Thursday, January 25, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Beshalach/Shabbos Shirah
10 Shevat 5778/January 26, 2018

As I was leaving shul one morning recently, a fellow stopped me and asked me the following question:
“I’m a BT (Ba’al Teshuva)”, he began, “I learn Gemara, and it’s quite challenging for me. I know that I’m not going to be a great Torah scholar, and Gemara is particularly challenging and daunting. I have learned that Torah study brings a feeling of internal happiness and joy. Indeed, I feel uplifted and can’t get enough of mitzvos, and I love being a religious Jew. But, where is the joy in learning Gemara for someone like me? It’s an uphill battle every day, and I find it very arduous and challenging. I would appreciate any chizuk you could give me.”
My immediate response was that it was too important a question for me to give him a flippant answer on my way out of shul. I told him I wanted to give his question worthy thought and then I would reply to him.
The truth is that it’s a question many of our yeshiva bochurim grapple with as well. They may know that one day their learning can, and hopefully will, bring them a surge of joy and internal happiness. They hopefully see it on the faces of older students and rabbeim – the unique blissful happiness that Torah study brings.
However, especially when beginning, and trying to decipher a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew discussions involving precise analysis of biblical interpretation, that often requires abstract thinking, it can be extremely challenging. This is all the more true in a world which has a hard time sustaining attention for more than a three minute, humorous, or incredible You Tube clip. Where is the joy to be found in the intense struggle? Sure, anything great requires patience and the ability to delay instant pleasure. But is there a feeling of happiness and satisfaction that can be felt just from the mere participation in this challenging, spiritual endeavor?
I believe the answer to the question connects with a more fundamental question regarding religion itself. If all of Torah Judaism had to be summarized in one word - all of our constant efforts to improve our davening, learning, doing chesed, performing mitzvos, keeping halacha, etc. - I would venture to think that the word is connection!
Our goal is to live a connected life - where we feel uplifted, through a feeling of connection with Hashem and to our fellow Jews, via Torah observance.
Imagine if somehow, we were able to meet our great-great-great grandfather for a few minutes. Our lives couldn’t be more different. We try to communicate, but the language barrier is the least of it. He comes from a primitive world without electricity, a life of abject poverty, subjected to blatantly anti-Semitic laws that confine him to a ghetto, and render him a second-class citizen at best. His days are filled with difficult physical labor, and he spends his nights immersed in Torah study.
I, on the other hand, live in a democracy, in relative affluence and comfort, where if a child doesn’t go to Florida for midwinter he is deprived. My world’s greatest challenge is its inability to appreciate what it has, and its struggles with mental health.
What do we have to talk about? He tries to tell me about the latest decrees against the Jews, and I try telling him about the upcoming Super Bowl, and whether Brady can pull it off for New England, and if the Yankees have a shot this year.
But then suddenly after a moment of awkward silence, my ancestor asks “parsha?” I answer what parsha it is, and he begins rattling off the words of a Rashi I am familiar with, and am excitedly able to finish offThen he says, “Gemara?” I reply “Kesubos”. He suddenly smiles and starts talking about a discussion in the Gemara and Tosafos’ comment. We are at once literally ‘on the same page’.
Suddenly, despite being generations and worlds apart, we have found holy common ground, and a point of connection.
That is part of the joy of learning Gemara, or any part of Torah. No matter what we are learning, when we engage in the study of those ancient texts, we are connecting to our people traversing time - past and future. Of course, we are also connecting to our Creator in the most sublime manner possible as well.
There is undoubtedly joy in accomplishment and achieving mastery of Torah. But, even learning a few lines on a random page contains the joy of connection, which is ultimately what all our efforts in Avodas Hashem should lead us to feel.
When we open a page of Gemara, we are staring at the same hallowed words that Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rambam, Vilna Gaon, Chasam Sofer, Rav Hirsch, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman learned.
It’s the same words that were, and are, taught in Babylonia, Persia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, Australia, Chili, Eretz Yisroel, New York, and Los Angeles.
