Rabbi Zev Cohen Sets the Torah Mesorah Convention on Fire

I had the pleasure of spending May 8th through 11th at the Torah Mesorah Convention at the Split Rock Resort in the Poconos. I get to spend most of the time talking to Mechanchim/Mechanchos (teachers) about education at my InfoGrasp Education Software Booth, but on Shabbos my wife comes up and we get a great boost with 1,800 other growth oriented Jews and some of the top Roshei Yeshiva in America.

The theme of the conventions was Preparing All Our Talmidim. Rabbi Shmuel Kamentsky (Philadelphia) gave the opening address on Thursday night and Rabbi Aharon Feldman (Baltimore), Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (Brooklyn), Rabbi Dovid Harris (Queens), Rabbi Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood), Rabbi Hillel David (Brooklyn) and Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin (Chicago) gave addresses on Shabbos. In addition to acknowledging the tremendous distractions talmidim face in our time, the messages of seeing each individual, recognizing their greatness, and reaching their hearts, not just their minds, were some of the shared thoughts that stayed with me. Besides the good divrei Torah, it’s a treat to shake hands and say Good Shabbos to all of the above Roshei Yeshiva after davening on Friday night.

In addition to the addresses above, the Shabbos guest speakers included Mrs. Shifra Rabenstein (Baltimore) for women, Rabbi Moshe Brown (Far Rockaway), Rabbi Zev Cohen (Chicago), Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Segal (Bnei Brak) and Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman (Monsey). I was particularly looking forward to the always electrifying address of Rabbi Wachsman, but I knew from past experiences that the other guest speakers would be informative and inspirational.

I wasn’t the only one taken off guard as Rabbi Zev Cohen won the hearts and minds of the attendees. He got everyone’s attention from the start by telling us that he was going to talk about his being a Baalei Teshuva and a recovering addict. He explained that he wasn’t a BT in today’s technical sense of the term, because he grew up in a frum home in Brookline, Massachuset near Boston. In a time when there were a few hundred people learning full time, post high school, in America, he told his personal story about how learning Torah set him on fire and he admitted that although he loved to learn, it took many years before his love of learning surpassed his love of playing basketball.

He related his struggle with wearing a hat. When he was first told he had to get a hat for his attendance at the Mesifta of Long Beach, he chose a brown corduroy one. That mistake was easy to correct, the real battle was when he returned home and chose to wear his black hat in his hatless community because of the Torah learning commitment that it represented to him. He was questioned, confronted and ridiculed by friends, extended family and neighbors for that choice and for his choice to continue to learn Torah.

The fire of Torah was not extinguished and till this day it continues to burn as he is constantly focused on further growth. When a child tells him that they are in third grade, he responds that he’s now in 55th grade, always learning always growing.

As for the addiction, it was TV and it wasn’t easy to give up. This is why he still carries an outdated Palm Pilot and flip phone for his contact manager despite the pleas from some in his Chicago community to upgrade to a smartphone. He sees the smart phone addicted men who check their email and text during Chazaras HaShas and despite his immersion in Torah, he doesn’t want to expose himself to that test. His parting message on Shabbos was that we have to make the excitement of Torah greater than the excitement of the plastic gadgets in our hands.

On Sunday, he pointed out that this period between Pesach and Shavuos was the time that Amalek attacked us. After bringing many references to fire associated with Pesach including the burning of Chometz and the roasting on fire of the Korbon Pesach, he pointed out the Amalek’s role was to cool down the fire. There is a piece of Amalek in everyone of us, trying to cool down the fire, and our job is to keep it burning.

In addition to his self-effacing nature, sense of humor and oratory skills, the reason Rabbi Zev Cohen’s address made such an impression on me was because he revealed his inner struggles, and they are the same struggles that I’ve heard from the thousands of posts, comments and emails here on Beyond BT. When we started out, almost us all of us were filled with the fire of Torah. Sometimes that fire caused us to make mistakes with friends, family and our own personal decisions, but most of us got past that. I think the biggest challenge we collectively face, is keeping the fire of Torah burning. For some the flame was almost completely extinguished and observance was abandoned. For many more the pilot light of observance was kept, but the focus turned to complaints about the community, about the Gedolim, or whatever else is the external target of the day.

