The oft-repeated and underlying theme at the Thursday, July 7, Mega Siyum on Maseches Y’vamos was “It’s not the Daf, but the Yomi.” Charismatic, internationally acclaimed maggid Daf Yomi Rav Eli Stefansky hosted the siyum through his popular Mercaz Daf Yomi (MDY) to an audience of over 1,650. The lavish venue at Bell Works – the former headquarters of Bell Labs – in Holmdel, New Jersey, added an extra level of celebration to a gathering of enthusiastic and diversified followers of Rav Eli’s daily daf. The whole spectrum of a combination of chasidim, misnagdim, yeshivish, Modern Orthodox, and baalei t’shuvah joyously clutched hands and danced to the festive music, celebrating their accomplishment at concluding one of the most difficult masechtos in Talmud. For five exuberant hours, Rav Eli and his talmidim celebrated Torah through inspirational divrei Torah, fervent t’filah b’tzibur, delicious dining, delirious dancing, and well-deserved awards.
Yaakov Serle, co-publisher of the Queens Jewish Link and its sister publication the Bukharian Jewish Link, was once again on hand for the remarkable festivities. “It was a tremendous honor to sit amongst 1,650 other Daf Yomi participants, all enthusiasts of Rav Eli’s unique approach.” Yaakov has joined other MDY experiences but was overjoyed to share this moment in the company of family – his son Yehudah Serle and grandson Akiva. “The achdus of the MDY family was multiplied by the ambiance of the Bell Works venue. We owe a special appreciation to Reb Nesanel Gantz of Yad L’Achim and Ami Magazine for being the marketing genius behind MDY.” Yaakov was joined by other Queens disciples of Rav Eli, including Emmanuel Babekov, Efraim Hod, Mike Yagudaev, Avi Sherman, Binyamin Blumberg, and Liran Maccabe.
“The siyum was an extraordinary display of achdus, where all facets of Jews came united under the banner of learning Torah and being a good Yid,” explained Efraim. “The Daf Yomi system has been one of the most unifying of our time. Unfortunately, throughout history, different sects of Judaism have been united through tragedy. However, MDY events, where participants unite in simchah, is a message from Hashem that His nation does not need a calamity for unity.” At the buffet, Efraim seated himself beside a chasidish fellow who was sitting alone. The two had never crossed paths yet engaged in conversation about work and played Jewish geography. The man explained that he was a confectionaries salesman, unbeknownst that Efraim’s mother is Susan, the proprietor of Kandi Kastle in Kew Gardens Hills. To Efraim’s amazement, the man showed his phone with a call to his mother just two hours prior. “What are the chances that out of 1,650 people I would take a seat beside the one person who had just spoken with my mother? There is no other event like this where everyone vibes around learning the daf,” concluded Efraim.
The backstory of the evening begins 40 years ago, with the birth of Eli Stefansky in Lakewood. His youth was spent in different communities in New York and Eretz Yisrael. He studied in the mosdos of Square, Munkach, and Ponevezh. He recalls his father’s meeting with Rav Shach at their home in Israel. By his own admission, he was never a gifted learner, but the prophetic words of the Ribnitzer Rebbe, that he was destined to be a “gadol baTorah,” did come true, as evidenced by his masses of followers.
Rav Eli began his adult life in the world of business, through which he quickly learned that to be successful one needed a big dose of determination and daring. Initially in the world of catering, he made a bold dive into the world of real estate, beginning at the bottom, doing manual labor. He was soon highly successful and living a comfortable life in Chicago with his wife Faigy née Friedman and their five children. He led a small shiur for eight years. This shiur eventually morphed into his now famous “8-Minute Daf,” initially on WhatsApp, during which he summarized the day’s daf through charts and other visuals. By the time of the most recent Siyum HaShas on Daf Yomi, his “8-Minute Daf” had gone from 1,000 to 15,000 participants.
At first, Rav Eli’s decision to move to Israel was to be for a brief period. Now, seven-and-a-half years later, he resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh (RBS), in a 2,000-square-foot apartment, which replaced his 11,000-square-foot home in Chicago. At the invitation and with the encouragement of neighbors in Ramat Beit Shemesh (RBS), Rav Eli took upon himself a full-blown daily Daf Yomi shiur at 7:15 a.m. Israel time. This commitment curtailed his trips back to Chicago, but fortunately he was able to leave the daily running of his real estate business to his capable partner.