That joyous feeling of connection can imbue in a person a feeling of internal connection, even as he gruelingly tries to decipher the challenging Aramaic code-like concepts in the gemara. It’s the joy of transcending time and place, discovering and fostering the greatest feeling of connection that one can attain.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bo
3 Shevat 5778/January 19, 2018

As I was leaving shul one morning recently, a fellow asked if he could speak to me for a moment. He began my asking me if I am an FFB or a BT? For those unfamiliar with the lingo - FFB means “Frum From Birth” while BT means a Ba’al Teshuva.
I have never been asked that question before. It reminded me of an anecdote I read: A young man once came to the Gerrer Rebbe, the Bais Yisroel, to receive the Rebbe’s blessing. When the rebbe asked him where he was learning, he replied that he was learning in Ohr Samaich (a famous Yeshiva for ba’alei teshuva). Then he quickly added, “but I’m not a ba’al teshuva!” The rebbe looked at him and replied, “why not?!”
We refer to those who were brought up irreligious and have made the incredible decision to revolutionize their lives, as ba’alei teshuva.
It’s a title we seem to reserve for those who have given up the lifestyle they were raised with, to adapt a life of Torah and commitment to Hashem.
But the truth is that it’s our mandate and responsibility to all become ba’alei teshuva. We all are charged with constantly seeking to improve ourselves and to work on our negative character traits.
After a moment’s thought, I replied to him that I would like to think that I am both. I was b’h privileged to have been raised in a spiritually nurturing environment where Torah, mitzvos, and Halacha observance were the priority. In that sense, I am indeed an FFB. Yet, I would like to think that I am also a Ba’al Teshuva, in the sense that I try to be honest with myself and confront some of my (ed. - many) deficiencies and character flaws, and work to improve them. Perhaps, those close to me will argue that I’m not yet a “BT”, but I hope and aspire to be one day.
Truthfully, even according to the prevalent definition of a BT, as someone irreligious who has adapted a religious life, we have a lot to learn from them.
Rabbi Uri Zohar was an iconic Israeli television personality with all the endemic glitz and glamour. After years in show biz, he left that way of life completely, and has become a known talmid chochom and inspiration for many.
He once quipped that if someone offered him a million dollars to not put on tefillin for just one day, it would not even be a challenge for him. He wouldn’t even have an internal struggle to overcome. He had lived in “that world” and knew firsthand that what appeared to be so appealing, was empty and completely unfulfilling. All the money in the world can’t provide the meaning and feeling of connection that one can have from donning tefillin on any given morning.
So many of the incredible ba’alei teshuva I have met, share similar sentiments and experiences. When I marvel at how much they gave up becoming religious, they say that if I knew how they felt before they became religious, I wouldn’t be so impressed. They say things like it was all fun and exciting, until it all seems to come crashing down, and you feel like your life is meaningless and is not going anywhere...”
So they jump into a life of commitment to Torah and can’t get enough of it. It’s so fulfilling and purposeful!
The tragedy is that many of us who are FFBs, fail to see what these incredible BTs have discovered. We fail to recognize the passionate and emotional connection that our way of life affords is. We were privileged to have been brought up with and it’s what all of our neighbors and friends do too. Tragically, our observance is the same way it was when we were children and we never seek to deepen it.
If only we could harness the energy and perspective of those BTs and view Torah from their perspective. The truth is that we can. But we have to stop being observant out of habit and rote.
There are so many inspirational personalities and speakers in our communities who are BTs. It seems obvious why that is. We need to look at the gift of our heritage, laws, and traditions with a fresh perspective. True, it’s something we must keep. But our goal is that it becomes something we want to keep, and that comes from recognizing its beauty and depth!
The questioner in shul that morning may have thought he was asking me a simple question - whether I was a FFB or a BT, but it definitely got me thinking. I hope one day to truly be a BT, in more ways than one.
After he asked me about myself, he continued that he himself is a BT, and has a question.
I hope to share his question and my response, next week.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vaera
25 Teves 5778/January 12, 2018
Mevorchim Chodesh Shevat

Everything is relative. Someone forwarded a copy of the memo sent home to the parents of Torah Academy of Boca Raton, Florida, last week, which read: “With predicted temperatures in the 40s and 50s tomorrow, we ask you to please be sure to send a coat or a jacket tomorrow with your children…. Stay warm!”
Here on the upper east coast, we braced ourselves for a walloping storm this past Thursday, which they titled a “Bomb Cyclone.” Giving such dramatic names definitely helps engender hysteria, which the news stations love to promote.
