I had the pleasure of spending May 8th through 11th at the Torah Mesorah Convention at the Split Rock Resort in the Poconos. I get to spend most of the time talking to Mechanchim/Mechanchos (teachers) about education at my InfoGrasp Education Software Booth, but on Shabbos my wife comes up and we get a great boost with 1,800 other growth oriented Jews and some of the top Roshei Yeshiva in America.
The theme of the conventions was Preparing All Our Talmidim. Rabbi Shmuel Kamentsky (Philadelphia) gave the opening address on Thursday night and Rabbi Aharon Feldman (Baltimore), Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (Brooklyn), Rabbi Dovid Harris (Queens), Rabbi Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood), Rabbi Hillel David (Brooklyn) and Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin (Chicago) gave addresses on Shabbos. In addition to acknowledging the tremendous distractions talmidim face in our time, the messages of seeing each individual, recognizing their greatness, and reaching their hearts, not just their minds, were some of the shared thoughts that stayed with me. Besides the good divrei Torah, it’s a treat to shake hands and say Good Shabbos to all of the above Roshei Yeshiva after davening on Friday night.
In addition to the addresses above, the Shabbos guest speakers included Mrs. Shifra Rabenstein (Baltimore) for women, Rabbi Moshe Brown (Far Rockaway), Rabbi Zev Cohen (Chicago), Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Segal (Bnei Brak) and Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman (Monsey). I was particularly looking forward to the always electrifying address of Rabbi Wachsman, but I knew from past experiences that the other guest speakers would be informative and inspirational.
I wasn’t the only one taken off guard as Rabbi Zev Cohen won the hearts and minds of the attendees. He got everyone’s attention from the start by telling us that he was going to talk about his being a Baalei Teshuva and a recovering addict. He explained that he wasn’t a BT in today’s technical sense of the term, because he grew up in a frum home in Brookline, Massachuset near Boston. In a time when there were a few hundred people learning full time, post high school, in America, he told his personal story about how learning Torah set him on fire and he admitted that although he loved to learn, it took many years before his love of learning surpassed his love of playing basketball.
He related his struggle with wearing a hat. When he was first told he had to get a hat for his attendance at the Mesifta of Long Beach, he chose a brown corduroy one. That mistake was easy to correct, the real battle was when he returned home and chose to wear his black hat in his hatless community because of the Torah learning commitment that it represented to him. He was questioned, confronted and ridiculed by friends, extended family and neighbors for that choice and for his choice to continue to learn Torah.
The fire of Torah was not extinguished and till this day it continues to burn as he is constantly focused on further growth. When a child tells him that they are in third grade, he responds that he’s now in 55th grade, always learning always growing.
As for the addiction, it was TV and it wasn’t easy to give up. This is why he still carries an outdated Palm Pilot and flip phone for his contact manager despite the pleas from some in his Chicago community to upgrade to a smartphone. He sees the smart phone addicted men who check their email and text during Chazaras HaShas and despite his immersion in Torah, he doesn’t want to expose himself to that test. His parting message on Shabbos was that we have to make the excitement of Torah greater than the excitement of the plastic gadgets in our hands.
On Sunday, he pointed out that this period between Pesach and Shavuos was the time that Amalek attacked us. After bringing many references to fire associated with Pesach including the burning of Chometz and the roasting on fire of the Korbon Pesach, he pointed out the Amalek’s role was to cool down the fire. There is a piece of Amalek in everyone of us, trying to cool down the fire, and our job is to keep it burning.
In addition to his self-effacing nature, sense of humor and oratory skills, the reason Rabbi Zev Cohen’s address made such an impression on me was because he revealed his inner struggles, and they are the same struggles that I’ve heard from the thousands of posts, comments and emails here on Beyond BT. When we started out, almost us all of us were filled with the fire of Torah. Sometimes that fire caused us to make mistakes with friends, family and our own personal decisions, but most of us got past that. I think the biggest challenge we collectively face, is keeping the fire of Torah burning. For some the flame was almost completely extinguished and observance was abandoned. For many more the pilot light of observance was kept, but the focus turned to complaints about the community, about the Gedolim, or whatever else is the external target of the day.
But if we really want to acquire what we had in our sights when we began our Torah journey, we’ve got to keep the fire burning. It has to be a fire fueled by a deep commitment to growth in Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasadim. Rabbi Zev Cohen illustrated that a BT is not defined by the lack of knowledge and experience before we started our journey, but by the fire that burned inside once we began. I think most of us had that fire when we began, because it would be impossible to make the formidable lifestyle changes without it. But the real take away is that we can reignite it, and keep it burning everyday, just like Rabbi Cohen and many others do on a daily basis.