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29 Kislev 5760 - December 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Pride, Problems and the American Jewish Future: The Thursday Plenary Sessions at the 77th Agudath Israel Convention

by Avi Shafran

Mere days after the United Jewish Communities General Assembly met in Atlanta to discuss how best to direct communal funds raised by Jewish federations, a different sort of asset, the most precious one any Jew can possess -- children -- occupied the hearts and minds of those gathered for the opening session of Agudath Israel of America's 77th national convention on Thursday, November 25.

As reported last week, the Thursday afternoon plenary session began -- after greetings by Agudath Israel Vaad Hanhala co- chairman Dr. David Diamond -- with a hazkara, delivered by Rabbi Moshe Brown, rav of Agudath Israel of West Lawrence and maggid shiur at Yeshiva Derech Ayson, for Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, mashgiach ruchani of Beth Medrash Govoha, then set the tone for the weekend gathering by addressing the convention theme, "A Time of Prosperity, A Time of Need: Confronting the Contradictions."

The stage was then well set for the symposium that followed, entitled "Nachas from the Children: Taking Pride, Facing Problems" and chaired by Leon Melohn, Chairman of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S.

Kedusha Counts

The American Orthodox Jewish community is justifiably proud of the powerful growth of Torah-chinuch in the decades since the destruction of Jewish Europe, said the first symposium participant, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva Adas Yereim (Monsey). "The train is hurtling," he asserted, "but not everyone feels they got a good seat." It is our urgent responsibility, he insisted, to ensure that, in this time of plenty, the educational and emotional needs of all Jewish children are met.

Rabbi Wachsman stressed that we can and must provide environments of kedusha. The children who, in order to handle the water drawn for the poroh adumoh mixture, the gemara teaches, were born and raised on a rock to insulate them from tumah. Rabbi Wachsman wondered if those children's isolation may have been considered abusive by some. And aren't there those, he went on, "who consider us abusive for keeping our own children from televisions, or by teaching them to speak in Yiddish?" The bottom line, he declared, is that "kedusha counts"; what a remarkable merit it was, he asserted, for a child to spend his childhood on that rock.

Happiness In The Home

The so-often overlooked but so critical need for a joyful home atmosphere was a major focus of Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. and menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam (Monsey). The most powerful thing a parent can possibly do to help his child develop into a ben or bas Torah, Rabbi Horowitz asserted, is to provide a happy home, where the simcha and beauty of a Torah life is evident throughout.

Rabbi Horowitz made reference as well, to a special issue of The Jewish Observer, on the topic of "Children on the Fringe... and Beyond" which presents the observations and advice of gedolei Yisroel, as well as those of mechanchim and other professionals, on how to address the increasingly evident problem of out-of-yeshiva and "at risk" youth. That issue, published only a few days before the Convention, became the talk of the convention and has since generated discussion throughout the Orthodox Jewish world.

The Community's Responsibility

Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshiva Darchei Torah, addressed the audience next, and stressed the responsibility all Jews have to not abandon any Jewish child. If we don't have place for all Jewish children to learn Torah, Rabbi Bender said, quoting Rav Sholom Schwadron, zt"l, then the future sins of those whose education we did not adequately undertake become our own. He decried the creation of what he called "ghettos" for children who are capable but do not fit in to the standard yeshiva environment. "They rarely work," he contended. "We must open our own yeshivos' doors," he declared.

Emunah In Our Children

The recognition that "chinuch is belief in a child's potential" was the focus of the afternoon symposium's final presenter, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, rav, Khal Bais Yitzchok. Asking why Chazal portray Yaakov Ovinu's decision to hide Dina from Esav as, lefi gadluso, an error, Rabbi Goldwasser quoted Rav Eliezer Shach, shlita, as answering that, while Yaakov's concern for Dina was proper, a concern for the possibility of Esav's changing for the better was called for no less. We ignore the potential of those who seem unpromising, Rabbi Goldwasser continued, at not only their peril but our own.

Trial By Wealth

A second symposium, entitled "Drawing Lines, Drawing Near: Securing the Future of American Jewry," was presented at that evening's plenary session. Greetings to the delegates were extended by Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and chairman of Agudath Israel's Nesius.

Rabbi Kamenetsky began by quoting a Tanna Devei Eliyohu about Esav's offer to divide both this world with Yaakov Ovinu and the next. "Esav does not understand," the Philadelphia rosh hayeshiva, explained, "that this world exists entirely for the sake of the next" and thus, in the end Esav, who regards this world as meaningful in its own right, doesn't really have true possession of even his physical wealth.

Worldly success and monetary wealth, he continued, are trials, and all Jews must keep the ultimate goal of kevod Shomayim before them always.

Rabbi Kamenetsky vividly illustrated the need to think of the honor of Hashem, His Torah and those who exemplify it with various examples. The rosh hayeshiva called attention, too, to the dire threat posed to uneducated Jews by Christian missionaries, and especially at the turn of the Christian millennium. Here as well, he maintained, to effectively counter the onslaught, we must be focused on kevod Shomayim.

Time To Wake Up

Though it might be assumed that the Torah-observant world's mission is static from year to year, that Torah and mitzvos are our sole agenda, that is not really the case, explained Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudath Israel of America, who delivered the Thursday evening session's main address.

