The oft-repeated and underlying theme at the Thursday, July 7 Mega Siyum on Masechet Yevamot was, “It’s not the Daf, but the Yomi.” Charismatic, internationally acclaimed Maggid Daf Yomi, R’ Eli Stefansky, hosted the siyum through his popular Mercaz Daf Yomi (MDY) to an audience of over 1600. The lavish venue at Bell Works — the former headquarters of Bell Labs — added an extra level of celebration to a gathering of enthusiastic and diversified followers of R’ Eli’s Daily Daf. The whole spectrum of a combination of chasidim, misnagdim, yeshivish, modern Orthodox and baalei teshuvot joyously clutched hands and danced to the festive music, celebrating their accomplishment at concluding one of the most difficult masechtot in Talmud. For five exuberant hours, R’ Eli and his talmidim celebrated Torah through inspirational divrei Torah, fervent tefillah b’tzibbur, delicious dining and delirious dancing, and well-deserved awards.
The backstory of the evening begins forty years ago with the birth of Eli Stefansky in Lakewood. His childhood and youth were spent in different communities between New York and Eretz Yisrael. He studied in the mosdos of Square, Munkach and Ponevez. He recalls his father’s meeting with Rav Shach, in their home in Israel. At his own admission, he was never a gifted learner but the prophetic words of the Ribnitzer Rebbe, that he was destined to be a “gadol baTorah,” did come true as evidenced by his masses of followers.
R’ Eli began his adult life in the world of business through which he quickly learned that to be successful one needed a big dose of determination and daring. Initially in the world of catering, he made a bold dive into the world of real estate, beginning at the bottom with manual labor. Highly successful and living a comfortable life in Chicago with his wife Faigy Friedman and five children, he led a small shiur for eight years. This shiur eventually morphed into his now famous 8-minute Daf. initially on WhatsApp, during which he summarized the day’s Daf through charts and other visuals. By the time of the Siyum HaShas, his 8-minute Daf had gone from 1000 to 15,000 participants.
Initially, R’ Eli’s decision to move to Israel was to be for a brief period. Now, seven and a half years later, he resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh, in a 2,000 square foot apartment which replaced his 11,000 foot square home in Chicago. At the initiation and with the encouragement of neighbors in Ramat Beit Shemesh (RBS), R’ Eli took upon himself a full-blown daily Daf Yomi shiur at 7:15 a.m. Israel time. This commitment curtailed his trips back to Chicago but fortunately he was able to leave the daily running of his real estate business to his capable partner.
A facility to house his Mercaz Daf Yomi was designated in RBS that quickly became too small for the group attending. During Covid-19, the shiur grew exponentially on Zoom and is now international including participants from 530 locations from as far away as Odessa and Cape Town. Participants follow the shiur at all hours of the day and night through hosting sites including ALL DAF, Torah Anytime, Kol HaLashon, Zoom and YouTube.
What accounts for the huge following of Mercaz Daf Yomi? It is R’ Eli’s belief that “he is teaching the way he would like to be taught.” He brings people in through his ebullience, humor and creativity. Every shiur is accompanied by visuals which range from pictures, charts, graphs and cartoons to actual life-sized objects such as the sheep he created a cardboard sheep to illustrate a concept in Korbanot. During a shiur dealing with Korban Mincha, R’ Eli actually brought in the ingredients and created the mixture in front of his audience. At the siyum, a wall mural was on display of caricatures representing all the personalities that R’ Eli introduced during Masechet Yevamot who required either Yibum or Chalitza.
R’ Eli begins every shiur by reading emails which he has received from his global participants. These personal messages, relating real life situations, create a sense of achdut among the participants who have become one huge, international family cheering each other on. The stories range from the South African man who never had the opportunity to study Torah as he lived in a tiny remote village, to the man who was childless until he joined the shiur two years ago and was blessed with a baby girl whom he named during an online shiur. He read the email of the father who Zoomed the Daf while isolated at the bedside of his ill son during Covid and the note from the group of men who were quarantined on a cruise ship while learning Masechet Shabbat.
Testimonials from all over the world come pouring in daily. Moshe Markovitz of Teaneck, now 77, never felt motivated to learn the Daf until he was introduced to R’ Eli’s shiur, He shared, “The secret to Reb Eli’s success is his innate talent as a personal motivator. From his opening greeting to his international audience and throughout his succinct explication of the daily Daf, Reb Eli does not miss an opportunity to encourage his over 13,000 heterogeneous participants to stay focused. He intertwines the wisdom of the ancient texts with insightful contemporary stories, caricatures and even occasionally daring jokes! Reb Eli bridges the time and distance zones of the remote Zoom by projecting confidence, creativity, exuberance and imagination which motivate me not to miss my daily dose of Daf Yomi which I joined at the start of Maseches Pesachim.”
Saul Stepner of Teaneck commented on the recent Siyum sharing,”The Siyum was super inspirational. We felt part of a huge family. To see 1,600 people learning together, all from different streams of yiddishkeit-chasidim, misnagdim, sephardim, srugim-was unreal. Everyone present was being ‘mechazek’ each other. It was something I will never forget. We celebrated the completion of a masechta as if we were mesayem all of Shas. I am looking forward to attending more of these siyumim in the future-hopefully in Eretz Yisroel!”
R’ Eli shared a story recorded in Masechet Yevamot 121 which encapsulates the event and the entire MDY program. Rabban Gamliel witnessed a ship capsizing with Rabbi Akiva on board. Miraculously, Rabbi Akiva survived. When asked by Rabban Gamliel how he survived, Rabbi Akiva responded. “As I was struggling in the ocean, I saw a daf, a board, and I swam over and clung to it. Rabbi Akiva was teaching us that everyone experiences some type of ‘shipwreck’ during their lifetime. The key is to cling to something firm which will help us get through. We are blessed with Torah as our daf, our flotation device. Let’s not let any more time pass before we cling on to our Daf which will keep us safe and secure.”
To learn more about all of the programs offered through R’ Eli Stefansky’s Mercaz Daf Yomi, go to linktr.ee/mercazdafyomi
By Pearl Markovitz