Twenty-five years ago, when kiruv was still a relatively new concept, a group of four young rabbis left Ner Yisrael with families in tow to head down south to Atlanta, Georgia. Rabbi David Silverman was one of those pioneers who founded the Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He is a powerhouse of kiruv – his charisma, sincerity and broad knowledge have helped him inspire thousands of Jews, including this writer. Though he is already a grandfather, his youthful looks and stamina have given him an entrée to reach college and high school students, while his wisdom has endeared him to their parents and grandparents. And yet he is the first to admit that his success has come from far above himself.
Himself a ba’al teshuva, Rabbi Silverman learned at Ner Yisrael for eleven years before moving to Atlanta. Over his many years in kiruv he has received many challenging questions, and the most complex ones are always asked only at the end of a class. It sounds something like this:
“There are just a few minutes left to our discussion group…Any questions?”
“‘Rabbi, how do you explain the Holocaust?”
“What is Kabbalah?”
“Do we believe in life after death?”
“As they’re putting their coats on, I’m trying to explain hashgacha pratis,” Rabbi Silverman exclaims.
Rabbi Silverman has developed clear, succinct answers to these recurring questions. However at one class he was asked a completely new and challenging question on a specific topic related to the Holocaust. Without thinking Rabbi Silverman delivered a perfect answer, and yet he had no idea where it had come from.
A few days later while driving in his car, he was listening to a tape of a study group he had been part of seventeen years earlier with Rabbi Yaacov Weinberg, ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael. Rabbi Silverman slammed on his brakes and had to pull over when he heard someone ask the exact same question on the Holocaust. As he heard the Rosh Yeshiva’s words, he realized he had given the identical answer that he had heard in the group! He rewound the tape to listen again and strained to try to identify who had asked the question. To his astonishment he realized, it was himself!
“The answer was obviously inside me on a certain level, but I was not consciously aware of it,” Rabbi Silverman said. “I clearly felt Hashem’s hand – I needed that experience to know how to answer the question. I felt that HaKadosh Baruch Hu wanted me to do it. It was so validating.”
A few years after moving down South, another episode clearly reminded him and his family that all comes from Hashem. Today, after growing up with guests in and out of their house, the Silverman children are pros at hosting newcomers and introducing them to Judaism. The oldest children have already grown up, married and have begun their own involvement in kiruv. But twenty years ago, when they were still young, getting them to understand the finer points of kiruv was harder.
One week, Rabbi Silverman invited a new family to come for Friday night dinner. It was their first taste of Shabbat. The Silvermans tried to do everything to make it a perfect dinner. Before the meal Rabbi Silverman tried to explain to their children that they could make a Kiddush Hashem by acting like little angels at the Shabbat table, saying divrei Torah and acting respectably.
“I wanted to make a good impression. I was concerned about how the food would taste, that my dvar Torah would be meaningful and it would be a real beautiful, enriching, uplifting experience.”
Things didn’t go quite as he had hoped.
“Every possible thing went wrong. At one point we had one kid in the bathroom yelling, ‘I’m done!’ Other kids were fighting. One kid got on the table, crawled across it and spilled grape juice everywhere. Anything and everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.
“I was standing in the bathroom changing a kid’s diaper, trying to get another kid to say a dvar Torah when there was a knock on the bathroom door.
‘I’m sorry we have to go,’ the wife said.
(‘Oh no,’ I thought to myself. ‘We blew it!’)
‘I’m sorry – we tried so hard to make it beautiful but everything went wrong,’ Rabbi Silverman said.
‘No, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like this before,’ she said.
‘Yeah, usually they don’t spill as much,’ he replied.
‘No, no, no — I just can’t get over how your family gets along, how the kids play together and work things out. It was so uplifting and the singing was so beautiful.’”
Rabbi Silverman notes that he and his family were trying so hard to make things work that they forgot the most crucial component – Hashem.
“What mattered most were all the things that I didn’t think were happening because I was trying so hard to make it perfect. That environment of the Shabbat table is such a crucial key to opening up people to experiencing Judaism.”
Another Shabbat experience drove the message home for him. Rabbi Silverman once tried to arrange an outreach shabbaton for a group of young Atlanta Jewish singles. He identified the perfect target group, but weeks of effort had yielded only a handful of people committed to attending. Finally, on the Thursday night before the shabbaton, with dim hopes for success, the group finally coalesced by itself in front of his eyes.
The weekend turned out to be unbelievable, far better than he had expected.
“We make all of our efforts, and yet we never know where our hatzlacha will come from.”
On that night before the weekend, as circumstances literally turned 180-degrees in front of his eyes, Rabbi Silverman ran out to pick up some last minute items. As he got back into his car he began to cry tears of gratitude to Hashem for His guidance.
“I felt the Hand of G-d was saying ‘I will make this happen, don’t you worry. You just have to go through the motions,’” Rabbi Silverman said. “I looked up to Shamayim and said ‘do you want me to steer or do you want to?’”
For Rabbi Silverman and the other members of the kollel, that message is indispensable. They know their job is just to step up to the plate, and Hashem will drive in the runs.
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