June 21, 2024
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Ohr Torah Stone Learn-a-Thon to Honor Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

The program this Sunday, June 9, will focus on Jewish values and challenges.

Rabbi Riskin (Credit: Gershon Ellinson)

(Courtesy of Ohr Torah Stone) Originally an innovation of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ohr Torah Stone’s online global pre-Shavuot Learn-a-Thon is set to happen on June 9 for the fifth year. The six-hour long event, held in tribute to the organization’s founder Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on his birthday, will feature dozens of OTS’s top teachers, rabbis and rabbaniyot, alumni, and emissaries throughout the world on three different channels, for a total of nearly 30 different lectures in both Hebrew and English.

While the learn-a-thon reflects the Shavuot tradition of celebrating the receiving of the Torah with learning, it also celebrates Rabbi Riskin’s philosophy that the Torah is about more than just abiding by halacha; its values are equally important. “Just as abiding by the religious laws is an inherent part of Judaism, so are the values of compassion, tolerance, outreach and social action,” he often says.

Rabbi Riskin immigrated to Israel from New York and founded Ohr Torah Stone in 1983; now the organization has a network of 32 schools, education and social justice programs in Israel and around the world. The organization is on the forefront of Israeli Jewish education, social justice initiatives and forging a path for halacha that addresses the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.

Especially this year, as soldiers and Israeli civilians continue to suffer death and injury during the ongoing war with Hamas, and political differences tear apart the unity that was so palpable following Oct. 7, the learn-a-thon strives to reflect and spread those values so dear to Rabbi Riskin.

Rabbi Brander teaching students. (Credit: Shlomi Shalmony)

“This special and unique learning event has particular significance this year, as it brings together Jewish educators, leaders, students and community members from around the world,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, president and rosh hayeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “As a people, we need to recognize that we must be actively engaged in strengthening each other and caring for each other in these times, even in the face of our differences. This is how we will help build our country and add value to society.”

Being actively engaged in education among youth and in Israeli society has long been central to Ohr Torah Stone and is what both inspires and makes more relevant its focus on dealing with contemporary halachic and social issues. Since Oct. 7, Ohr Torah Stone has lost 13 alumni and 32 members of the greater OTS community who fell in the Simchat Torah massacre or while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Brander said.

“We are dealing with some extremely difficult losses this year and we are mourning as an OTS family and as part of the international Jewish community,” he noted. “At the same time, these incredible challenges and, simultaneously, the inspiring messages from families who have lost precious loved ones are making us more aware of the importance of our strength, resilience and commitment to hope. We deeply feel the need for us to build a country that is both a haven and a heaven for world Jewry, and at the same time contributing to efforts to build a better society.”

Rabbi Brander will deal with this topic during his lecture on “The Shechina in Exile: What is Our Role in Redeeming God?” This lecture will focus not just on redemption from God, but on how people have an obligation to redeem God in the world, to work to make it a better place. It is this principle that informs much of Ohr Torah Stone’s innovative halachic approach and social justice programs, including Yad La’isha, which advocates for agunot, or women whose husbands deny them a get, which is required for a legal divorce in Israel.

The role of women, as well as the war, growing global antisemitism and other current events are set to be part of other lectures as well.

Rabbanit Yael Nitzanim from OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership (WIHL), will explore the meaning behind the phrase and the institution’s name: “Ohr Torah: Torah as Light.” This five-year women’s program is unique in the Orthodox world, training women to provide halachic guidance and leadership for communities, campuses and educational institutions.

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, the founding director of OTS’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institutes, which send rabbis and educators to serve Jewish communities throughout the world, will speak about the impact of the Gaza war on diaspora Jewry.

Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt, who leads OTS’s Beren-Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, will discuss antisemitism and Islam, reflecting Ohr Torah Stone’s commitment to learning about and engaging with other religions.

Other lectures in English will focus on the Book of Ruth and the role of biblical authority in halacha.

Shavuot has an extra personal significance at Ohr Torah Stone as it is close to Rabbi Riskin’s birthday. This year he will turn 84.

“Rabbi Riskin continues to be an inspiration, and his vision is a light to all of us at Ohr Torah Stone,” Rabbi Brander said. “Shavuot, especially this year, is an opportune time to share this vision with the wider Jewish world, and reaffirm how halacha and Torah values can help all of us work together and really make an impact on the community level, in the educational world, and in society.”

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