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Ordained in Cyberspace

Yisroel Besser

One day we might discover that Citi Field was erected to host the Asifa, MetLife Stadium was built in honor of the Siyum haShas … and the Internet was developed to enable Jews from all corners of the world to connect to Torah. That’s the vision of Reb Dovid Engel, a young Gerrer chassid who travels the world — by air and by cyberspace — to inspire doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, and just about any committed Jew to become a rabbi.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

I notice my interviewee before he notices me, and it’s immediately obvious what makes him stand out.

He’s walking alongTeaneck’sQueen Anne Street— as central to this neighborhood as13th Avenueis toBoroPark, or Rechov Malchei Yisrael is toJerusalem— headed to the coffee shop where we’ve arranged to meet. The scene on the thoroughfare resembles that of its better-known counterparts: businessmen on cell phones, mothers smiling into strollers, a few senior citizens sitting leisurely outdoors, spectators to the midday bustle.

Really, he should stand out. His high Gerrer hat and peyos, trousers tucked into socks and the “walk”— the rapid, swinging pace that speaks of the focus and alacrity unique to his Chassidus — should draw attention here in this hub of Modern Orthodoxy.

But he doesn’t. And then it becomes clear why he’s so well-suited to his work — it’s this ability to seamlessly connect and fit in with all sorts of Jews, in all sorts of locations and cultures. Not a chassid inTeaneck, just a good Jew among good Jews.

Seated across from him, I realize something else: I’ve rarely interviewed people younger than myself — but though Reb Dovid Engel oozes youthfulness and enthusiasm, it isn’t from lack of experience or accomplishment.

The yeshivah he leads has no eastern wall. In fact, it has no wall at all, but it does have talmidim — doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals from around the world. It also has no historical precedent. Pirchei Shoshanim, an Internet learning project culminating in smichah in accordance with the grueling exams of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, might raise eyebrows — a harnessing of the tools offered by a new world to teach wisdom as old as time.

“At a Pirchei Shoshanim siyum where all our participants received their smichah certificates, Ateres Yisrael mashgiach Rav Chaim Walkin was the guest speaker,” Reb Dovid remarks. “The Mashgiach quoted the gemara in Avodah Zarah that when Mashiach comes, the nations of the world will also be called to judgment. They will claim that everything they did — the bridges they built, the roads they paved — they did for the sake of Yisrael. The Mashgiach said, ‘I have no doubt that when that day comes, we will discover that Citi Field was erected to host the Asifa, and MetLife Stadium was built in honor of the Siyum haShas … and the Internet was developed to enable Jews from all corners of the world to connect to this learning program, to be part of something so magnificent.’”

Rabbi Engel is serious. “That idea is really our mission statement. It wasn’t easy, especially when we started, to launch an Internet-based learning program. The Internet is a vehicle of so much impurity — could it really be the means to increase holiness?”

Actually, the mission he refers to is one started long ago, before there was an Internet, before Dovid Engel was even born.


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