The restaurants and conference halls of Citi Field were filled to capacity on Sunday. In many instances, there were more spectators than there were seats.
No, it wasn’t a Mets playoff game. It was the OU’s annual convention, dubbed “Torah in the City” by the Orthodox Union. Torah in the City included a full day of learning, davening, and inspiration with some of the greatest scholars and community leaders of our generation. Esteemed rabbanim like Mordechai Zweig, Zev Leff, and Hayyim Angel, with—lest one think it was a men-only affair—top scholars such as Raizi Chechik, Prof. Nechama Price and Rebbetzin Rookie Billet also presenting. It was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Torah Judaism in America.
The line-up of acclaimed lecturers was impressive to say the least, yet equally striking (no pun intended) was the massive crowd of attendees, who were, in a word, vibrant. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, male, female, young and old, sharing a common sense of community and purpose. As the Orthodox Union’s director of Synagogue and Community Services Judah Isaacs put it: “…When I saw chasidim 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. And I think the fact that Torah brought everybody together is an incredible feeling.”
As it was this reporter’s first time attending an OU conference, the day’s offerings, though well organized (the itinerary even went so far as to color code the lectures by general subject), were a bit overwhelming. Often the most difficult part about being there was deciding on one lecture in a given time slot when a class that sounded equally fascinating was taking place the next floor up. It was a bit like one of those “choose your own adventure” books that are published for kids: Ten different people could go through the conference and have ten vastly different experiences.
The day’s topics ranged from the esoteric and faith-oriented to the imminently practical. The former included Rabbi Eli Mansour’s discussion of Techiyat Hametim—Resurrection of the Dead—and its centrality to Jewish belief, or media personality Charlie Harary’s impassioned speech on the efficacy of prayer. The latter included a legal/ethical analysis of pre-implantation embryonic genetic diagnosis by Rabbi Gideon Weitzman (head of the U.S. branch of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with Halacha), a subject of keen interest to couples for whom having children requires medical intervention. There were, additionally, numerous lectures pertaining to Torah and Zionism. Following the AM daf yomi shiurim by Rabbis Shalom Rosner and Moshe Elefant, former Executive Vice President of the OU Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb began the day by laying a theoretical framework for religious Zionism, sharing words of geulah (redemption) from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (zt”l). This was immediately followed by Rabbi Rosner shedding light on the difficult question of living in the Diaspora when there is a mitzvah to dwell in the Land of Israel. It was a sensitive topic that the rabbi addressed with great tact and aplomb.
Around midday, the convention was graced by the surprise appearance of Danny Dayan, Israel’s top-ranking diplomat in New York.
“Today I came to learn Torah, as a New York Jewish resident, to be uplifted and inspired,” said Dayan. “Limmud Torah is a Jewish custom that goes back millennia. 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. That’s what the Jewish people is all about.” Dayan is something of an enigma, not traditionally observant, but one of the most eloquent champions of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
“Today’s program achieved its goal overwhelmingly,” Dayan said in a private interview, noting in his public address that the communal prayers of those at the convention would no doubt have a greater impact on the situation in Israel than any anti-Israel actions being undertaken by the UN.
Although the Orthodox Union, as North America’s preeminent Orthodox Jewish organization, offers a wide range of community services, for many in the general public, the name is synonymous with one thing: kosher. And the organization that sets the international gold standard for kashrus did not disappoint on this front. Attendees were treated to a Q&A session led by Rabbis Menachem Genach and Moshe Elefant, the CEO and COO, respectively, of the OU’s Kashrus Division. As an added treat (especially for local delegates), they were in turn introduced by Rav Ilan Meirov, head of the Queens-based outreach group Chazaq, which has helped bring countless at-risk youth back to not just kosher food, but a kosher way of life.
With so many intriguing topics covered in so short a time, one of the most stimulating lectures was Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann’s class on the development of the Oral Law, entitled “Understanding the Evolution of Torah Sheba’al Peh: Are All Views Equally Acceptable?” It is beyond the scope of this article to fully do justice to this, or any of the day’s shiurim. But a central theme of Rabbi Bergmann’s talk was the idea that the Talmud Bavli and all subsequent rabbinic texts have two narrative threads running through them, a fix tradition, which is heavily attributed, terse, and concise, and a second, more tentative voice—a narrative that in the Talmud’s case only became solidified when the Gemara itself was committed to writing. Citing the Biblical axiom of lo bashamayim hi, “(the Torah) is not in Heaven,” Bergmann asserted that each generation has a right to participate in the development of the Oral Torah, so long as one is learned in and respects the boundaries set by the Written. “We don’t transmit a mesorah that is static,” the rabbi taught, “we take a mesorah that is static and give it life!”
“That,” he went on to say, “is what makes the Torah Sheba’al Peh unique and special.” Rabbi Bergmann explained that we “take a past that is real, from thousands of years ago,” and “make it real” for all subsequent generations by rereading and reinterpreting the texts. This duality of tradition and innovation, he asserted, is an essential part of Torah Judaism.
It may have been one of the most controversial lectures of the day. Yet, what better way to encapsulate the OU’s contribution to American Jewish life? Remaining firmly rooted in Torah tradition, yet constantly fueling innovation to meet the needs of the modern Jewish community, be it in the realm of kosher supervision, youth programming and outreach, or bringing a Torah perspective to Israel advocacy.
Regardless of how one feels about this approach, one would be hard-pressed to argue that it isn’t working. The response by attendees, OU staffers and guests alike, was overwhelmingly positive. Avrumi Davis, a student at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, was among the many who volunteered his time at the conference for the privilege of attending. “It’s been great,” said the enthusiastic high schooler. “The speakers are amazing!”
Ellie Sullivan, a 25-year old speech therapist attending the conference on her own, shared Avrumi’s appreciation. “I think it’s really cool—I’m really finding it empowering and inspiring,” she said. “The amount of people who are here, it’s really cool to be a part of something, to see how many people are dedicating their day to learning.”
“Here at the conference people talk about topics that you can’t find anywhere else,” explained Michael Klein, a 59 year old computer programmer from Brooklyn. “For example, there was a talk on ethical dilemmas that Israeli soldiers face in the field. I just came from a talk on halakha and genetics, I listened to a talk on kashrus (by the heads of OU Kashrus). None of those I could find in my own neighborhood. It’s something unique to take advantage of.”
Perhaps the most ebullient reaction to Torah in the City came from Ms. Roberta Flatow, an artist from Long Island. When asked what she thought of the day’s programs, she said that “they opened up my heart and my soul.” Like Mr. Klein before her, Ms. Flatow was especially touched by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon’s lecture, “Israeli Soldiers Under Fire.”
“Rabbi Rimon spoke about the amazing sensitivity of every one of the Israeli soldiers, and how there’s a whole breed of people who are out there looking to do the morally correct, beautiful, Torah way of life, and still they’re soldiers, and defend us. And he pointed out all these different questions that they had, each one, whether they were allowed to do this or do that, because they wanted to do it within the Torah way. … I left there, and I said ‘what a privilege I had, to hear this.’”
The OU Convention was a great day for Torah learning, but perhaps even more so a great day for ahavas Yisrael. The feeling of Jewish unity that permeated the event was electric, almost palpable.
“It’s remarkable to see how the OU can bring the community together for something like this,” said Rabbi David Pardo, who works for the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Brandeis University. “To think that these stands are usually filled with people watching and being entertained, and here the stands are filled with people learning Torah. It just makes you proud.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.