Learning, Living, and Loving Torah: the OU West Coast Convention
The annual Orthodox Union (OU) West Coast Convention took place over the weekend of November 30th through December 3rd. The theme of this year’s convention was Learn, Live, Love Torah. The numerous events offered throughout the convention brought together hundreds of people eager to learn Torah and to be inspired by the dynamic guest speakers. Among the events was a Sunday morning program, Learn LA, which came to Los Angeles for the first time.
The convention opened with a keynote dinner and address by Charlie Harary on the subject of Personal Growth, Entrepreneurship, Social Change and Spirituality. The keynote event took place in the recently-completed building of the Young Israel of Century City (YICC) – it was, in fact, the first event hosted by YICC in their new building.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin warmly welcomed the attendees. The keynote speaker, Charlie Harary, told a story about his encounter with a Christian community that was eager to hear from a Jew because they believe that Jews are here to bring G-d to the world. “Are our young people brimming with revealing G-d to the world?” Mr. Harary asked.
He spoke about the story of Chanukah and the “battle of schema” that took place between the rationally-minded Greeks and the spiritually oriented Jews. Schema, he explained, is our perception of reality, which influences how we see everything in life. While the Greek schema revolved around the physical world, the Jewish schema focuses on the unity of G-d. “Everything we see is a subset of the Divine,” he said. “People aren’t bodies; people are congealed souls.” He emphasized that the message of Chanukah is to never forget our spirituality. “G-d wants us to live in the world and make it better,” he said. “Remember – we are here to reveal G-d.”
On Friday, the convention’s guest speakers visited four local high schools and were very well received by students and faculty. In fact, YULA Girls High School invited its speaker, Mrs. Michal Horowitz of Long Island, New York, to come back for another event.
On Friday night, a tisch and oneg Shabbos was hosted by Adas Torah. The tisch drew about 150 men and women from all over the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The participants enjoyed spirited singing and inspiring Torah thoughts by Rabbis Shay Schachter, Moshe Hauer, and David Fohrman.
On Shabbos day, fourteen shuls throughout the Greater Los Angeles hosted the guest speakers as scholars-in-residence. On Motzaei Shabbos, three different events took place at the same time: a trustees reception with Charlie Harary, an event for young professionals with Rabbi Steven Weil, and a community melaveh malkah at the LINK Kollel and Shul.
On Sunday morning, the Learn LA event at Beth Jacob offered three sessions of several parallel tracks of lectures by twelve guest speakers. One of the tracks, Current Controversies in Halacha, covered the subjects of halachos of tuition, embarrassment in halachah, and marijuana in halachah. Another track focused on strengthening Torah values, and another provided new insights into the Tanach.
Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a prominent posek and Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University, spoke about tuition. He emphasized the importance of transparency in school administration. While no school is making a profit, he said, “members of the board should be entitled to see how the money is allocated.” Rabbi Schachter then answered numerous questions from the audience regarding the obligations of parents and grandparents in paying tuition, creating new schools, homeschooling, and special education. When asked whether the high cost of tuition should be a factor in limiting family size, he answered that such a consideration is “not justified.” “I have nine children, and I have never felt guilty about accepting tuition breaks,” said Rabbi Schachter. “One shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for a tuition break in order to have more children.”
Another segment of the Learn LA program was a legal seminar, Trial by Social Media: A Torah and Secular View, led by Lou Shapiro, Esq.; Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Esq.; and Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn. The seminar was attended by about fifty local attorneys. Mr. Shapiro spoke about electronic harassment and cyber stalking in civil law. He told about a positive consequence of social media exposure – the case of an agunah who posted about her predicament on social media. The post went viral and caused much embarrassment to the recalcitrant husband, who relented and gave the woman a get. He also spoke about the limitations of bringing online crimes to court. Rabbi Pruzansky spoke about the current trend of accusations that are posted on social media without due investigation or trial. Whether the accused admit their guilt or deny it, their reputation is ruined. The accused are not given the presumption of innocence or the opportunity to defend themselves. Rabbi Pruzansky discussed several cases, both contemporary and those found in classic shaalos and teshuvos. He concluded with practical guidance, reminding the listeners that even if the legal system is powerless to punish the criminal, “there is a Judge and there is justice.” Rabbi Einhorn spoke about the ubiquitous technology and the need to “use it to elevate people, to raise them up – because Torah is forever.”
Another segment of the program was the Rebbetzins’ Conference, lead by Rabbi Shmuel and Dr. Malka Ismach. The primary topic was parenting, with the goal of giving chizzuk to the local rebbetzins and providing them with the opportunity for camaraderie and support.
Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, OU West Coast Director, says that this year’s conference generated an unprecedented level of engagement. Altogether, the conference reached thousands of people, with close to 400 people attending the Learn LA program, which Rabbi Kalinsky called “the apex” of the conference.
Overall, the conference brought much chizzuk and inspiration to the Los Angeles Jewish community, and the guest speakers were in turn inspired by the enthusiasm of their audience. “The speakers felt that there was a tremendous connection amongst the people,” says Rabbi Kalinsky. “People want to learn, want to be inspired. The topic was meaningful. The speakers were easily accessible, creating a feeling of closeness.”