  It dumped a few inches of snow, forty mile an hour winds, and was followed by days of Arctic weather, where daytime highs were in the single digits, and nighttime lows were below zero. Safety and precautionary notes were sent around to prevent frozen pipes and other such issues.
Meanwhile, out in Minnesota, they were experiencing the same weather, and were trying to figure out what everyone on the North-East Coast was getting excited about.
During Thursday morning’s storm, after davening shachris in shul, our oldest child, Shalom, and I headed home in my non-four-wheel drive. There wasn’t much snow on the ground, but the roads had not been salted or paved well by that point.
Someone asked me for a ride home. I told him I would be glad to do so, as long as the car could make it up the steep hill going up to his street. I didn’t really think that would be an issue, until I made it a third of the way up, and could not proceed any further. The wheels spun but we weren’t moving at all. I drove back down the hill, and apologized, and let him off at the bottom.
Then, we had the challenge of trying to make it up the steep hill leading up to our home. As soon as we began heading up the hill, the car seemed to struggle mightily with the road. However, we were moving, though literally inch by inch. I shifted gears, turned the wheels, floored it, and then let up, as we continued to make our painfully slow ascent. As we continued to inch our way up I doubted that we could actually make it to the top, but without much choice, I continued to try.
As we were nearing the top, I noticed in my icy rear-view mirror, a taxi, which obviously had four-wheel drive, fairly easily cruising up the mountain. In another minute he whizzed by us, and proceeded on.
Thankfully, we made it home, though the normally four-minute drive, took almost five times as long.
In my first position after graduating with my degree in Social Work, I had the privilege to be the School Social Worker in Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch, a yeshiva for boys who struggled academically in the main-stream schools. What is most remarkable about the yeshiva, is the positive atmosphere and general happiness that is apparent on the faces of the students.
The founder of the yeshiva, Rabbi Binyamin Rabinowitz, explains that as a rebbe in a mainstream yeshiva for many years, he always had a few students who couldn’t keep up with the class. Despite the great effort they invested, at times even with tutors and outside assistance, they just couldn’t keep up with their peers.
I could not imagine what it would be like to have the feeling I had driving up the hill so painfully slowly, with another car passing me effortlessly, every single day. Often the deep pain and shame of those precious students emerges during their adolescence in unpleasant ways.
It was for that reason that Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch was founded, to offer those students a supportive and nurturing environment, where they could feel accepted with their academic challenges, and taught how to be successful despite them. The yeshiva continues to be that wonderful haven and services our community, living up to its lofty mantra of building and educating every neshama.
Although my role was to emotionally support the students, I learned many things from those students and from the incredible rabbeim that I was privileged to work alongside.  
This will probably sound unbelievable, but this article isn’t an appeal, nor was I even asked to write it. (Of course, I have no doubt that the yeshiva could benefit greatly from donations....) But my experience during the snow storm, reminded me of the yeshiva and its students and the amazing work they, and their dedicated rabbeim and teachers do, in trying to reach the soul of every student, in his/her unique manner.
Bais Hachinuch was my first real employment. Consistent with their goal of building people, the menahel Rabbi Naftali Eisgrau, offered me my first position, and never stopped encouraging me. (He still does!)
In recent months, I have met a few of our former Bais Hachinuch students in different locations. At times, I recognized them instantly, while other times they introduced themselves. What’s remarkable to me, is how happy they are to see me. I have heard from other Bais Hachinuch rabbeim that they have had the same experience when meeting former talmidim. No matter whether the talmid has gone on to learn in yeshivos, or has gone out to work, they seem to recall those nurturing years in Bais Hachinuch with fondness.
Could there be a more beautiful goal than to seek to help every child climb the hills of life, no matter what kind of tires or engines they were born with?!
Personally, I am still deciding whether it’s worth the added expense of four-wheel drive, or maybe to just move to a place where they must send a note home to parents to tell their children to bundle up because it’s considered unusually cold at 50 degrees.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

Thursday, January 4, 2018



Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shemos
18 Teves 5778/January 5, 2018
On Wednesday, March 2008 our family moved to our current home at 3 Landau Lane. That Shabbos two of our close friends – the Kraus and Schulgasser families, came to visit us and welcome us to our new home.
