The CEO, the COO and the Siyum

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View of MetLife Stadium, with diagrams of the seating plan (below) and closeup view of the stage (above) for the 13th Siyum HaShas. (David Miller Studios/Hamodia)

It was late in the evening of August 1, 2012, as the 12th Siyum HaShas was winding down. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding, Chief Operating Officer of the Siyum, was sitting in the broadcast booth at MetLife Stadium, enjoying the festivities he had spent years working to arrange. Nearly 90,000 people from all walks of Jewish life had come together to celebrate the completion of the 2,711 pages of Talmud at the massive event hosted by Agudath Israel of America. The speeches, the dancing, the emotion, the united tefillos — all had gone beautifully.

Rabbi Golding felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Ron VanDeVeen, President & CEO of MetLife Stadium, with whom Rabbi Golding and The Siyum team had worked hand-in-hand to produce the event.

“Rabbi, I’ll see you in 15 years,” said VanDeVeen.

Momentarily puzzled, Rabbi Golding quickly understood: The next Siyum, seven and a half years away, would be in January 2020, in the dead of a New Jersey winter. No way would anyone sit outside then. It appeared that — convenient a venue as MetLife was — The Siyum wouldn’t return there until the summer of 2027.

***

The growth of the Siyum HaShas in the United States mirrors the explosion of postwar Orthodox Jewry on these shores: From Harav Aaron Kotler, zt”l, making the fifth Siyum HaShas at the Agudah Convention in 1960 before an audience largely comprised of people who’d never learned Daf Yomi; to scattered venues holding small siyumim in 1968; to 5,000 people attending the seventh Siyum at the Manhattan Center; to the eighth Siyum at the Felt Forum.

The ninth Siyum, at Madison Square Garden and the Felt Forum in New York (with, as always, smaller celebrations in other cities across the country), reached a milestone previously unimagined: Attendance doubled in 1997, with the combined venues of MSG, Nassau Coliseum and the Felt Forum (then known as “The Theater at Madison Square Garden”). The 11th Siyum, in 2005, used MSG, the Continental Airlines Arena, and Jacob K. Javits Convention Center; and, finally the 12th Siyum filled MetLife Stadium — the largest venue in the New York metropolitan area.

In the years following that Siyum, various ideas were proposed for indoor venues for the 13th Siyum. “Where will it be?” “You should do it here … do it there …” Siyum executives were peppered with questions and ideas just about all day, every day.

Realizing they’d need to at least match the seating capacity of MetLife, one proposal presented by Rabbi Golding and Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, executive vice president of the Siyum, had the event being held simultaneously at five arenas in the Northeast: MSG, Nassau Coliseum, Prudential Center in Newark, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

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Ron VanDeVeen (L) and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding speaking with Hamodia in the MetLife Stadium conference room. (David Miller Studios/Hamodia)

But Agudath Israel never dismissed the possibility of using MetLife again.

“For years,” says VanDeVeen, “Rabbi Gertzulin would come here on January 1st [the date proposed for the 13th Siyum], and we’d take pictures of where the sun was and what it looked like. Of course, we were willing to do it, but it was up to Agudah if they wanted to, knowing all the potential obstacles.”

Ultimately, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah chose to go with the single, large venue. For this massive, rare event, the opportunity to have so many Jews gather in one place for kvod Shem Shamayim, was too great to pass up: b’rov am hadras Melech.

“No one was more shocked than Ron when I told him, ‘The Grand Rabbis have decided to go with MetLife,’” Rabbi Golding recalls.

He’s seated beside VanDeVeen at the head of a table in the stadium’s large conference room. Today the room is empty, aside from the Hamodia reporter and the photographer. Dozens of times over the past few years, the room has been filled with Siyum and MetLife staff discussing plans for January 1, 2020.

Rabbi Golding is on a first-name basis with all MetLife employees, greeting everyone from the security guards to the ticket agents to the receptionists as if they are old friends — which many in fact are. VanDeVeen himself is about to host his third Siyum HaShas; in 2005, he was general manager of Continental Airlines Arena, also in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J. That Siyum was the first Orthodox Jewish event held at Continental.

“I definitely had to learn and understand what the event was about,” VanDeVeen says. “Every event is unique, and the biggest thing is educating the staff on what the event is, and what the parameters are of the event. Obviously, this is different — the demographic of every event is different — and you want to make sure that your staff is understanding of that demographic.”

