When you attend a convention over Shabbos and several days later you still feel your neshama tingling, you know that what you experienced was rather . . . unconventional.
That captures the experience my wife, our daughter and I shared the Shabbos before last at the inaugural convention of Project Inspire (PI) in Stamford, Connecticut. PI describes itself as a grassroots movement with the goal, simply stated yet hugely ambitious, of nothing less than helping unify the Jewish people by strengthening the bond we all share: our relationship with HaKadosh Boruch Hu and His Torah. The project’s chosen means to that most noble of ends is to motivate those of us already Torah observant to reach out and draw close, one by one, Jews estranged from Torah, while energizing our own spiritual lives at the same time.
If there was one weekend program on the packed communal calendar not to be missed, this was surely it. No, not because it featured a truly stellar cast of presenters, both world-class Talmidei Chachamim and many of the Kiruv world’s finest talents, along with deluxe accommodations and sumptuous catering iber’n kop, as they say.
The convention’s uniqueness was that while ostensibly dedicated to tackling one huge, seemingly daunting crisis, the mass estrangement of secular Jews from their G-d and His People, it actually forged a tremendously hopeful path towards addressing many other issues of pressing communal concern. We attendees may have booked reservations for a weekend dedicated to Kiruv, and we certainly got that — but also came away much, much more than we bargained for.
Have you been told that Chassidic and Yeshivish communities seem so internally focused and oblivious to the spiritual aridness of the larger Jewish world? Then you ought to have seen and heard what chassidishe yungeleit – dozens were there with their families – are doing, with creativity and gusto, to debunk negative stereotypes of frum Jews and Judaism and to instead infuse secular Jews in the New York area and way beyond it, with positive Jewish experiences.
Have you been led to believe that more “modern” Jews are, by definition, religiously complacent and uninterested in growing spiritually? Then you’d have been enriched by seeing yidden with a decidedly non-heimish external appearance enthusing over one or another class they’d just attended – or giving one of their own.
And for those troubled by the way our diverse communities are so Balkanized, with precious little interaction between them, this Shabbos would have been a profoundly enlightening experience. After all that we regularly hear and read about the overriding importance of achdus in Klal Yisroel, here, finally, was 48 hours of honest-to-goodness unity, the natural, organic, kind, among a most diverse spectrum of frum Jews. A spirit of goodwill and shared purpose, plainly palpable and downright infectious, filled the very air of the meeting spaces, the capacious lobbies, the dining rooms at mealtime.
The memorable vignettes of inter-frum bonding over the weekend are many: A chassidishe yungerman leading the entire assemblage, 800 strong, in wordless niggun as all waited for Rabbeinu Tam’s z’man to arrive and then conducting a soulful havdalah. A clean-shaven South African physician, leather yarmulke, colored shirt and all, sharing the secrets of his success, for many years now, at hosting Shabbos se’udos for 40-50 non-observant guests at a time, with an enthusiastic audience from Monsey, Boro Park and elsewhere hanging on his every word – and its mirror images: a for-women-only session entitled Mommy, What Happened To You? From a Chassidishe Housewife to Inspired Kiruv Activist, and a Williamsburger (yes, named Yoel) sharing his fascinating exploits as a Kiruv entrepreneur.
The inter-communal barriers were down right from the convention’s outset, an authentic moment of k’ish echod b’leiv echad arriving just slightly ahead of schedule. All were in thrall to Rav Zev Leff’s exhortations to personal and national greatness; all were moved to laughter, then to tears, and back again, by Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s trademark mix of ma’aseh and message; all were caught up in the passion for Kiruv embodied by jack of all trades and master of ceremonies extraordinaire Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, PI founder Rabbi Chaim Sampson and its director of programming, Rabbi Mordechai Tropp.
Why is it that achdus within our camp, elusive so much of the time, was so easily achieved over these two days? I sensed several factors at work. One is that the entire convention was predicated upon a shared goal, a common cause and a particularly selfless, other-directed one at that: reconnecting fellow neshomos to Avihem Shebashomayim. When we stand shoulder to shoulder looking out at the challenge of embracing our fellow Jews — much as Klal Yisroel camped “k’neged hahar,” facing the har Hashem that we are summoned to scale — all is well among us.
And so, too, when we look inward and find more than enough that needs fixing, we feel unable to afford the luxury of criticizing others; as the Nachal Kedumim notes, it was the sight of Har Sinai and the trait of humility it evoked that produced the unity of “as one man, with one heart.” It’s only when we lose sight of our own abundant shortcomings and swivel instead to face each other that we find the nits to pick and axes to grind that lead to loshon hora, strife and worse.
For all the can-do spirit and good vibes pervading the atmosphere, there was also a felt sense of urgency, borne of the acute sense that, as one speaker put it, we’re now “in the end game” of the American Jewish saga. The twin ravages of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to dwindle ever more sharply and making the possibility of even identifying who’s Jewish ever more difficult. Somehow, knowing that the days in which Kiruv is even an option are, cholilah, numbered, and that each one of us was placed in this concluding historical era by design, makes the mostly petty differences that divide us fade quickly from view.
Sunday morning arrived and a spiritually exhilarating weekend was soon to conclude – and then it happened. We all were subjected to a bait-and-switch. After numerous brief presentations on a host of exciting kiruv initiatives through Aish HaTorah and others, including highly motivated individuals who’ve simply rolled up their sleeves and begun reaching out in innovative ways, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky rose to speak.
In a tour de force of side-splitting humor punctuated by sober reflections on where we are spiritually as individuals and as a community, Reb Dovid made a compelling case that the excitement for, and deeper understanding of, Yiddishkeit that involvement in Kiruv engenders is the last best hope . . . for us.
All weekend long, the message was about our brethren, distant from Hashem and so desperate, knowingly or not, for ultimate meaning, and that’s all true. But as Reb Dovid spoke, it dawned that the depredations of our new-found affluence and the crass American culture that seeps in willy nilly to even the most insular of communities have made us all “all risk,” of losing sight of what we’re here for – to live lives filled with the incomparable pleasure of connection to Hashem.
Bait-and-switch, indeed. But not one of us wanted our money back, only for this “un-convention” to not end.
Published in May 18 issue of Hamodia.