But if we really want to acquire what we had in our sights when we began our Torah journey, we’ve got to keep the fire burning. It has to be a fire fueled by a deep commitment to growth in Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasadim. Rabbi Zev Cohen illustrated that a BT is not defined by the lack of knowledge and experience before we started our journey, but by the fire that burned inside once we began. I think most of us had that fire when we began, because it would be impossible to make the formidable lifestyle changes without it. But the real take away is that we can reignite it, and keep it burning everyday, just like Rabbi Cohen and many others do on a daily basis.

6 comments on “Rabbi Zev Cohen Sets the Torah Mesorah Convention on Fire

  1. Aryeh Leib, I 100% agree that sharing something of yourself helps people connect. However, in some cases depending on the struggle or the speaker, it might not be appropriate to share details. It should be made clear that everybody has struggles every day, in fact we pray to be successful in those struggles in Birchos HaShachar.

  2. Thanks for posting, Mark. I have never been to a TM convention, but it sounds like it was the “place to be.”

    I think that it is so great that R. Cohen shared something of himself and his personal struggles. Who in today’s leadership does that? There are great orators, however, often I find that they miss the mark because they fail to connect with the people they are speaking to. But when someone shares something of themselves, a connection is much easier to come by. I find it reassuring to know that someone of R. Cohen’s stature struggles with specific challenges because I know that for myself I am challenged daily.

    This is also something that I believe is important for our kids to experience. Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivos are real people with real struggles.

  3. Zev, I agree that it might not be the same intensity as the original fire, but there has to be some fire. Rabbi Cohen said that it is not necessarily the fire of burning enthusiasm. It could be the fire of consistency in learning or davening for example. Or the fire of working on a new goal. He mentioned that he was personally working on learning something in the Shulchan Aruch 101 times because he never did that before.

    It’s interesting to note that many FFBs might not have experienced the same level of fire as a BT, because they came to Yiddishkeit gradually over their childhood years, and not by choice. That presents its own set of challenges, perhaps different from the BTs challenge of having at one time experiencing the fire and then seeing it diminish.

  4. Rabbi Tatz speaks at length about these issues as does Rabbi Dessler. The initial spark and fire that is the very essence of all new beginnings never burns forever, nor is it supposed to. It has it’s place at the start because as the Gemorrah says, Kol Techillos Kashos – All beginnings are difficult. Fire is needed to begin what is usually a difficult process, whatever it may be. Just like starting a business.

    Rockets use most of their fuel just to achieve their orbits and then it’s gone. Keeping an object moving requires much less fuel. Newton’s Law.

    The same with Avodah. If you want it to last a fire will burn you up and for most people it will take way too much energy. The long haul requires passion and motivation. Seeing the newness all the time.

    So you might say, so what, it’s the same thing. I don’t think that’s anywhere near the fire a person experiences with any new endeavor. Just look at anything in your own life and you will see it’s true.

    How does a person keep motivated his whole life ??? Takes constant work, but there too, there is ebb and flow.

  5. Neil, thanks for the comment. Rabbi Cohen seems like a man true to his words and your anecdote illustrates that.

  6. Great post and I am glad to get a report about some of what was discussed at the Torah Mesorah Convention.

    As a resident of Chicago, Rabbi Cohen is know for his dedication to Limmud Torah and the “fire” you felt at hearing Rabbi Cohen is something I have seen in a few causal interactions I’ve had with him. At a Bar Mitzvah kiddush I attended at his shul in 2007 (a year after moving to Chicago), he went around the room welcoming people the he didn’t recognize. He came right up to me and said, “Weclome to our shul, my name is Zev Cohen.”

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