PHOTOS: 1,200 ‘Pack The House’ At The 6th Annual Project Inspire Convention

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“It all started at last year’s convention,” said Mr. Yiddy Klein, describing himself as a regular guy from Boro Park and not-at-all a Kiruv expert,  speaking to over 1,000 people at the electrifying Friday night keynote session.  Like hundreds of other participants, Yiddy had been moved and inspired by the soul-stirring speeches and personal testimonies at the weekend.  “At the end of the Shabbos, we were asked to fill out a card, stating our kiruv preference—either inviting someone for a Shabbos meal, attending a kiruv training session, or perhaps learning with a chavrusa. I chose learning with a chavrusa, because I figured it involved the least amount of effort. Besides, as I rationalized, they probably wouldn’t get back to me anyway.”

Famous last words.  Within a few weeks, he was contacted by a staff member of Project Inspire, who connected him with a chavrusa who was serious about learning together.  “We began to learn on the phone, once a week, and soon formed a connection,” Reb Yiddy related.

His weekly chavrusa’shaft changed Reb Yiddy’s life, giving him an insight into an entire world of Jews who are desperately seeking a connection. Last Spring, Yiddy and his chavrusa attended an unforgettable Project Inspire Shabbat Retreat uniting frum and secular Jews, where he met Roger Goldberg, a young intellectual who was searching for a meaningful connection. Yiddy and Roger ‘hit it off’ and formed a powerful bond.

The audience applauded politely, marveling at how just filling out a survey can create a ripple effect, culminating in an enduring friendship. But the story was only beginning. Yiddy gestured to Roger, who was also a guest at the convention, to come to the podium.

Roger, a tall, handsome young man with a kipah on his head, related his tale. He’d been visiting Israel when he decided to visit the holy sites in Yerushalayim. “During my visit, I stopped into Aish HaTorah world headquarters,” he recalled, “and happened to attend a series of introductory classes.”  Soon he was hooked.  “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was literally blown away. The speakers were so powerful, so enthralling, and everything they said rang true.”

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When Roger was ready to return to the States, one of the Rabbeim suggested he contact Project Inspire for a chavrusa. He was paired up with Mr. Menachem Blackman, and began to make great strides in both knowledge and commitment.

After meeting Yiddy at the retreat, the two cemented their friendship, and began speaking on the phone. One day, Roger mentioned to his new friend that he would love to put on tefillin, but had never owned a pair.

Yiddy immediately asked for Roger’s address. To Roger’s astonishment, “the next day a pair of tefillin were delivered to my door! It’s been seven months now, and I’ve been wearing them every day. I also registered at Shabbat.com, a project created by convention faculty member, Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, and began keeping Shabbat every week.”

Roger also mentioned, tongue-in cheek, that he’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on a university education at Brandeis University of Boston. Now he realized that there were Jews who were ready to give him all that information, gratis!

Seeing Roger’s beaming face as he described how Yiddy changed his life was an eye-opener. To think that it all started last year, at the convention, when Yiddy simply decided to fill out a form and reach out of his comfort zone.

Who knows how many more Rogers are waiting out there, yearning for a connection?  They might live down the street from us, work in our local doctor’s office, or deliver our mail. All we have to do is look and we are sure to find them.

Tragically, nine out of ten Jews living in the world today are assimilated, and have no connection to their source. “What would you tell a parent who has ten children, and only one is frum? Isn’t that a tragedy?” asked Rabbi Chaim Sampson, founder of Project Inspire. “Would you say it doesn’t make a difference if you only bring back one more child?  Of course not!

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Renowned speaker, Rav Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, stressed this concept in his words after Kabolas Shabbos. A dynamic and powerful speaker, Rav Shapiro explained how the word achrayus can be broken down to mean responsibility for oneself, for one’s brother, and for everyone around us.

He then related a powerful, poignant story that occurred several years ago in Eretz Yisroel. A Lev L’achim volunteer and his wife were sitting shiva for their beautiful three year old son who was tragically niftar. At the shiva, the young man received a phone call from one of the teens he was mentoring, and became very emotional. The teen and seven of his friends had undertaken to keep Shabbat that week in the merit of the little boy.

One of the visitors at the shiva home, observed, “Does it really make a difference that these boys will keep Shabbat one week? Next week they will be mechalel Shabbos again. Who cares?”

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To which the bereaved father replied, “You want to know what difference it makes? Just ask my wife and I what we wouldn’t do to have our little boy back, to hug and kiss him, if only just for one Shabbos. Just ask her.”  No more words were necessary.

