The Torah transporter

Hand-delivering several thousand weekly copies of "Torah Tidbits" is a matter of logistics – and luck – according to Cyril Simkins.

Cyril Simkins, 'Torah Tidbits' 521 (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
Cyril Simkins, 'Torah Tidbits' 521
Few publications regularly travel so far, under such time pressure, passing through so many hands and conveyed by so many different modes of transport as does Torah Tidbits, that mighty little weekly Torah commentary produced as a labor of love by Phil and Toni Chernofsky of Jerusalem.
No copies travel by standard mail. All must be hand-delivered sometime between late Wednesday and Friday afternoon. Not long ago a citation was awarded to one of the most dedicated and creative of the volunteer couriers, Cyril Simkins of Beersheba: “Never in the 17-year history of Torah Tidbits,” it read, “have so many copies been distributed to so many, so far, all across Israel.”
What had Simkins done? Nothing special, insists the retired Dead Sea Works engineer, even though it takes a bit of planning.
“From Beersheba, we were going to the Golan for Shabbat, via Modi’in. I took some boxes of Torah Tidbits to Modi’in, then along the way dropped off more in Hashmonaim, left still more in the Binyamina area, then left the rest at Kibbutz Lavi.
“Actually, I sometimes use that route now to get copies to Eilat, if you can believe that. It takes lots of coordination and a little bit of luck.”
“Cyril is amazing,” says Toni Chernofsky. “We have volunteers who take copies of Torah Tidbits all over the country, but Cyril has the biggest job because his standard delivery area is throughout the Negev, Beersheba to Mitzpe Ramon, Eilat and surrounding areas. Cyril steps in to help if we have distribution problems somewhere else in the country, too. We know we can always count on him.”
Torah Tidbits, born in May 1992, had an unpretentious beginning.
“It was one sheet of paper, a dvar Torah on one side of the paper, with the weekly Israel Center, Orthodox Union, program on the other,” Chernofsky recalls.
“At first, the flyer went only to two shuls in Ramat Eshkol, the Jerusalem neighborhood where we live. A few weeks later, we started leaving more copies on the counter at the Israel Center, where people could just pick them up. Then people started asking for copies to put in their shuls, too, so we started sending them with our daughters to school. They were the first real distributors.
“Then people outside of Jerusalem wanted them too, so a wider distribution began. It just grew and grew – and it’s still growing.”
Every week, 8,650 copies – all produced entirely in-house – are distributed.
For holiday issues, the total increases to 8,800. What started as a one-page flyer has grown to a normal issue of 70 or 80 pages, with holiday issues far exceeding that.
As a weekly Torah compendium, Torah Tidbits offers something for every member of the family. There’s “Parsha Pix” for the kids, a game where they can identify pictures and drawings and link them to the weekly Torah reading.
There’s an extensive list of candle-lighting times for 20 cities, plus “Other Z’manim,” exact times for all the Shabbat prayers.
Each issue has several Torah commentaries in addition to other kinds of articles.
There’s “Tazri’a Hakodesh,” which includes various numerical computations – such as how many lines the weekly portion contains, how many words it has, and where it ranks among the other weekly portions. Then there’s “Mitzvah Watch,” which lists how many positive and negative commandments are included.
All in all, Torah Tidbits is a Shabbat’s worth of reading – which explains why it’s so much in demand. One of the major factors in distribution is meeting the pre- Shabbat time constraints.
All copies must be delivered before sunset on Friday, and the earliest they can be picked up in Jerusalem is Wednesday afternoon.
“We start working on the next week’s issue as soon as Shabbat is over,” Chernofsky says. “Each week the entire magazine is redone. Phil writes the whole thing except for the assigned columns. It’s all done in-house on our computer – and, yes, it’s an enormous amount of work. Fortunately we have a whole team of volunteers who come in on Wednesday and Thursdays to collate, fold and box.
“The volunteers enjoy refreshments and classes that go on morning until night so they can learn while they’re folding. There’s a lot of camaraderie. Volunteering to work on Torah Tidbits is an environment all by itself.”
Simkins doesn’t recall what sparked his involvement in distribution.
“It was about seven years ago,” he says. “I’m not sure how it happened – I guess I saw a need and decided to fill it.
“It wasn’t a big deal in the beginning, only 20 or 30 copies. At the very beginning, David and Leah Wolf would bring them from Jerusalem to their home in Meitar, then I’d pick them up. Then I found two or three people I could count on who’d bring them directly from Jerusalem to Beersheba.
“It was simple back then – I’d just drop them, half-and-half, at the Rambam and Kippa synagogues. Interested people would help themselves. But when people realized the magazine was coming into Beersheba, they’d ask me to get an extra copy for them.
