By Yisroel Besser, Mishpacha
The details are hazy, but I’m pretty certain that I dreamed this as a child: I was rushing toward the end zone, inches from the painted white lines, the endless green of the synthetic turf beneath of my feet, the eyes of an entire stadium following me.
Granted, in those dreams, there was likely a ball clutched to my chest and advancing attackers just out of reach – not two rabbis in suits and ties, folders and briefcases in hand.
But except for our little group, the cavernous stadium is empty.
Still, at least part of the dream is being realized – the team part. There is trememdous synergy between the two men, and they clearly love the game !
Standing in the middle of the massive field in East Rutherford, New Jersey, home of New York’s Giants and Jets, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding are strategizing for the Jewish “Super Bowl” – the 12th Siyum HaShas on August 1.
Rabbi Gertzulin, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for finance and administration, and Rabbi Golding, executive director of the Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society and a leading member of the Siyum organizing committee, are both efficient and talented organizers. They’ve worked on several previous siyumim and are the key components in making this one happen.
They Get It Just off the field, behind massive murals depicting dramatic touchdowns and memorable concerts, are the executive offices of Ron VanDeVeen, interim general manager of MetLife Stadium. The affable administrator, built like an athlete himself, held a similar position at the smaller Continental Airlines Arena (now Izod Center) before being promoted to his current position. Seven and a half years ago, when the arena was the overflow location for the last siyum, he was also host.
I ask him what it’s like working with Agudath Israel yet again. He indicates the two rabbis and nods. “They are the most well-prepared group. People come in here clueless … they don’t understand the seating, the lighting, the sound. These guys come in here knowing exactly what we do, and what they need from us.”
I learn from the people in the front office that this isn’t just talk. MetLife is a privately owned facility, and many of the requests to rent the venue are rejected.
“These guys understand the business,” says VanDeVeen. “They get it.”
Equal Partners Back under a glorious sun, we talk logistics. Rabbi Golding’s eyes light up as he indicates the upper deck, designated as a women’s seating area. “We are going to have mechitzos running through all the seating levels. It was a challenge, because we tried different substances and installation techniques, and each one came with its own complications regarding wind, heat and other factors.” He draws a little diagram, and it’s obvious that the challenge and solution exhilarate him.
“We will have two and a half miles of mechitzah,” remarks Rabbi Gertzulin, who has assumed the additional title of Siyum COO. “That’s like from here to the Lincoln Tunnel.”
And he adds a story. “After the Siyum HaShas in Felt Forum in November 1982, the Agudah received a letter from a woman asking why women weren’t invited to the siyum. [The letter was later printed in the Jewish Observer.] She felt deprived of her share in the simchas haTorah, and the general consensus was that she was right. ‘For every maggid shiur of daf yomi who gets up at 5:45, there’s a wife who gets up 5:30 to make him coffee,’ Rabbi Sherer would say.
“We are thrilled that at this siyum, the women will have an entire spacious and comfortable section of their own.”
Alongside the field’s edge will be the dais, where some one thousand rabbanim will be sitting. No doubt, dais seating presents its own challenges.
“Yes,” Rabbi Golding agrees. “In the Garden, in 1991, I had these extra folding chairs lined up in case unexpected rabbanim would come, and sure enough, I needed a chair. I reached out for the folding chair,” recalls Rabbi Golding, “and all of a sudden one of the workers grabbed my arm and pulled me back. Then, one of the union guys lifted the chair and handed it to his friend, another union guy – only then was it available for use.”
And what about the inevitable slighted feelings when it comes to seating prominent people in unprominent places?
It depends on how big you really are. The first time the organizing committee required an additional venue for the overflow crowd was at the tenth siyum, in 1997. In addition to Madison Square Garden, the Nassau Coliseum was booked for the overflow. But with the Garden serving as the “main location,” who would willingly go sit in the Coliseum? The askanim discussed the problem, and Rav Pam immediately volunteered to join attendees at the overflow location and to participate from there.
“All of a sudden, it became a ‘mechubadige’ place to be, and other rabbanim and roshei yeshivah followed.”
What if it Rains? The 12th Siyum is unique for the Agudah in that it’s being held at a single venue. It’s also unique for the stadium itself – the siyum is slated to host the biggest crowd ever at the site.
“There are many games and concerts here that sell out,” explains Rabbi Gertzulin, “so that’s 82,500 seats. But we’ll be using the actual field for seating as well, giving us close to 10,000 additional seats on the ground.”
And now, the million-dollar question: for the first time ever, the event is being held under an open sky. What if it rains?
Both men look up at the brilliant blue sky and smile; I can almost hear the tefillah.
Rabbi Gertzulin has examined all the angles. “Do you know that there is something called rain insurance? The company will insure your event: in case it rains and you’re forced to make new arrangements, all the costs are covered. So if by Wednesday morning, the slated Siyum date, we see that the forecast isn’t favorable, we would switch it to Thursday – our alternate rain date – and the costs of all the new transportation, equipment, and announcements are covered.
“It’s a tricky policy,though. Built into the policy, depending on the terms, is the window of time of the rainfall and the amount of rain, in inches. The insurance company isn’t stupid, though; they will only sell up until two weeks before the event, otherwise you can access the long-term forecast. So that’s a decision we have to make in the coming days, whether to purchase insurance or not and what contingency plans will work.
“Of course, we’re prepared. We’ve ordered tens of thousands of rain ponchos, just in case.”
Serious Business As we take the elevator up to the sixth floor conference room, both men reflect on their siyum experiences.
