Standing with as many as 180 other Orthodox Jews in a Long Island Rail Road car en route to Manhattan, Michael Markovitch of Lawrence shook his head.
“This is a phenomenal experience,” he said. “Only in New York could you experience something like this.”He was referring to the crowd that had jammed into the car last Thursday to celebrate the accomplishment by a group of 20 commuters who had studied a page a day of Talmud (known as daf yomi) on the train each weekday morning for the last 72 years. On this morning, the group finished reading the entire Talmud, which comprises the Oral Law upon which Jewish laws, practices and traditions are derived.
Anticipating a crowd, the LIRR set aside the last car of the train exclusively for the celebrants. But Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who has been leading the study group since its inception, said the size of the crowd caught him off guard. Among the celebrants were several area rabbis.
“We never expected this,” he said to no one in particular as he squeezed through the aisle.
“The women’s section is behind us,” the rabbi shouted. “Move back so the women can get through.” Rabbi Lerner, who had boarded the 7:49 from Far Rockaway to Penn Station in Inwood, waited until the other regulars boarded at Lawrence, Cedarhurst and Woodmere before studying aloud the final page of the Talmud. While he waited, a local caterer made his way through the crush of celebrants to pass out free coffee and bagels, and someone else handed out commemorative T-shirts.
“For a bagel, all for a bagel,” someone quipped.
At Woodmere, a woman with two children in tow slipped out the train door and onto the platform.
“Mazel tov,” she shouted. “We can’t stay but we wanted to be part of it.”
Once everyone was on board, Rabbi Lerner stood at one end of the train, a bullhorn in one hand and the text of the Talmud in the other, and explained the text in English after reading it in Hebrew. The regulars and guests followed, using copies of the text that had been distributed when they came on.
Markovitch, an attorney who has been part of the group for three years, attributed its success to the perseverance and fortitude of Rabbi Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Markovitch said he has been a part of the study group because “it puts your morning to good use before you start a hectic day.”
Akiva Weber, who attended the class for three years before his schedule changed, made it a point to attend the celebration.
“I miss it very much,” he said. “It started off the day right.”
Another member of the group, Jay Spinner, a financial adviser from Cedarhurst, pointed out that no matter how crowded the train, Rabbi Lerner would forge ahead with the class. And he said that even on those days when he did not have to go into the city, Rabbi Lerner would still board the train, lead the class, and then turn around and catch the next train back to the Island.
Markovitch noted that when Rabbi Lerner was out of town, other men filled in, so the group never fell behind.
Joining the celebration were about a dozen commuters who have been studying a page of Talmud on the LIRR guided by Rabbi David Kadosh. That group, which takes the 7:10 from Inwood to Penn Station, started at about the same time as Rabbi Lerner’s.
Chaim Leibtag, a jeweler from Far Rockaway, said that over the years perhaps as many as 100 people had participated at different times in Rabbi Lerner’s group.
“It’s the best way to start the day,” he said. “I relax when I get on the train and [the class] gives me a different perspective on the day. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be on my computer.”
Rabbi Haskel Besser, founding chairman in 1957 of the Daf Yomi Commission of the Agudath Israel of America, said the concept of reading a page of Talmud each day was begun in 1923. He was unaware of any other place in the world in which the Talmud is studied daily on a commuter train.
“It gives you a feeling of togetherness, of unity all over the world,” said Rabbi Besser, who also joined in the celebration. “We waste so much time each day with social talk and gossip. But once you begin daf yomi, it becomes the topic of discussion — how did you do this morning, did you have problems with the text? You have something substantive to talk about.”
He noted that two years ago, 70,000 men crowded into Madison Square Garden to celebrate their completion of the Talmud. And Rabbi Besser estimated that perhaps 100,000 people around the world study a page daily.
Jeffrey Sinensky of Lawrence, corporate counsel for the American Jewish Committee, looked around and commented on the many different kinds of yarmulkes.
“There are men in knitted yarmulkes, others in black hats,” he said. “They represent the many different elements of the community. This class has served as a bridge in the Orthodox community, bringing together disparate elements. It gives them all an opportunity to interact with each other, something they might not have.
“There are many forces out there pulling the community apart, but they are all here for a common goal — and that has long-term benefits. And the fact that women have been accepted as part of the learning program speaks volumes about the changes that have taken place in the Orthodox community.”
There used to be two women in Rabbi Lerner’s daf yomi group. One retired from her job in the city; Lisa Zahn, who started with the group in September 1997, remains. She called the group’s achievement a “wonderful thing.”
“It’s not specifically my celebration, but I am happy to participate as a daily participant,” she said. “Hopefully this celebration will get more people to participate.”
An accountant in the city, Zahn said she used to catch a train that left 15 minutes later. But after learning of this class, she switched to the 7:49 “because I wanted to do something productive in the morning.”
Rabbi Lerner said “the hype will carry over tomorrow because there is always a surge of interest after something like this.” But he questioned how many would come back and make it a regular morning ritual.
As the train neared Penn Station, Dr. Yitzchak Moskowitz, who was standing and grasping a handrail, looked at the crowded car and gushed: “It’s not of the same magnitude of Madison Square Garden, but it is still a special event.”
Moskowitz, a physician at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, said he had worked the previous evening, went home to Floral Park for four hours of sleep, then caught an early minyan to be able to catch this train.
“I just wanted to be part of this wonderful event,” he said. “I’m now going to go home and go to sleep.”