The Project Inspire Convention held this past weekend at the prestigious Armon Hotel & Conference in Stamford, Connecticut, was in true form inspiring. Project Inspire believes in creating a movement of unity and mutual inspiration by sharing the beauty and wisdom of our common heritage and the gift of the Torah with our fellow Jews by creating one friendship at a time.
“Project Inspire is building the army,” observed Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish Global, the parent organization of Project Inspire, as he described AishVision2030 and its mission to connect three million Jews to learning Jewish wisdom over the next decade.
At the grand convention presentation, the initial video, entitled “Virus,” explained how we as individuals are able to make an impact in the world we live in by spreading and sharing our Jewish identity through connection, growth, and inspiration.
Talking to the convention theme of Acheinu Kol Beis Yisrael, Yossie Friedman, Executive Director, highlighted the elements of Shabbos: “It started off with Rabbi Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro urging us to take the right suitcase with Yisrael, our fellow Jew, inside,” adding, “The midnight panel had hundreds of you here until four a.m. trying to get the answers you sought and, of course, Rabbi YY Jacobson’s amazing speech today taught us not to view other Jews as ‘acheir,’ but rather as our brothers and sisters who need us to share their love.”
Yosef Borochov, whose Shabbos talk drew a standing ovation, is a Soviet-born secular Jew now residing in Brooklyn, who in recent times stopped operating as a Fifth Avenue hairstylist on the sacred Shabbos. His then-fiancée Milah, a professional ballet dancer, began working at the home of Boro Park residents Yiddy and Estie Klein, fervent Project Inspire followers, who opened her to the light of Hashem and the warmth of Shabbos, inviting her to a Body & Soul Shabbaton. Once married, Yosef was less accepting of his wife’s newfound ways until a retreat: “Shabbos was mind-blowing. One thousand people sitting in a room, amazing speakers, singing, dancing, smiling. Connecting. I felt the amazing energy. It touched me. I felt within myself that there’s something more. I said to myself, I have been missing out.” There, he encountered Isaac (Alan) Gross, and the two formed a lifelong friendship beginning with Shacharis and learning at Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin in Midwood. “If you don’t continue in this path, and change your ways, you will mess up three generations,” Gross once told Borochov, depicting what may become of his three children. During his lecture, Borochov presented Gross with a photo of his own family to keep amongst his own children’s photographs, because Borochov said he taught him with the commitment and care a father would do for his own son.
Chesky Kauftheil, founder of Mishkan Yecheskel, is a regular attendee at Project Inspire weekends. “I am most moved by the life stories of those who were brought back to a life of Torah.”
Igor Zilberman, who recently had a bris milah, and his wife Polina are members of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere. “As we look around at the crowd, we feel that we belong and are part of something.”
Dr. Luciano Kolodny of Minneapolis has been studying one-on-one with Julian Liebowitz of Toronto and met him for the first time at the convention. “I knew nothing prior to learning with Julian,” Luciano told the crowd.
Shimon Kolyakov, co-founder of Torah Anytime, once again brought his team to film the convention’s lectures. “The lineup of speakers has simply been incredible.” His parents Yaakov and Nina of Forest Hills found the program to inspire togetherness and were most stimulated by Rav Gav Friedman’s combination of Torah and humor.
As I entered the venue for the Motza’ei Shabbos program, I found Rav Gav, a widely popular lecturer at Aish HaTorah in Yerushalayim, delivering a powerful standing-room-only class. Later in the evening, I found Rav Gav sitting with Kew Gardens Hills residents Chaim Mermelstein and his son Yisrael Meir. “We come year after year for the invaluable information and chizuk provided by the myriad of speakers, as well as the advice and guidance that they offer.”
“From soup to nuts, the program was beautiful,” commented Rabbi Shimon Kerner, rav of Kehillat New Hempstead in Monsey and a rebbe at MTA. “The only problem was choosing which of the concurrent sessions to attend.”
Rabbi Chaim Sampson, Founding Director, stated, “Frum Jews understand the commitment that Hashem created the world for me, and I am responsible for it.” Citing the astounding figure of unaffiliated Jews, the rabbi went on: “We know that if 90 percent of our brothers and sisters are not part of it, then it is our job to bring them back.” In giving a solution to the crisis, he offered, “So what’s needed? Show Hashem that we mean it, and together with achdus we can make a difference.”