“I’ll never forget the siyum in November 1982, in Felt Forum,” Rabbi Gertzulin reminiscences.”Rabbi Sherer had taken a huge leap with that. The frum community didn’t have events for 5,000 people back then, but he was undaunted. In the days leading up to the siyum he mailed out thousands of free tickets to Jewish homes, hoping that some of the recipients would come. We didn’t believe it would fill up, but of course, it did. We needed to make accommodations for the overflow as well, setting up speakers and seating outside.”
“Yes,” Rabbi Golding chimes in, “I remember seeing Rav Shimon Eider a”h standing all by himself outside, near one of the speakers, listening. He was already a respected posek at that time, and I insisted he come inside, where we found him a seat.”
Upstairs, we walk into a sea of blue. Long tables are lined with law enforcement personnel of all types: FBI and Homeland Security, the New York Police Department and Port Authority Police, and chiefs of police from New Jersey towns all the way down to Lakewood.
I need to step out a minute and I leave my laptop on the table. “I think the computer is safe here,” deadpans Rabbi Golding.
The gathering of law enforcement personnel feels a bit like a reunion, with back-slaps and banter between the cops, but the mood changes to somber and focused as Rabbi Gertzulin begins to speak.
They are taking this seriously.
They discuss the security procedures that each and every car will have to undergo and the delay that might entail. “We’re gonna have the sniffing dogs check out the cars. Every single canine unit in the state of New Jersey will be there,” promises a beefy fellow near the front of the room.
A surprisingly small policeman looks at me pointedly and asks that the Orthodox media pass on the message that participants are being urged to take public transportation. A stadium staffer chimes in that the train that runs directly from Penn Station on game days will be operational, depositing passengers at the stadium’s entrance, and there will be buses from 11 different locations.
Rabbi Gertzulin singles out the sheriff of Sullivan County and Lakewood’s chief of police with an innovative proposal. Rather than thoroughly checking out every bus upon arrival, which would cause all sorts of delays, he wonders if the local police can check them at the departure checkpoints. Sullivan County will be the single largest departure point, and the sheriff’s chest seems to swell with pride as he assures the assembled that his men are up to the task.
A woman from Homeland Security discusses what the people at her office are doing to prevent any sort of trouble, including monitoring terrorist websites and chats for any reference to the event.
Reb Yankie Meyer of Misaskim, who is helping coordinate security for the Siyum, speaks next, graciously thanking the various law enforcement officials for coming and providing a run-through of the event, so that they know what to expect in terms of program and schedule.
When he mentions the fact that there will likely be dancing and it might be spirited, an immense, red-faced policeman wonders why. Reb Yankie answers: “Both of my parents will be here, and they are both Holocaust survivors. There were times when they thought they’d never see another
Jew … this type of gathering is very overwhelming for them, for so many reasons.”
The most popular suggestion Reb Yankie makes is that all the meeting attendees, many of whom have traveled from great distances, partake in an Agudah-sponsored lunch. From the looks of things, kugel and pastrami sandwiches with pickles and mustard are police favorites.
Only for Simchahs Standing high in the upper deck and surveying the vacant stadium, Rabbi Gertzulin – generally a rather cool customer – is excited. “Besides the immensity of the gathering, b’ezras Hashem, it’s so important that we come together for happy reasons, not out of fear, not out of desperation, but out of joy. We are coming to celebrate simchas haTorah.
“It’s remarkable how after each siyum, the numbers of daf yomi learners swell. Everyone becomes mechutanim.”
Lakewood rosh yeshivah Rav Malkiel Kotler’s name is mentioned. At the last siyum, this great man, who delivers shiurim and chaburos to hundreds of talmidim, added daf yomi to his overcrowded schedule – and he is slated to complete Shas at the upcoming siyum.
Once we’re already discussing the program, I wonder out loud who’s speaking.
The two rabbis exchange glances, hesitant to share this closely guarded secret.
“Okay,” I suggest, “confirm or deny. Is it true that Rav Aharon Leib Steinman might come?”
The elderly rosh yeshivah did indeed express an interest in coming, they tell me, but it will depend on how he feels the day before. “He is open to the idea, but we won’t know until it happens.”
Rabbi Golding recalls traveling to Eretz Yisrael in 1997 as part of the Am Echad delegation, an Agudah-sponsored mission. “The group went to visit the Belzer Rebbe and while we were there, it became obvious that Rabbi Sherer, who hadn’t been feeling well, was in pain. We whisked him into the Hatzolah room of the great Belzer shul, and after the examination, the Rebbe himself invited us to sit privately with him. Rabbi Sherer, always looking to put others at ease, introduced me to the Rebbe: ‘This is Reb Yosef Chaim Golding. He organized the last Siyum HaShas.’
“The Rebbe looked at me and said ‘I’m mekanei you, I’m envious of what you can accomplish in America … here in Eretz Yisrael, it’s not so simple.'”
Looking out at a sea of vacant seats, I wonder if my dedicated friends fall asleep (whenever it is that they go to sleep) dreaming about the stadium filled to overflowing, bursting with Jewish life.
“I very much look forward to the Siyum,” says Rabbi Gertzulin. A little laugh. “But I can’t wait for the day after!” –
Number of seats: 82,500
Number of seats added:
8,500 + 1,000 staff
Seats on the dais: 500 plus 1,000 maggidei shiur
Frequency of trains arriving:
Number of K-9 dogs: 60 units – just about every K-9 unit in New Jersey has been mobilized
Number of security guards: Over 1000 state troopers, FBI agents, undercover and counter-terrorism agents, plus stadium security
Food and drink: kosher snacks and drinks will be sold.
Number of pages in special Siyum booklet, Hasiyum: 216
Plasma screens throughout stadium for clear viewing:
Hatzolah members on call: 160, in addition to 40 stadium EMTs and medical staff
Reprinted with permission from MISHPACHA Magazine.