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Project Inspire’s annual convention is an event like none other.  The theme stressed throughout the weekend was one of achrayus, of taking responsibility for our fellow Jews, by simply looking around and noticing opportunities that were there all along.

As Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, whose witty remarks and powerful imagery set the tone for the Friday night keynote session, stressed, “Don’t let your yarmulke be a blindfold.”  Don’t allow your head-covering to create a distance between yourself and another Jew.

This concept was brought to life by the personal testimonials of regular Yidden, just like us, who took advantage of ordinary opportunities and created an enduring Kiddush Hashem. People like Mr. Baruch Singer, an ‘ordinary’ landlord with a warm Jewish heart.  When he heard that an apartment in a building he owned in Harlem had become ‘party central,’ he called the tenant to ask what was going on. To his surprise, the tenant said her name was Shira.

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“Are you Jewish?” Mr. Singer asked. When Shira replied in the affirmative, Mr. Singer came up with an unbeatable deal. “If you promise to go to shul every week, I will take $100 off your rent each week,” he promised. “All you have to do is go to shul and ‘check in’ with one of my friends who davens there.”

Shira immediately agreed to the deal, and began going to shul each week. The rest, as they say, is history.  Shira today is fully observant and works on behalf of several Kiruv organizations.

Highly respected and dynamic orator, Dayan Yonason Abraham, of the London Bais Din, addressed the crowd with a mesmerizing address.  Dayan Yonason Abraham’s depiction of an ‘ordinary’ Yid in Australia, who had endured a horrific beating during the Holocaust because he refused to hit another Yid, and who still wore the scars, had us wiping tears of emotion and resolving not to judge another Jew – frum or secular – by his superficial appearance.

The inimitable  Charlie Harary spoke of balance in life, of how to implant gratitude and appreciation into our children growing up in a generation of entitlement and discontent.  Rabbi Daniel Mechanic spoke of kiruv Kerovim, of winning our children’s hearts and minds by encouraging them to think deeply, to ask questions without being brushed off. The concurrent sessions were followed by a delectable ‘oneg’ and warm tisch with Yehuda Green, and the Shira choir.

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Shabbos morning Guest Speaker from Eretz Yisroel, Reb Yosef  Wallis of Arachim, was  introduced by Rabbi Yoni Zakutinsky, a dear friend and Brooklyn Coordinator of Project Inspire.

For over an hour, Rabi Wallis spoke, telling us the story of his life, from gang member in the Bronx to successful CEO of a business selling airplane parts, and finally his epiphany while in line to buy treife meat at a fast-food place for his family. Reb Yosef suddenly recalled the story his mother had told–how his beloved grandfather had been killed on the last day of the war by the Nazis, because he refused to eat non-kosher meat.

“Someone is crazy; either me or my grandfather,” he said to himself. “But it can’t be that we are both crazy. And if my grandfather gave up his life not to eat non-kosher meat, how can I buy it willingly to feed my children?”

This uncomfortable thought would not leave him, spurring Yossi’s decision to attend a kiruv seminar in Eretz Yisroel with his family. At the seminar, in a moment of inspiration, he wrote a contract—on Shabbos—with a friend, both of them pledging to do teshuvah!

He returned from the seminar with a kippah on his head, and a firm determination to lead a Torah lifestyle. He only forgot one crucial factor: his wife and children.

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The audience laughed and cried as Reb Yossi described the ups and downs of his decision, and how his entire family, including his parents, siblings, wife and children, became frum. Today Reb Yossi is the Director of Arachim, conducting seminars for lost Jews around the world.

The impact of Reb Yossi’s speech was best summarized by one of the Project Inspire staff members, who remarked that his children, who were sitting near him, had never seen him cry before—until now.

The keynote session was followed by concurrent sessions, including a Symposium of Communal Leaders, on the subject of “Becoming Ambassadors of Hashem in Work and Life.”  The audience was addressed by several prominent askanim, including Mr. Leon Goldenberg, CEO of Goldmont Realty; New York State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder;  Josh Mehlman, Chairman of the Flatbush Jewish Coalition and Reuven Wolf, President of Read Properties Group and co-founder of EPI (Emergency Parnassah Initiative).  Each stressed their own unique motivation to serve the Klal plus the traits he advises we adopt to make a Kidush Hashem – including honesty, awareness of how everyone is looking at us, love of fellow Jews,  and determination to take part in the political system in order to better the world.

