By COLlive reporter
“Something has to budge.” That was the consensus between Rabbis Moshe Gourarie, Shmuli Nachlas, and Yisrael Wilhelm during a Hei Teves farbrengen held over the phone last year.
With the 70th anniversary of Yud Shvat approaching quickly, the three Shluchim felt the time had come to “get real with the situation,” as Wilhelm recalled.
A few hours into the farbrengen, the friends came to the conclusion that they had to make a significant commitment to studying the Rebbe’s Torah.
Likkutei Sichos, the crown jewel of the Rebbe’s oeuvre, was the obvious choice. But they weren’t just thinking about themselves.
“The original idea was to recruit 70 people to learn the entire Likkutei Sichos in honor of seventy years since Yud Shvat,” Gourarie says. The details were hazy, it would take years, but the idea took hold.
Over Shabbos in Toronto, Nachlas discussed the concept with Yosef Adler, a lawyer and prominent member of the Toronto Chabad community.
The concept excited Adler, and he rallied Nachlas to pitch the initiative together to Chabad community members at Chabad Gate, the local Chabad HQ. The feedback was enthusiastic.
After Shabbos, the trio opened a Whatsapp group. In a matter of hours it was filled to the 250 person capacity. Three more groups opened. They were filled as well.
“We had 1,000 people waiting to hear what the plan was. We didn’t know anything. We had nothing besides for the concept and the commitment,” Nachlas said.
In a follow-up call, things started to take shape.
Nahclas continued. “I was insistent from the beginning that Likkutei Sichos was for everyone. Every Jew can change their world with Likkutei Sichos, it just needs to be made accessible to them.”
“We realized we would need to recruit dozens of people to give classes on many levels.”
Yisrael Wilhelm hit the phones, calling close to five-hundred Rabbonim, Roshei Yeshivos, askanim, and anyone who had a passion for teaching and learning.
For in-depth classes he recruited distinguished Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim, eliciting commitments for weekly or monthly recorded material. From campus Shluchim and interested residents of Crown Heights, he found willing volunteers to give 10-minute reviews and beginners level classes. In an article online, he learned of Rabbi Chananya Hoffinger who made powerpoint presentations on sichos. He was swiftly recruited as well.
When the group learned that a number of women expressed interest in a class given expressly by women, a spreadsheet was created and filled with a roster of talented women educators who would alternate giving classes throughout the year.
With the skeletal structure of the initiative coming into relief, a website was needed. Project Likkutei Sichos turned to a web-designer friend in Toronto, Meir Szarfer of Boost Online Media Solutions.
Sharfer recalls, “A year ago, Rabbi Shmuli approached me to build a new website to facilitate the learning of Likkutei Sichos. I’ve built multiple websites for his shlichus with the Jewish Youth Network, and from past experience, I knew if he has an idea, it’s probably good.”
It started off with a simple sign-up page and a counter of participants. The original plan included a five page website, with the PDF text of sicha to be made available weekly.
As Yud Shvat neared, the numbers climbed way past the original seventy-person goal and surpassed the next tier of 770 as well.
Meanwhile, the three initiators’ phones were lighting up with calls from friends and acquaintances asking to be involved. Someone offered to pull together all existing English material relating to the Sichos, which eventually led to the development of the English translation team, led by Rabbi Moshe Goldman of Waterloo, ON.
“I was involved from the earliest days of the project, just around 10 Teves,” Rabbi Goldman recalls. “We quickly realized that most of the Sichos we were starting off with were not translated, and that would pose a significant obstacle to hundreds of English-speaking people who would otherwise want to be part of the project. So with little experience, we started to assemble a translation team.”
Rabbi Eliezer Robbins was brought on as the editor, and he and Goldman prepared the first two translations. Since then, the group has grown to seven translators and three editors.
In just about a month, from 5 Teves to 10 Shvat, the project was conceived, a logo and website created, and several forms of content were in preparation. But Project Likkutei Sichos was running on passion alone. Everyone involved dedicated thousands of unpaid hours to get it off the ground, and there was little thought of how that time commitment would be sustainable.
“I like to use the metaphor of golf,” Nachlas explains. “Every lawyer and accountant has a full schedule, but still finds time to golf.”
“We might be busy with our individual Shlichus,” Nachlas in Toronto, Gourarie in Toms River, New Jersey, and Wilhelm in Boulder, Colorado, “but Likkutei Sichos is our passion project. This is our golf.”
But on the eve of Yud Shvat, help came in the form of one indefatigable supporter.
“Shloime Greenwald called me up and said he heard about the project and wants to meet us,” Wilhelm said.
On the night of Yud Shvat, the three shluchim gathered in Greenwald’s house for soup, pretzels, and l’chaims.
Gourarie recalls. “Shloime said this project is going to be worth millions (spiritually) in the future, he wants to get in on the bottom level.”
Greenwald became the seed funder of Project Likkutei Sichos, and gave it a shot of confidence in its earliest days to continue creating without concern for the rising costs of production.
Because the costs are rising. Between remuneration to secure consistent lecturers, preparation of PDF Resources, special Siyum projects and events, the extensive administrative demands of a rapidly growing initiative, as well as a highly anticipated app launch, PLS has a weekly budget of about $6,000. And that is only possible due to the tens of thousands of hours volunteered by the founders and dozens of others who help coordinate PLS and ensure its smooth weekly progression.
Today, one year and over one-hundred sichos later, PLS estimates there are over 10,000 participants in the weekly learning of Likkutei Sichos. The website that was meant to hold a PDF a week now has thousands of pages, hundreds of hours of video classes, links to podcasts, and a veritable treasure trove of resources for each week’s two sichos.
It’s a historic achievement. But there is a long way to go.
We won’t rest until “the world is filled with Likkutei Sichos,” Wilhelm says, paraphrasing the famous conclusion of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
The founders have ambitious appetites for a much larger audience.
“Likkutei Sichos has to make a kibbush in the world,” Gourarie enthused. “We are barely touching the tip of the iceberg. There are whole swaths of the Jewish world out there who can benefit from the light of Likkutei Sichos.”
The Call to Action
To execute that vision, PLS is turning to Chabad communities everywhere to fuel the next expansion of Project Likkutei Sichos.
Ahead of January 3rd, when PLS will launch “Project Likkutei Sichos Campaign Day,” and is recruiting seventy-one teams, in honor of seventy-one years since Yud Shvat, committed to raising $1,800 from friends and family to kick start this campaign.
“Moshiach is an age where people will think in Divine terms,” Wilhelm concluded. “That happens when people start to apply the lessons of Likkutei Sichos to their relationships, to their work, to the world around them. This is a limmud that can change the world.
“Our commitment this year will be to strengthen ourselves until Likkutei Sichos is brought to every Jew on planet Earth,” Wilhelm says.