organization, a teireh organization. And so I went above and beyond my usual efforts.

For the Prudential event, I came up with a different approach to the typical dais. Instead of having a dais with levels, we created a long oval table, and all the gedolim were seated around it, b’achdus. No one was higher than anyone else. Some people said it reminded them of the description of the tzaddikim dancing in a perfect circle when Mashiach comes — no hierarchy, no competition. That, to me, is the message of Dirshu: We’re all sitting and learning together, we’re all reveling in our shared treasure.

In order to pull off an event of this magnitude, you need huge teams of professionals, and they have to understand how important and how momentous the event truly is. I worked with a fellow named Chris, the manager of a professional production company, to produce the Prudential event. And in order to get him fully on board, I brought him to Israel to see the Dirshu Siyum there. After seeing the electricity of the event, he was completely blown away. “I’m promising you, Ari,” he said, “your event is going to be like nothing you ever saw. For you, for this, we’re going to give it our all.”

And true to his word, at two a.m. on Motzaei Shabbos, he had 350 workers ready and waiting to start unloading and setting up the arena. They knew this was a special event, and they were all on board. “Good morning, Ari, how you doing Ari,” they were all greeting me.

Then on Sunday night, as the event drew to a close and the spontaneous dancing spilled out into the arena, Chris pulled me over. “Listen, Ari,” he said, “I’m watching these people singing, dancing, and I’m going to give you ten minutes overtime so they can dance some more. On the house, for free.”

Sometimes you feel something’s special, sometimes you know it’s special — but when people who’ve never tasted it, who’ve never experienced it, when they talk like that…there’s nothing like that.

It’s been a long few months, so many details, so little sleep. But when I said goodbye to the booking director, she said, “Hey Ari, when are you booking your next event? This was really special, we can’t wait another seven and half years for the next one.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 798)

 

 

 

 

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