Mrs. Pearl Benisch, a nonagenarian and one of the last living talmidos of Sara Schenirer, addressed the Symposium of Women Making a Difference in a barely audible but confident and passionate voice.   She poignantly described the nachas she feels as she sees such a beautiful gathering of n’shei chayil, the ultimate revenge against the Nazis, who were pure evil. Mrs. Benisch, the author of Vanquish the Dragon and Carry Me in your Heart, was joined by her daughter, Mrs. Mirrel Eisenberg, who described her mother’s efforts to be mekarev secular Jews, along with her distinguished husband, obm. Later on, women heard the dynamic Mrs. Baila Brach, who spoke about the often overlooked topic of “Kiruv Kerovim,” bringing our own loved ones closer.

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An unforgettable seudah Shlishis was dominated by the divrei Torah of Rav Eytan Feiner, Rav of the White Shul in Far Rockaway. Rav Eytan and Rebbetzin Aviva Feiner, pillars of the Far Rockaway Community, each delivered several powerful addresses throughout the weekend.  The melodious Motzoei Shabbos havdoloh by Yehuda Green and Shira Choir erupted into spirited Rikudim amongst the participants.

At the culminating Motzei Shabbos Keynote Session, Rabbi Yaakov Salomon introduced the guest of honor, Rav Elya Brudny Shlita, Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshivas Mir, Brooklyn, who addressed a packed crowd of over 1200, including those who had come just for the evening,

The Rosh Yeshiva’s powerful address focused on inspiring our brothers to come closer to Hashem.  As Chazal teach us, “V’ahavta Es Hashem Elokecha,” you shall love Hashem, your G-d. Our Chachomim explain this with the verse “Shaim Shomayim Mis’ahev Al Yodecha.” Hashem’s name should be beloved through you. This means that we are obligated to act as catalysts so that other Jews, observing our behavior, should be suffused with ahavas Hashem.  How do we accomplish that?

A Yid who learns Torah, who serves Torah scholars, and conducts himself in an exemplary fashion, both in the Bais Medrash and on the street, creates an enduring Kiddush Hashem. Others notice him and say, “Look how beautiful his actions are! Praised be his parents and teachers. As our Chachomim say, “Avdi Atoh, Yisroel asher bechoh esp’aer. You are my servant, Yisroel, says Hashem; My name is glorified through you.”

Every single Yid can be an ambassador for a Torah lifestyle, by helping a neighbor with the groceries, being friendly and taking an interest in someone else’s life. If you wear a yarmulke, you are representing a Torah lifestyle, and others are taking notice of how you act. Be generous. Ensure that Hashem’s name should be beloved through your behavior.

Those who are Shomrei Torah u’mitzvos are a mere fraction of a fraction of the Jewish nation. At the same time, we represent what a frum Yid should be. We are the conscience of the rest of the world!  By our actions, we can create a tremendous energy and inspiration for others. That is the true meaning of kiruv.

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Thousands of books were given away in memory of Reb Dovid Winiarz Zt’l, the “Facebuker Rav,” who was tragically niftar in a car accident just a few weeks ago, on the condition that those taking them give them out to a less affiliated Jew. These books had been purchased by Reb Dovid, who kept them in his office and gave them out to his clients as a kiruv tool.

A rare treat topped off the night —a kumzits of ‘oldies but goodies,’ by Rabbi Boruch Chait and Rivi Shwebel.  We were transported back to the classic hits of the sixties and seventies, with the soul-stirring niggunim to which today’s music can’t compare.

At Sunday morning’s Closing Keynote Session. Dr. Stuart Hytman,  who together with his wife Andrea, are Founding Partners of Project Inspire, A Program of Aish International, thanked all those who make the weekend—and Project Inspire, such a resounding success.  They include Project Inspire’s dynamic founder, Rabbi Chaim Sampson; Rabbi Mordechai Tropp; Rabbi Yossi Friedman; Rabbi Yaakov Giniger; Rabbi Simcha Barnett; and Rabbi Yoni Zakutinsky, as well as many others.

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All told, it was a weekend of laughter, of joy, of drama and deep emotion. It was a Shabbos of connection, of yearning, of determination to make a difference, to step out of our comfort zone and bring our lost brothers and sisters one step closer.

As the askan of Lev L’achim poignantly said during the shiva for his son—what difference does it make? Just ask my wife and I what we would give to have our son back, for one Shabbos.

What wouldn’t the Ribono Shel Olam do to have His children back, if only for one Shabbos? All we have to do is open our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our souls.

Project Inspire is a program of Aish Hatorah.

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