OU West Coast Convention Brings the Community Together with Torah Learning
Over 3500 Jews throughout the Greater Los Angeles area learned Torah and gleaned inspiration at the Orthodox Union (OU) West Coast Convention, held over the December 12th-15th weekend. The convention opened on Thursday night at Adas Torah with a keynote address by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, senior rabbi at Boca Raton Synagogue. His talk, entitled, “Being Orthodox is Not Just a Hobby: A Vision for Passionate Jewish Living,” urged every Orthodox Jew to be “a professional Jew,” passionate about Judaism.
“Rabbi Goldberg was the star of the weekend,” says Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of OU West Coast. “He addressed all the different crowds—high school students, sponsors, community members—and was very inspiring.” A total of 11 synagogues and four high schools, along with Link Kollel, participated in the convention, with each synagogue hosting one of the visiting rabbis as scholar-in-residence over Shabbos.
On Friday, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Kollel of YU/RIETS and posek for OU Kosher, gave a rabbinic shiur at LINK Kollel. “The avrechim were captivated by the breadth of his knowledge,” says Rabbi Kalinsky. Also, on Friday, the convention speakers visited the local yeshiva high schools, inspiring the students with their words of Torah.
On Friday night, Adas Torah hosted a tisch, attended by about 75 men and women. “There was inspirational singing and lovely divrei Torah,” says Rabbi Kalinsky. Friday night onegs were also held in private homes in Hancock Park and Valley Village.
Two private events were held on Motzaei Shabbos, one for sponsors and community trustees and another one for local teachers.
On Sunday, Torah Los Angeles, a Torah learning program with parallel tracks of lectures on various topics, was held at YULA Boys High School. All shiurim were well attended and garnered enthusiastic responses from the audience.
One of the tracks included a shiur about bikkur cholim in cases of mental illness, by Rabbi Jason Weiner, chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, followed by Rabbi Dr. Zev Weiner, a psychiatrist at UCLA Medical Center.
Rabbi Jason Weiner described the “best, sincerest way to do bikkur cholim” as being there for the patient, giving them our total attention and offering emotional support. While people tend to feel compassion for people with physical illness, they might feel somewhat judgmental or dismissive of patients with a mental illness. Rabbi Weiner emphasized that everyone deserves support and non-judgmental compassion.
At the same time, one must be aware of their limitations. He cited a psak from Rav Asher Weiss, shlita, stating that if the mitzvah of bikkur cholim is too difficult, then one is exempt from it. If visiting a person with mental illness is slightly uncomfortable or awkward, one should step out of their comfort zone and do the mitzvah anyway. But if such a visit is triggering and threatens one’s own wellbeing then one is exempt from visiting. In cases of severe danger, such bikkur cholim is prohibited, just as in cases of contagious diseases. In such situations, “we don’t shirk our responsibility, but we turn it over to professionals,” said Rabbi Weiner.
Rabbi Dr. Zev Wiener spoke about the complexity of bikkur cholim in cases of mental illness, due to shame associated with the condition, potential safety issues, and the fact that “well intentioned statements might cause tremendous hurt and harm.” There is also the issue of boundaries, when the patient’s needs are so overwhelming that a visitor can’t possibly provide them with what they need. “Precisely because it is complex, there is a high potential for kedushah,” said Rabbi Dr. Weiner.
Psychiatric wards are often the least visited in hospitals. Rabbi Dr. Weiner spoke about his patients who expressed a desire for more visitors and more support. One patient said, “One friend would be better than 500 of your pills.” Emotional support can go a long way to help a patient heal, and especially so in cases of mental illness. A kind word can save a life.
At the same time, it’s important not to embarrass a patient and not to drain their emotional energy. Therefore, when deciding whether or not to visit a person suffering from mental illness, one must use their seichel in assessing one’s relationship with the patient and whether a visit would actually be helpful. Even when visiting in person is not advisable, it is always possible to daven for the patient and offer support to the family members.
Another shiur, by Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, dean of Yeshivat Yavneh, and Rabbi Arye Sufrin, Head of School at YULA Boys High School, focused on inspiring our teens. The rabbis spoke about a weekly class they give together at YULA Boys, where the students can ask any question they’d like. They mentioned that this generation’s questions are very different from the previous generation’s. Students no longer ask about fundamental Jewish beliefs. They want to know whether it is permissible to eat in a vegan restaurant. The rabbis emphasized treating the students as adults, acknowledging their questions. They listed numerous resources that can be helpful to today’s parents. They also spoke about the lack of passion in today’s teenagers and suggested creating experiences, such as shabbatonim, that help ignite passion.
On a parallel track, Rebbetzin Yael Weil and Mrs. Geri Weiner gave shiurim on Tanach, dedicated in memory of Dr. Beth Sharon Samuels, a”h, and Dr. Rana Lynn Samuels Ofran, a”h, two sisters who learned and taught Torah and inspired the local community.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg concluded the learning program with a shiur about mindfulness and its place in Jewish life. “Most of us are living our lives on auto-pilot, mindlessly and frantically going through life at unprecedented pace,” he said. By regulating all parts of our lives, halachah seeks to achieve exactly the opposite—attention and focus on every detail. “When you contemplate which shoe to put on first, you begin your day with an intentional act. Nothing about your life should be random or mindless. We must examine every decision we make to make sure it conforms with our values.”
Rabbi Goldberg spoke about the challenge to mindfulness presented by modern day technology, which easily distracts us from being focused on the present. He also cautioned against shallow breathing, when one is not getting enough oxygen. “When you don’t have neshimah [breath], you lose touch with your neshamah,” he said. “My message to you is: Slow down and savor life!”
A rebbetzins program also took place on Sunday morning. Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Schmidman, Director of OU’s Department of Women’s Initiatives and a rebbetzin in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, who moderated the rebbetzin panel, said, “It was wonderful to see [rebbetzins come together] to explore ways to better reach their communities.”
A legal seminar, entitled “The Right of Jewish Defense in an Era of Rising Anti-Semitism”, was held after the morning learning sessions. The seminar was better attended than ever and not only attended by lawyers.
“The topic was picked weeks ago, but it turned timely,” says Rabbi Kalinsky. That Shabbos, Nessah synagogue in Beverly Hills was vandalized. The OU invited Rabbi Yedidia Shochet, a rabbi at Nessah, to address the seminar attendees.
Then Louis J. Shapiro, Esq., a criminal defense attorney and certified criminal law specialist, explained the legal definitions and principals of self-defense and defense of others pursuant to California Penal Code. The next speaker, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, discussed the current state of affairs in anti-Semitism. He advocated for more sharing of intelligence between the Jewish community and law enforcement.
Then Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, esq., Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside, spoke about the halachic aspects of carrying weapons inside and outside the synagogue. He stated unequivocally that a properly trained shul member is permitted to carry a conceal weapon in shul, even on Shabbos, due to pikuach nefesh.
Rabbi Raziel Cohen, “the tactical rabbi,” who trains both professionals and civilians in the use of firearms, spoke about trending threats, security vulnerabilities, and concerns that he currently confronts, offering his recommendations in response to them.
The leadership of the OU consider the conference a “wonderful success,” said the OU President Moishe Bane. “We’re very excited to have partnered with so many synagogues, schools and community leaders to help make our vision into a reality by having a weekend where the whole community comes together for Torah study,” said Rabbi Kalinsky in a press release. He also expressed gratitude to the sponsors—due to their generosity, the Torah learning was free and accessible to all.