Thousands of Jews will admit it—they’re addicted to Torah Tidbits. “If I walk into shul on a Friday night without a supply [of Torah Tidbits],” reports a volunteer deliverer, “they’re about ready to lynch me!” The brainchild of Phil Chernofsky, educational director of the Seymour J. Abrams OU Israel Center, Torah Tidbits, a weekly publication that centers on the parashah, became a hit when it was first launched two decades ago. This coming April, Torah Tidbits will mark a historic occasion as it publishes its 1,000th issue.
It’s hard to imagine that this sixty-four page full-color publication filled with Torah facts, fun and commentary started out as a single-page photocopied flyer. In addition to the approximately 10,000 copies distributed to shuls, hotels and stores throughout the country, it is sent out to several thousand e-mail subscribers and is accessible on the OU web site. “I was talking to a CEO of an international real estate company,” says Rabbi Avi Berman, director-general of OU Israel. “He says he’s Modern Orthodox, his wife is Traditional and his son is Chareidi. He tells me, ‘Torah Tidbits is the one publication we can all sit down together and enjoy and all feel connected.”’
Torah Tidbits lives up to it name: it treats readers to bite-sized insights that are at once reader-friendly and deeply satisfying—and speak to every Jew. Each issue features concise explanations of each aliyah, scholarly features on parashah themes, practical halachot, riddles, quizzes, games, gematria, and, of course, the Israel Center’s calendar of classes and events.
Along with Chernofsky’s own astute words on the parashah in the form of SDTs (short divrei Torah) and PPs (Parashah Pix—a visual guessing game of illustrations that allude to highlights of the parashah), Chernofsky incorporates stimulating Torah from Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, OU executive vice president, emeritus; Rabbi Emanuel Quint, senior vice president of the Israel Center; and Rabbi Yosef Carmel, head of Eretz Hemdah, the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, among others.
“A woman called telling me how she’s so busy with her family and job during the week,” says Chernofsky. “So Shabbat mornings she wakes up at six o’clock when everyone is still asleep, pours herself a cup of coffee and goes through Torah Tidbits cover to cover.”
“Phil has a phenomenally creative and original mind,” says David Olivestone, director of the OU’s Department of Communications and Marketing, “with an amazing knowledge of trivia, mathematics and statistics on the Torah.”
Torah Tidbits treats readers to bite-sized insights that are at once reader-friendly and deeply satisfying—and speak to every Jew.
Born in Brooklyn, Chernofsky made aliyah with his wife in 1981 and landed a job as educational director at the Israel Center. At one point, Chernofsky was asked to print up a flyer with a schedule of the Center’s activities to distribute every Shabbat in shuls with English-speaking congregants. “I wasn’t comfortable giving out a schedule of weekday activities on Shabbat,” he says. “So I came up with an idea; I could put a devar Torah on one side and the schedule on the other.” On June of 1992, Parashat Shelach, Torah Tidbits made its debut.
Today, Torah Tidbits boasts loyal readers in the US, Canada, England, France, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Romania.
Even non-Anglo Israelis enjoy it. “They tell us they read it to improve their English,” says Chernofsky. “Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s son, who is the chief rabbi of Modi’in, tells me he learns new words every week.”
Never a Boring Day
Chernofsky’s assistant, Ita Rochel, handles the advertising and other technical aspects of production. In order to put the publication to bed by the Tuesday night deadline, Chernofsky invests forty to fifty hours of work, writing and compiling—starting Motzaei Shabbat, all through Sunday, Monday and into Tuesday night. “It’s a labor of love,” he asserts.
“One of the nicest things anyone said to me is that I share something in common with Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote his books a chapter at a time and shipped them by boat to New York, where people would line up at the dock. ‘That’s how people wait for Torah Tidbits,’ he told me.”
Chernofsky’s wife Toni, a former NCSYer from Oswego, New York, takes charge of distribution, which involves a network of volunteers who deliver the coveted bundles from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights down to Eilat and many places in between. Hundreds of individuals distribute thousands of copies to over 400 shuls, hotels and stores throughout Israel.
Although a far cry from the black-and-white photocopies produced back in 1992, the full-color version maintains its homemade look. “I like the homey feel that Torah Tidbits has always had,” says Chernofsky. “People say they read it and can hear me talking.”
They can actually hear him talking every Thursday night, when Chernofsky presents Torah Tidbits Audio on the web sites of the OU and Arutz Sheva. Chernofsky’s engaging personality, evident in the publication, also comes through the airwaves.
“I haven’t had a boring day in the thirty years that I’m working for the OU,” says Chernofsky. “Torah Tidbits has a life of its own. I got an e-mail from a fellow in Corpus Christi, Texas who says he’s a member of a small shul. They may not always get a minyan on Shabbat, but they can always count on their study group using Torah Tidbits to go over the parashah with their rabbi.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.