This weekend marks the last Siyum HaShas (celebration of the study of the 7 ½ year cycle of Talmud) organized for the year by Dirshu, the world’s largest Torah organization. Dirshu has organized unprecedented Siyumim across the world since December, including an enormous Siyum featuring representation of the rabbinic leadership of North America at the Prudential Center in New Jersey, which was one of three Siyumim in that state alone!
This Siyum has particular significance because it will take place in Pinsk, a city in Belarus with a significant amount of Jewish history and one for which many Jews today can trace their ancestry. The Jewish community there was founded over 500 years ago and was extremely well-organized. Although it began as 100 souls out of a greater non-Jewish population of 4,000, it grew to 28,000 on the eve of World War I. Jewish culture dominated the city. The Jewish community thrived in Pinsk which served as a commercial center that had easy access to Russia, Ukraine and Poland.
However, the Jews of Pinsk were not only successful merchants and peddlers, they were also religious scholars. Starting back in the 1500s, Pinsk maintained a yeshiva and several study halls and was host to many of the most prominent rabbis and scholars in Jewish history. From 1690 Pinsk was twinned with the town of Karlin which was home to Ahron the Great (1736-1772) and one of the first centers of Hasidism. Later on, Pinsk itself came under Hasidic control.
Tragically, in 1941 the Nazis occupied Pinsk and murdered approximately 11,000 Jews by gunshot. In 1942 approximately 10,000 Jews were also shot to death. By 1944, when the Soviets liberated Pinsk, they found 17 Jews had survived. This is why there is such a special significance to the Dirshu World Siyum having their last Siyum this weekend in Pinsk. This Siyum will be a sight to behold and an affront to all the Nazis tried to achieve. Indeed there is a reason that many observers both inside and outside the media have proclaimed the Dirshu World Siyum as the “greatest revenge against Hitler.”
Rav Dovid Hofstedter, the founder and leader of Dirshu, has an indomitable passion for Judaism. Himself the son of Holocaust survivors, Rav Dovid was determined to bring the level of Jewish learning back to what it was prior to the Holocaust in Jewish communities in Europe and around the world. He has accomplished this by motivating hundreds of thousands to study Talmud and sacred texts through Dirshu’s rigorous academic programming. The renaissance in Jewish learning that has been achieved across Europe and the globe through Rav Dovid and Dirshu’s efforts have been nothing short of unprecedented.
Rav Dovid’s Dirshu program which he has personally endowed, is unique in that participants do not have to be in an academic setting in order to take part in Dirshu’s rigorous curriculum. Instead, the studying takes place at Yeshivas, Kollels or even independently. Moreover, to give students an incentive to familiarize themselves with the texts to the utmost level, Dirshu provides stipends to those who pass the exams that are regularly administered, in order to monitor their learning.
One of Dirshu’s remarkable accomplishments has been its ability to bring Jewish communities across the world closer together. Ashkenazim study with Sephardim. Modern Orthodox Jews study with Haredim and Chassidim. Young students can study with the elderly. Bakers can study with neurosurgeons. People study with the program from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. Indeed, beyond the unification of the Jewish people that the Dirshu program has brought about; its sheer scope and reach is unrivaled by any other organization in the Jewish world.
The revival of Judaism in Pinsk reflects the revival of Jewish learning Rav Dovid Hofstedter has committed his life to. And indeed the Dirshu World Siyum has represented the achievement of a vision and a dream borne out of Rav Dovid’s passion for restoring Jewish learning worldwide to the levels they were at prior to the Holocaust.
Many Jewish organizations have chosen to cancel events and gatherings due to the coronavirus, but in this city where Hitler was once in control there is a unique reason to not let anything deter a celebration of Jewish scholarship. This Siyum will transmit a loud and powerful message to the world that the Jewish flame of Yiddishkeit will never be extinguished!