I encountered Martin Langesfeld, a Doral, Florida, resident who lost his sister Nicole Langesfeld and bother-in-law Luis Sadovnic in the Surfside tower collapse, in conversation with Passaic residents Yitzchak London and his wife. Langesfeld, an associate at a commercial real estate firm, was inspired by the Jewish community’s outreach and support, and with the help of Chaplain Elisa Mermelstein from Queens, amongst others at Project Inspire, has found the beauty in a religious lifestyle. “It is in the small things where a person can rise over challenges and make a difference for the klal,” said London. As the Queens Jewish Link previously reported, Langesfeld spent a Shabbos at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and continued to the JInspire Men’s Retreat in Austin, Texas. “I developed a friendship with Rabbi Sampson after we sat and cried together on the bus in Texas. He felt like a real brother who understood the loss,” described Langesfeld. “I saw what the beautiful Jewish community is capable of doing and how they connect with millions across the world no matter their background.”
The evening’s special tribute, presented with an awe-inspiring video adaptation of belief in potential, conducted by the riveting Rabbi Yoel Gold of Hashkifa, was to Dr. Larry and Ann Neuman, a geriatric physician from Purchase and Washington Heights. Chesed is generally defined as giving to another, but Larry’s story included the loss of his job by the preeminent Satmar chasid Aaron Weinstock and his journey to becoming a doctor and impacting the lives of a quarter million patients, and the eventual tap on his shoulder by his former boss as he sat in the front row as the Satmar Rebbe’s guest, as the doctor for the overcrowded beis midrash on Yom Kippur night.
Dr. Neuman said, “Each time you attend a convention, you feel closer to Hashem and empowered to do more.” Debbie Hager-Katz expressed, “One act of g’milas chesed can have rippling effects with unimaginable ramifications. Through the mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim of my father inviting Dr. Neuman to a meal in West Hampton Beach, the two became close chavrusos, learning early each morning, and the doctor has been at my father’s side during various hospital visits.” Her father added a verse from T’hilim, “Life itself has no value, but when you do chesed, life has meaning; this is Dr. Neuman.”
Eli and Avigayil Gleiberman are members at Khal Machzikei Torah in Far Rockaway. “We were eager to hear from Rabbi YY Jacobson and meet Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky,” explained the couple who were drawn to the program from an ad they saw in a local publication showcasing an amazing lineup of speakers. “We made a request to sit with other couples for the Shabbos meals and were placed with the Bensoussans; that was absolutely incredible, but the dealbreaker for us was the phenomenal babysitting program.” Avi “The Activity Guy” Devor and his wife Rivkie were on hand with a crew of assistants to facilitate kids programming and other childcare amenities.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan commented on the program: “Having Yidden gather to become better is so beautiful, especially in an atmosphere of great speeches, food, and warm company.” His brother Rabbi Ari added, “I came here to inspire, but I did not know that I would be the one leaving inspired. Mi k’amcha Yisrael.”
During the m’laveh malkah, Yitzchok Zev Bensoussan sat with his father Rabbi Duvi at a table with various illustrious orators, each a guiding light. “I watched in awe as the rabbanim exchanged stories; it was a moment I will not soon forget.”
Dr. Stuart Hytman, Chairman of the organization, explained that when Jewish lives are changed, it empowers others to get involved, “From the first convention until now, the frum mindset has changed toward kiruv to a vision of ‘We can do it.’” Ephraim and Shani Berger of Kew Gardens Hills consider their involvement with the organization to be a privilege. Dr. Stuart Green of Highland Park, New Jersey, attended for his fourth time. Green regularly returns to uncover new levels of ruchniyus to bring back to his family. Pinchas Chaitovsky of Monsey was amazed at the tremendous array of speakers and how all attendees smiled at each other. “You couldn’t make a mistake in whichever lecture you chose to attend. All you had to do was make sure to send your friends to the other concurrent programs and exchange the ideas afterwards.”
Some guests found partaking in the program to be more useful than taking a family vacation. Shoshana Goldenberg knows the benefits of Project Inspire as her parents Eli and Renee Singer of Lawrence are regulars. “This year, instead of a trip to Florida, my parents took on babysitting duties, allowing my husband and me to join,” explained Shoshana, a resident of Lakewood. “Rebbetzin Slovie Jungreis Wolff as part of the fabulous women’s program was a real highlight, but we must remember that we do not change in a minute.”