Until then we had been living in apartments. For the first few months of our marriage we lived in an apartment in Flatbush. [The year we married, Chani was in a one-year post-Israel seminary program. The day she took her last final, was the day we moved to Monsey.] When we moved to Monsey we had lived in two different apartments.
It was exciting for us to be able to host our friends with their children in our first home, if even for a few hours. Sometime during the afternoon, one of the children used the downstairs bathroom and the toilet overflowed. I immediately went to fix the problem, but the water did not recede. One of our guests, who had been living in a house longer than three days, showed me how to shut off the water behind the toilet. Problem solved, or so we thought.
When someone used one of the upstairs bathrooms a few minutes later, the toilet downstairs again overflowed. Then, when someone washed their hands in the kitchen sink, that same toilet again overflowed. Luckily the downstairs bathroom is a top the garage, because very quickly, the overflowed waters soaked the towels we laid down, and was trickling into the garage below. We came to the realization that water draining from anywhere in the house, was overflowing from that toilet.
On Motzei Shabbos we called an emergency number for a plumber who responded to a late-night weekend call. Luckily for us, our realtor had gifted us with a one-year warranty on all home appliances, and we were able to find a plumber who accepted that insurance.
The plumber arrived at midnight and began assessing the problem. That night I received an education about how our sewage line works. When the plumber snaked out to the street there was no interference, so the problem was clearly not outside the home. However, when he tried to snake from the pipe in the garage back into the house, it could not get through. There was something significant blocking the pipe, causing all draining water to come up from the downstairs toilet, instead of continuing down the pipes and into the outside sewer.
The plumber tried a few times to break through, but was unsuccessful. He informed me that he was going to try one more time, and if that didn’t work he would be forced to remove the downstairs toilet, which would cause an even bigger mess. He told me to bring over all our garbage cans, remove their contents, and place them beneath the stubborn pipe.
After doing so, I recited a silent prayer, as he began to send his snake back up. With a mighty push, the snake broke through. I will spare you the details of what came out, but it was not pleasant. After the backed-up sewage drained, he began drawing out pieces of plaster and whole bathroom tiles.
The former owner of our home had moved out a few months prior, leaving the house in possession of a relocation company. The company had hired workers to paint and redo some of the tiling. Being that no one was living there anyway, the workers took the liberty of dumping the waste down the toilet. When we had moved in on Wednesday, the blocked pipes began to fill. By the time Shabbos afternoon came around, the only place the water could escape was from the downstairs toilet. It made our first Shabbos in our new home that much more memorable.
Throughout Chumash Bereishis there is considerable discussion of berachos (blessings) – receiving and, in some cases, usurping berachos.
Every one of us, by virtue of being endowed with a holy neshama, are a source and conduit to bring blessing into this world. The problem is that we often ‘stuff up’ the spiritual pipelines which carry those blessings, with all sorts of impeding debris, which doesn’t allow the blessings to reach their destination.
We seek the blessings of the holy and righteous in the belief that, due to their spiritual efforts and focus, they have a clearer pipeline, and their souls are more connected to the source of blessing. When they confer their blessing upon us, it can open channels we inherently possess, but have blocked up.
Although blessings from great individuals are always wonderful and are also encouraging, we should remember that every one of us is a source of blessing. The more we keep our spiritual channels clear the more connected we are. However, a blessing from any Jew - no matter what level he or she is on - carries weight and helps. This is especially true when a beracha is conferred with emotion and love. That feeling of connection is itself a tremendous boon, and at time can accomplish more than an unemotional blessing from a greater person. The blessings we wish each other are far more powerful than we realize.
Those who have the custom to bless their children on Friday night, should recognize the great power they wield in giving that blessing. Realistically, as the Shabbos seudah is set to begin, children can be unruly and restless, and it can be hard to give a blessing with full concentration. When giving our younger children those blessings, I try to get all the words out before they throw my hands off and try to slink away.  Yet, it is such a beautiful custom, and the blessing of a parent should never be undervalued, even if given in a somewhat harried manner. 
May Hashem bless every one of us with only health, goodness, and happiness, and the wisdom to appreciate all our blessings.     
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
              R’ Dani and Chani Staum