We Jews live today, Rabbi Perlow maintained, in relative prosperity; the facilities of Torah and mitzvos are more accessible than ever, and we take full advantage of them all. At the same time though, he reminded his listeners, we must ask, "Why are so many young people, R"l, getting sick and dying?" and "Why are youth from good families falling through the cracks, veering from the derech?"

The key, the Novominsker Rebbe asserted, is to realize that "we are in need, not just others." Hashem's actions are certainly beyond our comprehension, he went on, but "a time of tzoro clearly requires cheshbon hanefesh," deep and meaningful introspection. "We had better wake up soon."

One goal that Rabbi Perlow stressed should be at the top of the community's agenda is good will. He read from a statement made several weeks earlier by HaGaon Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, expressing "anguish at the arguments among people." "Everyone is convinced of his own needs and the justice of his own claims," Rav Steinman lamented, "and doesn't consider the possibility that he can be wrong.

"Who can know if the widows and orphans we see are not the result of this? . . . The only eitzoh is to cede our positions . . . godol hasholom."

Standing On Principle, Looking Beyond

Then Rabbi Perlow moved to the stances we must make as a community, the need to express our positions on matters of principle, to take issue, even publicly when necessary, with those who misrepresent the Torah viewpoint. While "we have only love, friendship and hope for the tinnokos shenishbu," Rabbi Perlow said, "we must embrace emes in Eretz Yisroel and wherever Jews live." He decried "apikorsus that has found its way into Orthodox journals and Orthodox homes," "new footholds" gained of late by "Orthodox feminism" and the "hospitality of Reform seminaries" enjoyed by some Orthodox leaders -- "a parody of ahavas Yisroel."

"Emes," he asserted, "cannot be overlooked in the pursuit of sholom."

At the same time though, Rabbi Perlow declared, we must reach out to other Jews. In years past, he noted, we were, by necessity, focused inward, on building a Torah infrastructure in America. Now, though, that "we have great affluence, mosdos Torah, Chassidus and gemilas chassodim . . . the time has come to look beyond, to expand kevod Shomayim" to other segments of the Jewish world.

The Novominsker Rebbe then addressed the closing of two Shuvu schools in Eretz Yisroel, attributing the closures to the fact that secularists in Israel are frightened at the growth of Torah there. "American Jews," he went on, "should not be silent."

The "half-million gentiles posing as Jews" from the former Soviet Union who "have been welcomed to Eretz Yisroel under the guise of the Law of Return" were also a focus of the Novominsker Rebbe's remarks, as was the angry reaction "when a Knesset member dared to speak up" about the issue.

Actual Jews though, he continued, from and in former Soviet lands "desperately need our help." Lauding groups like the Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, Operation Open Curtain in Moscow, and Yad Yisroel in Ukraine, Rabbi Perlow declared that "every individual must feel an achrayus for these efforts; there is so much more to do."

"Why didn't I mention Agudath Israel?" he then asked. "Because its zchus is that it is the medium for efforts that transcend the organization. Agudath Israel is an eved ne'emon. Indeed, one way or another, it has launched many of those efforts, and is the father of several."

Redrawing Blurred Lines

The next speaker Thursday evening, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, rosh hayeshiva, Telshe Yeshiva-Chicago, began his remarks by focusing on the American chareidi community's great strides in recent decades and concurrent developments. One noteworthy development, Rabbi Keller noted, is the Reform movement's move toward "spirituality" through the performance of mitzvos. Another, he pointed out, is the movement of groups within the broader framework of Orthodoxy away from Jewish tradition.

These attitudes, Rabbi Keller asserted, seep even into our own kiruv efforts. Employing "mysticism" or "feminism" as tactics to entice people into Torah-study is not only "bait and switch" but doomed to failure. Those seeking such fare, he said, "will not like emes." Lines, Rabbi Keller declared, are blurred, and must be clearly drawn. What is more, he continued, the future of American Jewry depends on our maintaining our own spiritual integrity.

Rabbi Keller went on to explore a major "risk factor" we face, the nisoyon of wealth. Chazal consider poverty an adornment for Jews; the message there, he asserted, is that prosperity is a danger.

Satiated Stomachs, Starving Souls

That idea led seamlessly into the remarks of the evening's final speaker, Rabbi Dovid Ordman, senior lecturer, Arachim and Gateways, who explained the words of the novi, "lo ro'ov lalechem" as an indication of when it is that Jews will hunger for truth -- when there is no lack of food, amid prosperity. Rabbi Ordman made a strong case for both communal and individual responsibility to reach out to other Jews and helping them see the beauty of Yiddishkeit.

Earlier in the Thursday evening session, Avodas HaKodesh Awards for outstanding community service, were bestowed by Rabbi Yonah Feinstein, Agudath Israel's director of special projects, on Kenneth Broodo (Dallas), Boruch Y. Levine (Baltimore), Chaim Manela (Los Angeles), Dr. Ned Mehlman (Cincinnati), Dr. Jonathan Rubin (Miami Beach) and Dr. Michael Weiss (St. Louis).

Rabbi Lipa Geldwerth, maggid shiur, Yeshiva Torah Temimah, chaired the Thursday evening session, which also featured remarks from convention co-chairman Michael Kaiser of Toronto.

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