When we first started planning our Torah in the City event, there were plenty of skeptics in the room: How can we bring all kinds of Orthodox Jews together to learn Torah? It’s impossible! So many hashkafos; so many opinions; such a variety of hats and head-coverings.
“It’s never going to happen,” several people opined. To quote Megillas Esther (3:8), there was concern that we are too much of a nation “splintered and scattered” – am echad mefuzar u’meforad. Voices wondered aloud if perhaps we are too fragmented as a community to unite for the sake of Torah study.
But we took a leap. Because we were confident we could bind our community together – despite the many divisions among us, in a particularly tense moment in this country – with the one unifying force that has always united us: the study of Torah. And because we believe that continuing adult Torah education is essential to our growth, to our development, and to the future of our community.
We must continue learning, expanding our Ahavas Hashem, seeking inspiration through learning throughout our lives.
And it happened. As you probably already know. On January 15, more than 1,500 Jews joined together for a day of enlightening and uplifting shiurim at Citi Field in Queens, New York. We were heartened, and humbled, by the enthusiastic response; our registration numbers exceeded anyone’s expectations.
Over a period of several months, the staff at the Orthodox Union worked tirelessly to ensure that the speakers we invited represented, and spoke to, a broad swath of Orthodox Jewry. I’m proud of the diversity of the program: Lecturers included Rabbi Shalom Rosner, Charlie Harary, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, Rabbi Yonason Sacks, Rabbi Zev Leff, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Raizi Chechik, Michal Horowitz, Shira Smiles, and Rookie Billet, among so many other noted scholars and Torah personalities.
As people from all over – from Riverdale to Woodmere to Boro Park – filed into the Citi Field shiurim, I was excited but not surprised. As a longtime observer of the community in which I live, I have found that more and more people are searching for ways to connect to their Yiddishkeit. The program at Citi Field was the kickoff event of what we contemplate will be an ongoing series of such learning opportunities in which everyone can find Torah topics and materials that will enlighten and inspire.
And while the turnout was overwhelming and the press raved about this major event – and while many are already asking us about the next installment – I must tell you that this is not a new direction for us. We are simply taking our mission, to invest in Torah study, to the next level, broadening our programming to the wider community.
But while we continue to enhance and expand Torah-learning opportunities for our own community, we are mindful of our obligation to bring Torah to life for those who have never had the good fortune to experience meaningful Jewish learning.
One of the highlights of our programming is NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah. Every year NCSY gathers hundreds of public high school students from across the country for a weeklong program of Torah study. These students give up their winter breaks to come learn Torah, connect with their NCSY advisers, and forge new friendships. The experience is simply life-changing – not only for the participants, not only for the incredible staff, but even for a mere observer like me.
Our data shows that the earlier a young adult takes part in Jewish educational programming, the more connected he or she is to his or her identity. Our work, through Shabbatons, Yarchei Kallah, and various summer programs, ensures that these encounters happen early on. They are truly transformational.
We have a dream that inspirational Torah study should, and must, be accessible to all Jews, whether it’s through Yarchei Kallah, OUTorah.org, the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, Torah in the City-style days of intense Torah study, or other programs.
Whether you’re a teenager from St. Louis or an accountant in Brooklyn, a college student in San Francisco or a rabbi in Teaneck, the OU’s wealth of Torah educational programming has something for you. I would love to hear your ideas about what study experiences you’re looking for. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. Together, we’ll make this dream a reality.
As Purim approaches, and as we open the megillah, I can’t help but think about how, sadly, we are too often united because of dangers facing our people. In the megillah, Haman is described as “tzorer yehudim,” the tormenter of the Jews. Interestingly, the root of tzorer is l’tzror, which means “to bind.” Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a crisis, or a common enemy, to bind us together.
Instead, let it be Torah that unites us. Let us join together to study our profound texts, just as we stood together at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah “as one person with one heart.” Because, perhaps, those who pray together and who learn together will remain united together in common cause.