“And then there were the ladies: women who didn’t always get to shul on Friday night or even Shabbat. I started bringing individual copies to their homes. Then the distribution outside of Beersheba began.”
EVERY WEEK seems to involve a different plan to get the copies out before Shabbat. “The Wolfs sometimes visit family in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and they’ll still bring the copies back to Meitar.
Then David – a dentist in Beersheba – brings them to his office on Thursday morning and I pick them up there.
“Some weeks, the copies go from Jerusalem to Ashkelon first, then to Beersheba. Then I found a man who lives in Beersheba and works in Jerusalem who’ll bring them direct, but the downside is, I can’t get them until Thursday evening – and that’s cutting it close.
“Then I found someone from Gush Etzion who works at the Dead Sea Works, so someone would take them to him in Gush Etzion, and then he’d bring them to Beersheba on Thursday morning, which is much better. To distribute them outside of Beersheba, I have to have them by Thursday afternoon. For distribution within Beersheba, then Friday morning is okay.”
Now there are more distribution points in Beersheba, too.
“I still drop them off at the Kippa and Rambam shuls, plus Moledet – those three shuls have lots of English speakers.
But now I also take a load to Gary Mazal, who’s on staff at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Gary distributes them to several places, including Beit Chabad and the shul at BGU.
“We include the south Hebron Hills, too. On Friday mornings, two or three guys come into Beersheba for morning prayers at 6 a.m., pick up copies, and distribute them to several places – Carmel, Ma’on and Sussiya.
During LOGON rehearsal times, things get simpler. Both Cyril and his wife, Golda, are long-time members of the Light Opera Group of the Negev.
“During the months that LOGON is rehearsing, there are usually several people who come from Ashkelon. This last year we had a good system: They’d take them back to Ashkelon, drop them at another person’s garden gate, and then someone locally would do further distribution.”
Getting copies all the way to Eilat takes some doing. “One time, I picked up a guy who was hitchhiking on Road 6,” Simkins laughs.
“He said he was going to Eilat, so when I dropped him off, I handed him a stack of copies – ‘Here, take these with you!’ He did – not only that, but he also helped me to find someone who goes to Eilat fairly regularly.
“At the moment, different people are helping with Eilat. This week I was lucky enough to find a man from Eilat who was coming through Beersheba, so I sent them with him. It went like clockwork – he was on the bus from Tel Aviv, so I went to the bus station and waited for the bus. It came in, he stuck his hand out and I handed them over. Away they went.” Another week, it looked like the Eilat connection wouldn’t work.
“But I found a group of soldiers who were meeting at Beit Hahayal, which is pretty close to my house. They were going to Eilat, so I asked them to take [the copies]. Sometimes there will be someone from BGU going to Eilat, so I always check with some of the drivers.
It’s not a problem for them to ferry them down there. Someone local will pick them up, so all they have to do is bring them into town.”
It helps, Simkins says, that he’s been in Beersheba so long and knows so many people.
“We made aliya in 1968 from Manchester. Between my brother and me – he does the distribution in Ra’anana – we’ve made a lot of contacts. It takes some creativity, but really it’s a logistical thing – as long as you keep in mind that there’s no logic in logistics.”
FOR HER part, Chernofsky tells stories of interesting coincidences, too.
“It’s funny how it happens. We might be standing there, wondering how we’re going to get them to some city, and then, just at that moment, someone will walk in off the street and happen to mention that they’re going there. It’s amazing how helpful people are – people pick them up from each other. Sometimes they pass through an awful lot of hands before they reach their final destination.”
As an English-language publication, Torah Tidbits enjoys a unique place among the range of weekly Torah commentaries.
“Even when we started, there were plenty of Hebrew-language commentaries,” Chernofsky says. “What was needed was a comprehensive publication in English.
“The holiday issues are especially important. People say they couldn’t get through Pessah or the High Holy Days without them. Each includes a special insert that serves as a guide to holiday observance. People rely on those year after year.”
Even though the publication is now available online – – the demand for paper copies continues to grow.
“The magazine keeps getting bigger and bigger, too,” Chernofsky says. “The advertising pretty much pays for the production costs – but the advertising is valuable in its own right. Lots of times people will call the office and ask about some ad they saw weeks ago, because now they need the service. The OU Israel Center weekly program is in it too, and many people follow that closely.”
As far as distribution goes, Simkins maintains an enviable record.
“It’s happened that we missed, and I didn’t get them to Eilat or the Golan,” he admits. “But locally, in Beersheba, I don’t think we’ve ever missed.”
Not even when rockets and mortars are hitting? “No,” he laughs. “That doesn’t bother us a bit. Life goes on – and a life without Torah Tidbits isn’t much of a life. Especially when the rockets are falling.”