Reflections on the Ninth Annual Project Inspire Convention
By Malky Lowinger
It’s a heart- warming scene each year when we arrive at the Project Inspire Convention, and a special thrill to walk under the soaring atrium at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Stamford. Every event has a certain vibe, and here at Project Inspire the vibe is loud and clear. There’s a feeling of camaraderie when meeting and greeting old friends and new, but there’s also a unique sense of determination.
We’re all on a mission here this weekend. And it has less to do with the outstanding cuisine or the comfortable accommodations or even the incredible and endless buffets , as amazing as they all were, than with the powerful and moving presentations. We are on a mission to gather inspiration. And we know we came to the right place.
Welcome to the Project Inspire Convention, where klal yisroel gets an annual opportunity to recharge its collective spiritual batteries. The nine hundred rooms of the luxurious Stamford Crown Plaza luxury hotel are fully booked with a cross section of Jews from all walks of life and all stages in life. Here is where Boro Park meets Scottsdale, Arizona. Where young people from Toronto inspire the middle aged couples of Flatbush. Where a group of women from Brooklyn and Lakewood hear the amazing story of a Japanese giyorus from Honolulu. And where a former British music producer who, in his own words, once drove a Bentley that was a mile long, could bring the house down .
Project Inspire is a grassroots organization dedicated to activating the Torah community to reach out to our fellow Jews to help stem the tide of assimilation. By providing tools, opportunities, and training, Project Inspire encourages frum Jews to form a grassroots kiruv movement and help change the world. Armed with our warmth, caring, and ahavas yisroel, all of us can do outreach. Or, as Rabbi Chaim Sampson, Founding Director of Project Inspire, likes to say, “It’s time to wake up the sleeping giant!”
Kabolas Shabbos is a powerful experience, led by R’Ely Bineth and the Zimra choir. Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff officially opens the Convention by introducing the theme of the weekend. He offers a simple example – a plane full of yidden is stranded in remote and frigid Goose Bay Canada. A frum Jew reaches out to his skeptical seatmate by offering him food and snacks. An insignificant gesture? Maybe. But if it has changed the man’s perception of our community even slightly, then there’s no telling how great the impact will be.
Dr. Stuart Hytman and his wife Andrea are the visionaries who believed in Project Inspire from the very beginning and stand at its helm until today. Dr. Hytman is a Founding Partners and Chairman of the organization, and he opens the Shabbos evening keynote session, welcoming over a thousand of us to this event. He is followed by Rabbi Chaim Sampson, and by Rav Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, Mora D’asra of Gateshead, who speaks about unity and caring for our fellow yidden.
A wonderful Oneg waits for us and so does a variety of concurrent sessions, making it very difficult for us to choose between so many outstanding speakers and such compelling and intriguing topics. Project Inspire has gathered together the most talented, captivating, and capable presenters of our time. The list includes both veteran lecturers and rising stars. We are zoche to hear from Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, Rabbi Eytan Feiner, Rebetzin Aviva Feiner, Mrs. Debbie Greenblatt, Rabbi Daniel Mechanic, Rabbi Daniel Glatstein, Rabbi Yoel Gold, Rabbi Moshe Zeldman, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldheim, Rabbi Tzvi Sytner, and Rav Gav Friedman. All this plus we bask in the glow of choshuva Rabbonim such as HaRav Dovid Cohen, HaRav Zimmerman, and HaRav Lieff. Does anyone seriously expect to get any sleep this weekend?
At midnight, we enjoy a Tisch led by the talented Zimra Choir and then “Rap With The Rabbis”, with Rabbis Sytner, Gold, Feldheim, and Friedman. At this late night hour, we explore some of our community’s most pressing chinuch issues, as members of the audience ask penetrating questions. Our panel is entertaining and enlightening, but are also distinctly aware of the problems that plague our youth.
Reluctantly, we say goodnight at 2:00 AM, as many will be rising early to attend daf yomi with Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, followed by a parsha shiur by Rabbi Glatstein. A Gala Kiddush is followed by a keynote session led by Rav Cohen, who is followed by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair. Rabbi Sinclair tells the story of his personal odyssey and we hang onto his every word. We are told he rarely leaves Yerushalayim where he is a member of the faculty at Ohr Somayach. But he has joined us this weekend to tell us his dramatic story of Jewish discovery.
We are introduced to Tovia and Rachel Factor, who tell their own amazing personal story of discovery. Tuvia, formerly Todd, was a producer/director. Rachel, originally Tina, was a dancer/performer. Hashgacha pratis clearly punctuates their amazing story. But also significant are the frum families who bring them into their homes, share Shabbosim with them, and ultimately serve as incredible role models and friends.