On the floor of the convention, I found Faige Hirsch of Far Rockaway and Hadassa Nussbaum of Brooklyn together with the women and staff of Yalla, an organization that assists young adults with physical and mental challenges on their rite-of-passage experiences, for example running a Birthright program with medical staff, or conducting shidduchim. For the weekend, a select group of boys and girls participated, exemplifying the realized dream of founder Faigie Schwartz for these children to have normal life events.
“This past Tuesday we received a donation for $9,257,” announced Friedman. “Why this number, you may ask? Because that is the number of people who donate one dollar a day to Daily Giving; one dollar and a dream,” he continued as he invited Dr. Jonathan Donath, president of the tz’dakah movement to receive an honor. “This past month, we handed out our four millionth dollar, and we are set to distribute 3.3 million dollars this year, creating an achdus amongst all segments of Jews; what more could Hashem want?” related Dr. Donath, who quoted Rabbi Jacobson’s Shabbos lecture: “We do not count Jews; we count the contributions.”
Rav Yitzhak Pindrus, chaver of Knesset, was presented with an honor for the tremendous strides he has made with Diaspora Jewry and for protecting the sanctity of k’dushas Eretz Yisrael. “Jews must respect themselves and, in this light, they will gain respect from the rest of the world.”
In his divrei his’or’rus in the keynote address, Rabbi Shapiro brought home the message of potential. “If you don’t tell someone what he can’t do, he will be able to; if you don’t tell someone his limitations, what seems insurmountable is possible.” The rabbi brought the story of a man who only spoke Hebrew awaking from surgery and washing neigel vasser, because the nurses were unable to alert the patient that when he awoke, he will not be able to move.
Rabbi Shapiro expressed, “What stops us from soring high and changing the face of klal Yisrael is that we do not believe in ourselves.” The rabbi suggested that when Jews help one another, we become closer to Hashem. In a final story of how one Jew impacted another to return to his roots, the rabbi spoke of the journey of a yeshivah bachur who sought out a sefer’s author for an explanation and the winding path of meeting the writer’s mother and being sent to a new location where he found the writer covered in tattoos, body piercings, and long hair. What followed was an exchange reminiscent of the walls of a beis midrash where the author defended his views and was eventually gifted the sefer he once wrote and no longer owned. However, this encounter led to the man’s return to his mother. “I am coming home,” he told her. “We are not in this world just to be yotzei,” concluded Rabbi Shapiro.
“I love every single Jew no matter his background, and I say I love you,” declared Yaakov Berger to a Jew he encountered on the streets of New York City as he passed out hamantashen in the spirit of Purim. “We are all the bonded family of Hashem,” Berger broadcasted on the impressionable recording as he passed out tablets preloaded with ample Jewish content. Additional tablets were given to audience members to distribute to unaffiliated Jews in their lives.
Boro Park-born Rabbi Tovia Singer spent years studying at the Mirrer Yeshiva and later became the founder and director of Outreach Judaism, a Jewish counter-missionary organization, where he brings back Jews lost in the Church to the path of Hashem. Twenty-two years ago, during a heated exchange of his anti-missionary work, Rabbi Singer was told he did not know enough to argue, so he flew to Eretz Yisrael for the first time on a discovery trip. At the Kosel, he encountered a man donning a generic staple yarmulke who asked, “Do you know the Lord?” The pair began learning in Israel and continued back in America where Rabbi Singer watched the man return to Yiddishkeit. Years later, at a Pathmark in Monsey, a bearded, frum man revealed that he was the gentleman from the Kosel who was now an area rav.
Rabbi Singer also noted a Great Neck mother who sought his guidance as she found a bible under her daughter’s bed. The girl had been gifted the King James book by a roommate at Boston University and turned to its pages as she reeled from a breakup. “Love the Lord with only your heart and soul,” were the words that impacted her from Mark chapter 12. When Rabbi Singer revealed that these words are part of the Jewish daily prayers, the girl hastily booked a flight to Israel and now lives a frum life in Maryland. Rabbi Singer brought a parable of the Secret Service using real currency to teach their members how to detect a fake and advised, “Teach your children the holy Torah, and no missionary will be able to take this away.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger, an editor at ArtScroll and Yated, summed up the event: “An individual must appreciate the power of YOU as there is a ripple effect on the impressions made on individuals and communities.” Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of Chazaq, echoed this feeling: “We witnessed how the power of one Jew can be m’chazeik another.”
See photos on page 52
By Shabsie Saphirstein