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The Simple Truth

Yisroel Besser

Rabbi Nota Schiller has been in the business of kiruv for the last 40 years, the founder of Ohr Somayach, and a charter member of the baal teshuvah yeshivah movement. While the times have changed, his method has not: give students the truth and everything else follows.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Harav Boruch Povarsky of Ponevez Yeshiva gives a shuir on the weekly Torah portion.

“The challenge has always been to serve up truth in a noncondescending and aesthetically provocative manner,” Rabbi Nota Schiller says, offering his mission statement with an unapologetic air, exuding the easy confidence born of experience and success. More than 40 years ago, he was among the founders of the first yeshivah specifically geared to baalei teshuvah. Ohr Somayach went from being a pie-in-the-sky idea to a reality, a very real yeshivah. What would come to be known as the Baal Teshuvah Movement would grow around it. Ohr Somayach graduates would define the evolution of the wider Jewish community, the yeshivah a key setting in the story of the masses returning. The familiar baal teshuvah story line that started on campus or at a club or a shul in Winnipeg or Wichita, London or Los Angeles, often happily ended with “… and today he’s learning in Ohr Somayach.” Seated in a creaky captain’s chair, Rabbi Schiller waits a second too long before continuing. “The truth… it sounds like a cliché, right? Like the coach who instructs the hitter to ‘hit a home run.’ It’s easier said than done. We have a yeshivah. We learn Gemara. B’iyun. That’s truth, and if you start with that, you work backward.

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The product is in place, and then you just need the right means of transmission, articulate lecturers to predigest enough of what’s to come to motivate the novice to enter the arena.” Last year, an article in this magazine addressed the closing window on the kiruv industry, maintaining that the flood of spiritual seekers has dried up. Like someone whose kid brother had been picked on in a schoolyard fight, Rabbi Schiller strode over with his fists clenched. Kiruv, he wrote in a published response to that article, is alive and well to anyone who cares to look. He opened his essay by quoting Mark Twain, who awoke one morning to find a headline in a local newspaper proclaiming his death. To which Twain responded: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Then Reb Nota supplied the statistics to support his argument about the growth of kiruvin recent years. The retort reverberated long and loud. We’re here to continue the conversation.

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