We are inspired by the everyday people who step out of their comfort zones and are making a huge difference. Thus are we introduced to Miriam from Toronto who, together with her husband Elie, has helped spearhead a huge Project Inspire movement in their city. And Leeba from Brooklyn, who with two friends, has founded the Amatz Initiative which sponsors inspiring trips to Israel for school principals. And our friend Robin, whose efforts to create a Jewish school in Scottsdale have proven tremendously successful. We are humbled by these people, but we are also empowered. The question on everyone’s mind this weekend is “Why Not Me?”
A riveting Grand Convention Presentation on Motzei Shabbos leaves us breathless. “Boruch Hashem,” says Rabbi Yossi Friedman of Project Inspire, “we experienced an amazing Shabbos. But it had more to do with all of you than with our presenters.” He thanked Dr Stuart and Andrea Hytman and Isaac and Edie Gross for their unwavering support. He also thanked Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish HaTorah.
We are warned by Rabbi Sampson to keep the memory of this Shabbos alive. “We had a great Shabbos,” he tells us, “but we can’t go back home and say, ‘Hashem will take care of it’. Hashem wants to give to us but he is waiting for us to make a little difference.“ He recommended that we reach out to our fellow Jews on Purim perhaps by sending a small unexpected shalach monos. “Let’s together allow the Almighty to give us his blessings,” he said.
We meet Gene Stevens from Woodmere who tells us his personal story while choking back tears. Gene visited Israel with J-Inpsire and it profoundly affected his life. Gene and his wife Susan credit their many Shabbos invitation for making a difference. “We called ourselves the Shabbos gypsies,” he says, and then adds that, “there is nothing more powerful than the impact of a Shabbos table
Rabbi Lieff speaks passionately about the Kiddush Hashem that has transpired over this weekend. “In every generation,” he says, “there are people who are beating the drum of Torah and mitzvos. In our generation, it’s you. Yiddishkeit is making a comeback. It’s breathtaking. And you’re beating that drum.” He urges us to “turn the world around one neshama at a time.”
And then we meet Lloyd and Edana, who tell us about the “amazing transformation” that their family has experienced. This inspiring couple has recently been halachically remarried on a recent trip to Eretz Yisroel. And we continue to celebrate their ‘mazel tov’ at tonight’s Convention.
Another sleepless night follows as the women enjoy a performance by Rachel Factor followed by friendly conversation that lasts until the wee hours of the morning . The men join Eytan Katz at a musical kumzitz. Someone points out that it’s snowing outside, and we realize that we’ve been living in a bubble of inspiration of sorts, blissfully unaware of insignificant details such as weather conditions. Nobody wants to burst this bubble.
Despite the lack of sleep we are determined to attend the morning sessions. Close to forty eight hours of discovery, and we are still going strong, attending sessions that are standing room only. More than one person is overheard saying, “I can do this forever. I don’t want it to end. “
Fellow Conventioneers are by now fast friends, having shared a common deeply meaningful experience. We share our impressions. Estie from Flatbush says her greatest inspiration this weekend was the grand musical havdallah ceremony where the sense of achdus was palpable. Rivka enjoyed hearing Rabbanit Yemima, who urged us to welcome Adar b’simcha. The men appreciated the accessibility of the Rabbonim , who are happy to answer our kiruv questions. And Shoshana, from Queens, says she is now emboldened to approach her fellow Jews and offer them a Shabbos invitation or perhaps a recommendation to visit the Aish HaTorah website.
At the Closing Keynote Session, Rabbi Steven Burg urges us to take responsibility for our fellow Jews. “We are not here to discuss kiruv or outreach,” he says. “We are here to discuss what it means to be a Jew. And that is to love every other Jew.”
Rabbi Duvi Bensoussan asks us to emulate Moshe Rabbeinu who chased a small sheep that was lost from the flock. “That,” he says, “was the first moment that Hashem appeared to Moshe because that’s when he showed that he’s ready to step up for the children of klal yisroel.”
And finally, Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz, Rosh Kollel of the Jerusalem Kollel, puts it all in perspective in a video presentation from Yerushalayim. He urges us to share.
“Life is beautiful,” he says. “We have all this excitement. Now take this excitement and go share it with our brethren in the world out there.”
We shared an incredible Shabbos of inspiration. Now it’s time to share it with the rest of our fellow Jews.