A facility to house his Mercaz Daf Yomi was designated in RBS, which quickly became too small for the group attending. During COVID-19, the shiur grew exponentially on Zoom, and is now international, including participants from 530 locations, from as far away as Odesa, Ukraine, and Cape Town, South Africa. Participants follow the shiur at all hours of the day and night through hosting sites, including All Daf, TorahAnytime, Kol HaLashon, Zoom, and YouTube.
What accounts for the huge following of Mercaz Daf Yomi? It is Rav Eli’s belief that “he is teaching the way he would like to be taught.” He brings people in through his ebullience, humor, and creativity. Every shiur is accompanied by visuals, which range from pictures, charts, graphs, and cartoons to actual life-sized objects such as the sheep. In one instance, he created a cardboard sheep to illustrate a concept in korbanos. During a shiur dealing with korban Minchah, Rav Eli actually brought in the ingredients and created the mixture in front of his audience. At the siyum, a wall mural was on display of caricatures representing all the personalities that Rav Eli introduced during Maseches Y’vamos who required either yibum or chalitzah.
Rav Eli begins every shiur by reading emails he receives from his global participants. These personal messages, relating real-life situations, create a sense of achdus among the participants who have become one huge, international family cheering each other on. The stories range from the South African man who never had the opportunity to study Torah as he lived in a tiny remote village, to the man who was childless until he joined the shiur two years ago and was blessed with a baby girl whom he named during an online shiur. Rav Eli read the email of the father who Zoomed the daf while isolated at the bedside of his sick son during COVID, and the note from the group of men who were quarantined on a cruise ship while learning Maseches Shabbos.
Testimonials from all over the world come pouring in daily. Moshe Markovitz of Teaneck, now 77, never felt motivated to learn the daf until he was introduced to Rav Eli’s shiur. He shared, “The secret to Rav Eli’s success is his innate talent as a personal motivator. From his opening greeting to his international audience and throughout his succinct explication of the daily daf, Rav Eli does not miss an opportunity to encourage his over 13,000 heterogeneous participants to stay focused. He intertwines the wisdom of the ancient texts with insightful contemporary stories, caricatures, and even occasionally daring jokes! Rav Eli bridges the time and distance zones of the remote Zoom by projecting confidence, creativity, exuberance, and imagination, which motivate me not to miss my daily dose of Daf Yomi, which I joined at the start of Maseches P’sachim.”
Saul Stepner of Teaneck commented on the recent siyum, sharing, “The siyum was super inspirational. We felt part of a huge family. To see 1,600 people learning together, all from different streams of Yiddishkeit – chasidim, misnagdim, Sefardim, s’rugim was unreal. Everyone present was being m’chazeik each other. It was something I will never forget. We celebrated the completion of a masechta as if we were m’sayeim all of Shas. I am looking forward to attending more of these siyumim in the future, hopefully in Eretz Yisrael!”
Rav Eli shared a story recorded in Maseches Y’vamos 121 that encapsulates the event and the entire MDY program. Rabban Gamliel witnessed a ship capsizing with Rabbi Akiva on board. Miraculously, Rabbi Akiva survived. When asked by Rabban Gamliel how he survived, Rabbi Akiva responded: “As I was struggling in the ocean, I saw a daf, a board, and I swam over and clung to it. Rabbi Akiva was teaching us that everyone experiences some type of ‘shipwreck’ during his lifetime. The key is to cling to something firm that will help us get through. We are blessed with Torah as our daf, our flotation device. Let’s not let any more time pass before we cling on to our daf, which will keep us safe and secure.”
On Tuesday morning, July 12, Yaakov Serle (and his granddaughter Baila) were glued to the pages of the day’s daf, K’subos daf 6, when Rav Eli singled out the efforts of this publication in spreading the brilliance of MDY and the impact of the siyum. Yaakov noted that, in the z’chus of the siyum, his wife Atara organized a simultaneous virtual shidduch initiative with noted shadchan Rochel Rothman.
To learn more about all the programs offered through Rav Eli Stefansky’s Mercaz Daf Yomi, go to www.linktr.ee/mercazdafyomi.
By Pearl Markovitz with Shabsie Saphirstein