For the week ending 11 February 2017 / 15 Shevat 5777

Ronnie Hoffer

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Library Kaddish

Age: 29
Toronto, Canada
U. of Toronto, Bachelor of Applied Science (Mechanical Engineering)
U. of Toronto, Master’s degree in Engineering

Center Program

Is choosing the life of religious Jew a process? Is it incremental? Is it a geshtalt? An einfall? An epiphany? A bowl of cholent? A kind word or a pat on the shoulder? As those involved in the Teshuvah Movement can attest, it can be any of those things and more. I once heard the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rav MordechaI Gifter, zatzal, speak about Dr. Nachum Birnbaum. Reb Nachum was born into a Reform and totally secular home in Austria-Hungary in the late 19th century. He graduated from the University of Vienna and was a writer and an intellectual. He was famously known as “der Ba’al Teshuvah” because he was the only returnee to Judaism whom anyone in that generation had ever heard of. How did he come to change his life and begin to observe Yiddishkeit? Rav Gifter described the scene. It was on an ocean-going voyage. Dr. Birnbaum stood on the deck on a cold, wintry and cloudy day. He looked at the vast sea and the endless sky, and all of a sudden knew that there must be a G-tt in Himmel (a G-d in Heaven). Rav Gifter paused and said: “Is that logical?” But, G-d spoke to Dr. Birnbaum at that moment — and he realized Gd’s existence.

This was not Ronnie Hoffer’s experience. While Ronnie has always been awestruck by the breathtaking beauty of the sea, the sky, and all of nature, he did not find that to be reasonable evidence of the truth of the Jewish story about the universe. Why, after all, should a beautiful ocean scene lead one directly to believe that some infinite and intangible entity gave a certain nation an enormously complex set of guidelines and rules by which to live? As a student of engineering at the University of Toronto, and long a believer in objective verification of claims, Ronnie would not change his entire world view and way of life due to things that merely felt good. He required reasonable, logical arguments, based on sound assumptions.

So why was the question of whether or not the Jewish story is true on Ronnie’s radar, anyway? Ronnie had the privilege of a Modern Orthodox Hebrew Day School education until the end of grade six. This gave Ronnie an awareness that Judaism believes in objective right and wrong, reward and punishment, the human soul, and, yes, a G-d who runs it all. Through friends Ronnie was reintroduced to Torah and Judaism during university, and he became bothered by two critical questions that he had never addressed: Is there really a G-d in this world? And is the Jewish story actually true? Of equal importance, Ronnie knew enough about Judaism to know that if the answer to these two questions was “Yes”, then it was in his own best interest to chart a new course in life.

A friend of his eventually introduced him to Rabbi Bernie Moskoff, an Ohr Somayach rabbi in Toronto, who invited him to join him on the JLE/Mentor’s Mission. On that trip, seven years ago, he made a critical connection with Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, who presented his logical argument about why it is reasonable to accept the Jewish story as true. In the ensuing two years Ronnie reviewed Rabbi Gottlieb’s material many times, probed it, and questioned it. He also consulted with various anti-Orthodox sources, and meditated on the arguments and claims of the various opposing viewpoints. Steadily, a pattern emerged — the Orthodox arguments were holding their water, whereas the anti-Orthodox arguments were not. Ronnie had his answer — and a new responsibility.

Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, Ronnie came to the Shoresh/Mechina program at Ohr Somayach, in Jerusalem, mainly in order to learn in Rabbi Gottlieb’s classes. After four months he switched into the Center Program to increase his focus on gemara learning.

Though Ronnie chose Ohr Somayach because of its edge in Torah learning, he has also been satisfied with the organization’s commitment to its students outside of the Beit Midrash study hall. “The dormitories are clean, functional, and quite nice, and the food is good. I am still in touch with and regularly invited for Shabbos meals by my mentor from the JLE mission, Yaakov Kaplan, from my hometown. I also stay in touch with my rebbeim when I am back in Toronto.”

After a two-year interruption of his yeshiva studies in order to complete a master’s degree in engineering, Ronnie returned at the beginning of this past Elul to continue learning full-time. By this time he has spent a total of two years in the Center Program and he loves it. “I feel that Ohr Somayach makes an effort to treat each student as an individual and not just a conquest. The rebbeim in the Center Program are adept at helping their students grow in a healthy and natural way.” Eventually, Ronnie plans to return to the engineering profession in either Israel or North America. But for now he’s getting as much Torah learning under his belt as he can.

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