Torah in the City, an all-day learning event created and presented by the OU, drew a capacity crowd Sunday to Citi Field’s indoor conference center in Flushing, Queens.
“This year we decided to turn our convention into a gathering of our entire community,” the OU’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin, told The Jewish Press. “And how better to gather them than to learn Torah together?”
The event featured more than 30 plenary sessions focused on halacha, hashkafa, Tanach, and Israel. Speakers included scholars and educators – both men and women – at the forefront of contemporary Jewish life, among them Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Rabbi Shalom Rosner, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Charlie Harary, Shira Smiles, Prof. Nechama Price, Rebbetzin Rookie Billet, Rabbi Steven Weil, Rabbi Hayyim Angel, and Rabi David Fohrman.
The spirit of inclusiveness was palpable. “When I saw chassidim here with payos and bekishes walking around, as well as women who don’t cover their hair, and the whole spectrum of Orthodoxy, I think that’s what the OU is really great at doing,” said Judah Isaacs, the OU’s director of synagogue and community services. “And I think the fact that Torah brought everybody together is an incredible feeling.”
Health and health care were prominent themes of the day – with discussions ranging from birth control and family planning to genetic engineering and prayers for the sick. Other topics included, but were hardly limited to, balancing Torah study with other obligations; the evolution of the Oral Law; questions and answers on kashrus issues; foundations in Jewish education at home and in school; the role of violence in biblical Judaism; and the future of Jewish leadership.
Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz spoke on the topic of “Going Broke to Pay a Family Member’s Health Care.” The halachic conclusion was that there are several levels of giving. If a family member is in medical need, you give as much as you can because family comes first. A man’s wife and children are the highest priority, and a child is required to take care of the health of a parent, no matter how much money it takes, Rabbi Lebowitz stated.
Kicking off the seminar discussions was OU executive vice president emeritus Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who spoke about religious Zionism and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine and one of the most celebrated and influential rabbis of the 20th century. Rabbi Weinreb described Rav Kook as “a poet who never stopped learning.”
Rabbi Mordechai Willig spoke of the struggles young people face when considering marriage. “I do believe that large families are a blessing and that’s why I’m very much in favor of the OU initiative to solve the tuition crisis,” he said. “Tuition is the single greatest disincentive to having children in our community. From my perspective, if you’re old enough to get married, you’re old enough to have children.”
A surprise visitor to the Torah in the City event was Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul- general in New York. “I came today to learn Torah,” said Dayan. “It’s very strengthening to see that in New York City, with so many events and things to do, Jews come and learn Torah together.”
Before the speakers took center stage, the day started with a meeting of the OU Board of Directors.
Tapped to replace Martin Nachimson as OU president was Moishe Bane, a business restructuring attorney with the New York City-based law firm of Ropes & Gray. Bane has served in positions with the OU including chairman of the board of governors, chairman of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, and national chairman of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). He is also one of six editors of The Klal Perspectives Journal, a forum for the discussion of challenges facing the Torah community.
As his last official duty before stepping down as president, Nachimson gave the State of the (Orthodox) Union address, describing a few of the issues and programs the OU tackled during his tenure.
“The tuition crisis remains at the head of the agenda,” he said. “We have raised a lot of money, we have hired lobbyists, and that is going to be a full-blown effort. NCSY continues to be the crown jewel of the Union. This year we’re looking at 1,500 teenagers going to Israel, which is double the amount when I took over as president. JLIC [Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus] has five new campuses…. Our programs continue to grow and grow.”
The strong turnout and enthusiasm surrounding the Torah in the City event confirmed to OU officials that they’d struck a chord with this format.
“Our challenge,” the OU’s Fagin told The Jewish Press, “was to invite a broad enough array of speakers and to have a broad enough array of subjects so that there would be something here for everyone.
“The real desire here is to instill in our community an even greater love for learning than they already have. We see this as an enormously important part of our mission – to be able to create opportunities to engage with Torah, to engage with text, to engage with scholars on an ongoing basis, and to create an opportunity for people to do that with greater intensity, with greater focus, and with greater opportunity. So you’re going to see a lot more of this from the OU.”Marc Gronich