Ari Wasserman

by | in People

imageAri Wasserman, 38, a successful Los Angeles lawyer, is leading a double life. He’s traversing both the Torah and corporate worlds with seemingly the greatest of ease, and prospering in both. He has a life many ba’alei batim wish they had the tenacity to get away with.

Every day, Wasserman wakes up between 3 and 4 AM, tiptoes to his study and learns Torah until it’s time to leave for the local neitz (sunrise) minyan. After Shacharit, he heads for Starbucks, settles in with his latte and sefarim and works on the in-depth halachah shiur that members of the Congregation Kehilas Yaakov community have, over the past nine years, come to eagerly anticipate.

Every morning, Wasserman invests hours preparing source materials to ensure that the shiurim, which he delivers on Shabbat, flow logically and simply. He also uses the time to work on his third sefer; all this, and
his workday hasn’t yet begun.

Wasserman’s two volumes of Hegyonei Haparashah, compilations of his shiurim on Bereishit and Shemot, are a mix of halachah, parashat hashavua and commentary on contemporary issues; he is hard at work on the third volume, on Vayikra.

While some may call his schedule grueling, Wasserman calls it gratifying. A respected specialist in corporate contracts and mergers, Wasserman decided early on to launch the most meaningful and consequential merger of his life. He negotiated a deal with himself to live as Yissachar and Zevulun rolled into one.

“He’s a man on a mission,” says Antony (Chanan) Gordon, a longtime attendee of Wasserman’s shiur and senior managing director at an investment company. “Ari uses every second in a productive way. He demonstrates that in order to achieve the highest level, you can’t defuse your focus, and that the time you have is so precious.”

Torah at Harvard and Penn
Wasserman’s love for learning blossomed at Yeshivat Sha’alvim in Israel, which he attended after graduating from Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles. In Eretz Yisrael he first met Simon Wolf, who became his chavruta, learning partner, during his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania. Wasserman considers Wolf’s unwavering commitment to learning to be a major influence in his life. “He convinced me to learn the Daf Yomi with him,” says Wasserman. “When we hit a difficult daf, I was of the mind of ‘let’s do it tomorrow; we’ll catch up.’ Whereas he would insist [that we finish it now], saying: ‘If we don’t finish it, we’ll come back to the Hillel tonight and stay until we complete it.’”

Upon graduating from Penn, Wasserman returned to Israel for a second year of learning. When he returned to the States, he attended Harvard Law School, where he not only made time to learn the learn Daf Yomi and halachah with two different chavrutot, but he also initiated a halachah shiur during the twenty-minute window between Minchah and Maariv. “[I figured] everyone was just wasting time when they could be learning,” he says. The class continued for three years and ultimately helped him meet his wife.

On the final day of the shiur, shortly before Wasserman’s graduation, two visitors to the campus—men sporting black hats and tzitzit—complimented him on his talk and invited him to spend a Shabbat in Lakewood. Two weeks later, one of them called Wasserman, suggesting a possible match for him—a young woman named Miriam, who subsequently became Mrs. Wasserman. “It was in the zechut of giving that [particular] halachah shiur that they showed up,” says Wasserman. “The discourse was on a gemara stating that one should give a devar halachah before departing from someone and by virtue of doing so, he’ll remember you.”

“If there’s anyone who practices what he preaches, it’s Ari.”

The couple initially lived in Manhattan, where Wasserman worked as an attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious law firm. Seeking a more temperate climate and lifestyle, Wasserman requested a transfer to the firm’s Los Angeles office. In 1999, after almost four years in the position, he decided it was time to leave. He invested five more years honing his law skills in contracts and marketing with two other companies and finally, in 2005, decided to open a private practice. By keeping his family, learning and work in close proximity, Wasserman is able to maintain his laser-like focus on the essentials.

Making Torah a Family Venture
His family welcomes the new arrangement. Thanks to his more flexible schedule, Wasserman can see his children after school, and his wife feels reassured that she can call on him (sparingly) if needed. “I try to give him as much time as possible to learn,” says Miriam, a Stern graduate who grew up in Riverdale, New York, “[and] make his life run so that he doesn’t spend time on the details that keep the household going.”

She admits that her husband’s full schedule does lead to stressful situations. “During the winter, when Shabbat starts early . . . and two of the kids are fighting just as he’s [getting ready] to leave for his hour-and-a-half shiur . . . that could be challenging,” she says. But she emphasizes that the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences. “The more mitzvot, the more berachot [blessings],” she says. “If it were easy, then it wouldn’t be so worthwhile.”