VanDeVeen’s employees have been trained regarding the sensitivities and needs of the Orthodox community. Before past Siyumim, Rabbi Golding has walked around the venues with a staffer, attempting to cover any advertisement deemed inappropriate. This is occasionally problematic, as certain MetLife sponsors’ contracts call for the ads to be visible during all events.

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Rabbi Golding next to a photo of the 12th Siyum Hashas that is prominently displayed on a wall in the stadium commemorating its major events. (David Miller Studios/Hamodia)

But the key, say the men running the show, is communication and honesty.

Working with Rabbi Golding, VanDeVeen says, has been “a great partnership and relationship. You’re open and honest with each other. It’s the best way to go. It makes things easier for all parties involved [if you’re honest about] what you can and can’t do, in turning a major building into a church, synagogue, temple, whatever you need to turn it into that day.”

For the CEO of MetLife Stadium, which hosts 12 to 20 major events a year in addition to at least 20 football games, the Siyum HaShas is unique in other ways as well.

“It’s very rare that you get compliments in this business,” he says. “You’re expected to do a good job.” Fans don’t typically send thank-yous to stadium management after a concert or ballgame, but after the 2012 Siyum, “we got multiple, multiple, multiple, letters thanking us.”

Another unique factor in hosting a Siyum, as opposed to a soccer game or a wrestling match, is that there are no arrests for drunkenness or violence.

“We’re not worrying about, inside, people fighting,” VanDeVeen says.

On the other hand, turning the stadium into, as Rabbi Golding says, “a synagogue for a day,” does have major security implications, and appropriate measures have long been in the works — but, as part of the precautions, organizers are tight-lipped about the details.

“We’ll have the highest level of security,” is all VanDeVeen will say.

“More than at a football game or concert?” I ask.

“I’m not going to get into that exactly,” he replies.

Rabbi Golding hastens to point out, “The New Jersey State Police heads have said that the safest place to be in New Jersey on the day of the Siyum will be inside MetLife Stadium.”

A bit of further intrigue, possibly involving even higher security precautions, briefly swirled around this Siyum, as rumors surfaced on social media in early November that President Donald Trump may attend. While a source familiar with the matter has told this reporter that the White House did indeed send out feelers to the Agudah regarding this possibility, Rabbi Golding insists this is “total, total nonsense — an absolute fabrication, fake news from Day One. Agudath Israel has never turned the Siyum HaShas into a political event.”

One thing the organizers do say about security, again and again, during our interview: “Security will be tight, so tell everyone to get here early.” Doors will open at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, January 1, 2020, two hours before the event begins.

***

When the contract was finally signed in October 2018 to hold the Siyum HaShas at MetLife, a ceremony was held at the stadium, with the senior Moetzes members, shlita, the Novominsker Rebbe and Hagaon Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, signing the contract for Agudath Israel — and VanDeVeen for MetLife.

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The Novominsker Rebbe, shlita, Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, Ron VanDeVeen and Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, at the contract-signing ceremony in October 2018. (Rafoel Langsam/Agudath Israel)

When the Novominsker Rebbe was ready to leave, Rabbi Golding asked VanDeVeen to call an associate to drive the Rebbe to his car in a golf cart. But when they got downstairs, VanDeVeen himself was there with a cart and drove the Rebbe. When I ask him about this, the CEO, in his typical humble style, says that he has always done whatever it takes, personally, to ensure that events run smoothly.

“I’m on this complex for 30 years now; I started in the cleaning department at Continental Airlines Arena. So I’ve seen it all. I’ve been everywhere, but I started there, so I understand what it takes to run events. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to show the employees that I’m all in also — I’m not just going to sit there, but I’ll get in. If I need to move a barricade, I’ll move a barricade. If I need to drive somebody on the golf cart, I’ll go get the golf cart and do it if there’s no one else around. I’m willing to do whatever it takes — I’m not going to ask somebody to do something that I wouldn’t do. Ever.”

***

Oh, and what about that issue that seems to be foremost on everyone’s mind?

“As far as weather is concerned,” Rabbi Golding says, “I don’t think about it, because I don’t think or worry about anything that I can’t control.”

