Last weekend, I attended the annual Presidents Conference of Torah Umesorah at the National Doral in Miami. The conference is a days-long event that brings together Jewish leaders, educators, and askanim to discuss issues pertinent to the subject of education and how it can be improved. We didn’t know what to expect, but we’re always open to new ideas and experiences, and we were not disappointed.
The conference is the brainchild of Zvi Bloom, Torah Umesorah’s executive director, a leader of great distinction, a man of vision, and an innovator whose ideas are unparalleled in Jewish life.
The conference brought together leading personalities in frum education and philanthropists from around the country who take pride in their local yeshivas and put up the resources to maintain the financial strength of those institutions. The objective of the conclave was to exchange ideas, learn about innovations in the field of education, and see how effectively these ideas can be implemented in schools around the country.
It is important to note that we are living through extraordinary times. The people who work in Jewish education, kiruv organizations, and yeshivas recognize it. What they are witnessing is a dramatic uptick in the amount of people requesting a stellar Jewish education and also more involvement in understanding what it means to be a Jew and live a traditional halachic Jewish lifestyle.
Some of the conference attendees who observed this phenomenon stated that they have not witnessed this level of interest in Judaism and Jewish education since the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, which served as the catalyst of the modern-day baal teshuvah movement.
I was sharing with a friend the other day that many Jews feel nowadays that since they are being marginalized and to a certain extent targeted in society, they might as well find out more about what it means to live as a Jew. And that is where Jewish education comes into the picture.
Last Thursday night at the opening night remarks of the conference, the audience listened spellbound as Rabbi Shai Graucher of Jerusalem shared with us his intense activities over the last ten weeks, ever since October 7, dealing with the needs of families from every sector of society who have been victimized by the war.
Shai is a humble young man who acknowledges that he gets a lot of screen time on social media these days, but it is really the many volunteers around him that deserve the credit for what they have accomplished for families who have lost loved ones in the Gaza war.
He acknowledged to the conference participants that as great as the divide was in Israeli society prior to October 7, that is how great the unity has become in the ensuring weeks. And the source for that unity seems to be the traditions that the Israelis are clinging to for strength and support.
Rabbi Graucher made an emotional and riveting presentation. Currently, he is saying Kaddish for his father, the famed singer Dedi Graucher, who passed away almost four months ago. But he also carries with him the names of 32 additional deceased individuals, victims of October 7, rachmana litzlan, whose families asked him to say Kaddish for them.
He added that over the last eight weeks he has paid shiva calls to more than 100 homes in Israel.
The connection between Shai’s superhuman efforts and his many achievements and Torah Umesorah’s stated mission became crystal clear as we entered Shabbos and heard more about how yeshiva education impacts communities far and wide.
Another sterling presentation was made by the inimitable Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, who over the decades has become an inspiration to educators seeking to improve and grow their educational institutions around the country and around the world.
One of the great debates in Jewish education is on the subject of who to admit, how discriminating an institution should be when deciding who to accept. Yeshivas seek to attain or maintain a certain high image that can be negatively impacted by the nature of their admittance policies. There are many aspects that have to be taken into account when admitting a prospective new student into a yeshiva.
Instead of going off on a tangent here and elaborating on those considerations, let’s just say that the theme of the conference was to “just say yes,” or more precisely, “Say yes to stellar chinuch.” That means if there is a child or a family wishes to place their child in a yeshiva, but there are issues that must be dealt with, the approach should be to just say yes to admitting the child, and deal with the complications and challenges later.
To effectively address all these issues over a short period of time requires leadership with a vision about what a Jewish future looks like. And that vision emanated from a leader like Zvi Bloom. Zvi introduced a few of the speakers, but for the most part stayed back, directing the events and sessions from the background.
There was so much ground to cover, so many subjects to address over a short, three-day period, but in speaking to participants afterward, it was easy to see that the speeches and presentations had an enormous impact on them. And they would be returning to their hometowns with the vision and ability to implement these new ideas.
The TU Presidents Conference is about providing inspiration to community leaders so they can inspire their communities when they return home. And even more important, as we were reminded throughout the weekend, the goal of this conference is to raise children to grow up to become integral parts of the Jewish future not just here, but around the world.
Much of the subjects addressed were within the context of the troubling times in Israel and the spillover effect it is having here in the United States and around the world. In that vein, there were special breakout sessions for ladies entitled, “Infuse your children with menuchas hanefesh,” and “Tough times with peace of mind.”
For the men, most of the talks were about saying yes, about being open and positive, especially at this juncture in our history when there is a resurgence of learning about Judaism and what it means to be an observant Jew.
One of the important points hammered home by Shai Graucher was our inability to understand how far removed from Judaism much of the world’s Jews are. According to Shai, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that people can live in the Jewish state and not have even a basic understanding of Jewish history, or what makes a Jew special or different, other than the fact that they live in Israel.
Unfortunately, it took a war in Gaza to bring us back together. As we have seen, Hashem works in mysterious ways and we are currently living through an era of enormous challenges.
But the vision of extraordinary Jewish leaders like Zvi Bloom and his staff will undoubtedly ensure a healthy continuity for Am Yisrael and our eternal attachment to the Torah.
There’s a lot of work to be done to build our Jewish future, and that work begins right here at Torah Umesorah.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.