Wasserman delights in how his four children profit from seeing him place a primacy on learning. “It’s tremendous chinuch [education] for them,” he says. “They see on Shabbat how I prepare for the shiur; they always want to know the topic. When they attend my shiurim, they definitely feel the excitement and energy.” His eight-year-old daughter is a regular attendee.

Wasserman also makes time to learn with his family. Every Shabbat, after the cholent, the Wassermans look forward to settling down to review the parashat hashavua together. “They see that learning isn’t something that’s dry, that it’s . . . fun,” says Wasserman.

Apparently, his students concur. “Ari gives the best-attended shiur in the shul,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who is Wasserman’s former high school teacher and former Daf Yomi chavruta. “He stands out in a shul where people are [known to be] very involved in learning and has shown that you can have an important grasp on exciting, deep learning and . . . [share it] with others.”

Wasserman bases his classes on the parshiyot, focusing on the halachot derived from each, while citing all the relevant commentaries. “‘Relevant’ is what makes the shiur come alive,” he says. “I cover sugyot that speak to [the students’] daily lives—mitzvot and minhagim [customs] that are very common. It’s somewhat akin to painting a picture or putting together the parts of a beautiful puzzle; everything fits together to form a superb picture—all the gemaras, opinions, posekim.” According to Gordon, a shiur attendee, Wasserman’s ability to “distill very complex issues into very palatable terms” keeps his students coming back.

The shiur draws around fifty participants, including congregants from other shuls in the area. One of the attendees, Ryan Sullivan, a relationship associate at an investment firm, reports that the group is eclectic, boasting a doctor, scientist, rebbe, mashgiach, attorney and, “by proxy,” Sullivan’s wife, to whom he’s obligated to repeat the shiur each week “in as much detail as possible.”

Sullivan, twenty-seven, met his teacher through the Ashreinu Learning Network, a Los Angeles kiruv organization where Wasserman introduces the joy of Torah learning to those previously unexposed to it. “Watching him had a lot to do with my becoming frum,” says Sullivan. “If there’s anyone who practices what he preaches, it’s Ari. Any nuance that he learns in a halachah he [immediately] incorporates into his own practice. I’ve met very few people who have accomplished as much learning full time as he has [accomplished] learning whenever he has time. The guy is a machine.”

One Good Sefer Deserves Another
By 2004, four years into his shiur, Wasserman had covered more than 200 topics, generating hundreds of booklets of sources (as well as constant requests for copies). He began compiling his shiurim into a book, and sent the manuscript to a publisher.

“Wasserman heard from [the publisher] within two hours,” says Gordon. “They said: ‘This is unbelievable!’ . . . [His work] has developed a tremendous following in the States and in Eretz Yisrael.” Prominent maggidei shiurim have told Wasserman that they use his sefarim; at the same time, his works have broad appeal. “[Hegyonei Haparashah is] written for everyone to understand,” he says. “You can see the whole sugya, from the pasuk through the gemara. My mother-in-law studies it.”

In addition to compiling his weekly shiurim for the next volume of Hegyonei Haparashah, which will include a comprehensive treatise on kol ishah, he will be publishing a separate sefer on the topic of men’s head coverings.

Rabbi Gershon Bess, rabbi of Kehilas Yaakov for more than two decades, attributes Wasserman’s impressive productivity to his extraordinary self-discipline. “He allocates times [for learning] and sticks to them,” he says. Wasserman is a living musar sefer, Rabbi Bess adds. “People see the peiros [accomplishments] of his efforts.”

For those who say they just can’t find the time to learn or are too busy to increase the time they currently spend learning, Wasserman asserts otherwise. “No one is that busy that he doesn’t have even a little bit of time,” he says. “You have to organize your schedule to make learning a key part of it. Do your learning first, before starting your day. If you leave it to the end, you’re likely not to get to it. Do it before you have too much pressure from work, before the phone starts ringing, before the e-mails.” He also stresses the importance of learning what you like. “The Talmud states: ‘One should always study that part of the Torah that his heart desires.’ There is something out there for everybody.”

Even with all his accomplishments, Wasserman has no plans to ease up on his rigorous learning schedule. “When one goes up to Shamayim [Heaven] after 120 years, Hakadosh Baruch Hu will ask why he didn’t learn,” says Wasserman. “And if he explains that he didn’t have the time, Hashem will say: ‘You had time to go to the Lakers or Knicks game.’ That’s a powerful message. The time is there; you just need to use it.”

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009.

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