VanDeVeen interjects: “But we’re planning for it.”

“Right,” concedes Rabbi Golding. “We’re definitely planning for it.”

The stage will be covered and heated, as will the suites. But most of the seats will be out in the elements.

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L-R: Stephen Sansonese and Mike Alperstein, Facility Operations Managers; Rabbi Yosef C. Golding, Chief Operating Officer Siyum Hashas; Ron VanDeVeen, President and CEO MetLife Stadium; Matt Surabian, Director of Event Booking and Transportation; Alex Pla, Director of Broadcast and AV/Media. (David Miller Studios/Hamodia)

Each person attending the event will be issued a hand and body warmer. If there is snow or rain, the event may be postponed to the following Thursday or Sunday, though the Agudah considers that a worst-case scenario, as many will be flying in from across the country.

The event is to be livestreamed to sites around the word, including Yerushalayim, Lublin, Florida, Toronto, Mexico City, Venezuela and Panama. Los Angeles and Chicago will host their own events on Sunday. (The Daf Yomi cycle actually ends on Shabbos, January 4.)

Suddenly, VanDeVeen smiles.

“We had the first cold weather Super Bowl here, too. It worked out great. There were no problems!”

In January 2014, MetLife hosted the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city; organizers lucked out, as the weather at game-time that February day was a balmy 49 degrees. (Just hours later, a massive snowstorm fell in the area.)

“Also,” says Rabbi Golding, “I cannot tell you how many times I heard from stadium people and police that the last Siyum was a training for the Super Bowl, security-wise.”

VanDeVeen, usually understated, grins and says, “That’s what we do here. The world’s biggest events on the world’s biggest stage.”

***

The 13th Siyum HaShas will be big even by MetLife standards. It has already sold more seats than the 2012 Siyum. Just about all regular seats have sold out, though several suites are still available. If all 92,000 tickets are ultimately sold, it would be the highest-attended event ever at MetLife.

“When you talk about ‘sales,’” Rabbi Golding says, “I think it’s important to remember that everything is by donation. The ‘price’ is basically a donation to Agudath Israel to allow them to continue the work for the next seven and a half years.”

For the first time ever at a Siyum HaShas, the stage will be in the center of the field rather than at the end. A lectern will be set up on each side of the square stage, at which speakers will rotate, and the dais will be four-sided as well, so no matter which side of the stadium one sits on, he or she will face some of the speakers and some of the 650 Rabbanim on the dais.

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A ticket to the 13th Siyum HaShas. (David Miller Studios/Hamodia)

Even now, with the Siyum to be held just over a month after our interview, and after years of planning, new headaches continually arise for the organizers.

Due to overwhelming demand for seats, the Agudah announced at this year’s Convention an additional Siyum venue, the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, largely for livestreaming the MetLife program. A scramble for the roughly 18,000 tickets ensued among the people who hadn’t purchased tickets to MetLife due to weather or transportation concerns — and even among some who already had MetLife tickets.

The last football game of the season is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. the Sunday before the Siyum. It will finish shortly after 4:00 p.m.; then it’ll be a sprint for organizers to set up before the Siyum doors open at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday. But due to the National Football League’s “flex scheduling,” if that game has playoff implications, its start may be pushed to as late as 8:20 p.m., leaving seven fewer hours for the stadium to change over from football field to Siyum floor, and to set up the special stage and chairs.

We head out for a look at the field.

It’s a quiet Wednesday morning in late November. The stadium is empty but for two workers painting the end zones for next Sunday’s football game. In exactly five weeks, the building will be packed for a historic kiddush Hashem: a celebration of Torah, of the love of a people for their Creator, and of His everlasting kindness to them.

Tens of thousands will complete Shas.

Hadran alach … We shall return to you, Talmud Bavli, and you shall return to us … We will not forget you, Talmud Bavli, and you will not forget us — neither in This World, nor in the World to Come …

Thousands more will be inspired to begin the next cycle.

The field is a bit wet, as it was raining earlier. It’s still cloudy, but just a tad chilly; we’re quite comfortable in light jackets.

“You’ll take this weather January 1st, Rabbi?” says VanDeVeen with a smile.

“Yeah,” replies Rabbi Golding. “And this time, I know you won’t tell me, ‘See you in 15 years.’”

 

rborchardt@hamodia.com