"If we were to immerse ourselves in everything that Agudas Yisroel stands for, we'd be better people!" This call to action, stated with feeling by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudas Yisroel, resonated among the packed crowd at Motzei Shabbos's keynote session of the Agudah Convention.
Over 35,000 people took part in this year's Agudah Convention, in person or over the livestream broadcast, held the weekend of parshas Vayishlach in Stamford, Connecticut. This year's convention theme, "Moving Forward," was the common thread of the convention: Moving forward in Torah learning, moving forward in Avodas Hashem, and moving forward in our relationships with others. But also, moving forward with askanus, moving forward with advocacy, and moving forward in combating the threats to Klal Yisroel.
The Agudah Convention is the place where the Torah world in the United States goes to discuss its challenges, find solutions, and forge a path forward. The convention sessions included such diverse topics as anti-Semitism, connecting with Hashem, the state of mental health in the frum world, audience submitted Q & A for gedolei Yisroel, Chinuch, acting as Bnei Torah in the secular work environment, and exploring difficult family situations.
Convention co-chairman Sruly Bornstein, introducing Thursday night's keynote speakers, noted that "Moving Forward" means attempting to do what one might otherwise think is impossible. In that vein, Rabbi Shmuel Kamentsky Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Gedola of Philadelphia, explained that the last Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi sparked many people's limud haTorah, and even inspired entirely new learning programs such as Daf Hashovua. He also encouraged the assembled to strengthen their Torah learning in preparation for the upcoming 13th Global Siyum HaShas.
Echoing Rabbi Kamenetsky's message, Rabbi Yeruchum Olshin, Rosh HaYeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha, encouraged everyone attending to move forward by growing in Torah learning: "The only way we can shteig, the only way we can grow, is through Torah!"
Rabbi Binyomin Eisenberger, Rav, Khal Heichal Tefillah, added that an individual's learning sedorim must be a chok for them - not to be interrupted or cancelled for anything. "This is my pikuach nefesh," he said, meaning that one's regular learning sessions are what protects his soul.
Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rav, Agudath Israel of Madison and Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, likewise explained that a person's learning keeps him fresh. Chazal tell us, he said, to learn areas of Torah that we find interesting. But that's not intended as a kulah: "It's an obligation, a person has to find a makom shelibo chofeitz, he has to find a place of hischadshus in his learning."
Consistent with the strong message of strengthening limud haTorah, the Agudah debuted the Chavrei HaSiyum program, a new program which encourages kehillos and individuals to make their own siyumim in conjunction with the Siyum HaShas. (More information about the Chavrei HaSiyum program is available at http://www.chavreihasiyum.org.)
This emphasis on Torah learning naturally flowed into Sunday morning's programming, which began with Daf Yomi's Siyum on Meseches Menachos. Featuring Rabbi Shlomo Besser, Rav, Congregation Bnei Israel Chaim as mesayeim, it included also a special song celebrating Meseches Menachos from Yossi Gleiberman, Daf Yomi Maggid Shiur, and Divrei Torah from Rabbi Eytan Feiner, Rav, Congregation Keneseth Israel, Far Rockaway.
Sunday's keynote session, moderated by Rabbi Labish Becker, Executive Director, Agudath Israel of America, focused on the challenges technology - even seemingly innocuous or harmless outlets - is creating. Noting that the many questions he receives about this from his talmidim indicate that it's a major issue, Rabbi Yosef Elefant, R"M, Yeshivas Mir, Yerushalayim, explained how the easy access of entertainment and satisfaction from tablets and iPads make our children lose the skill of working hard at Torah learning to be able to see the satisfaction that is below the surface. Discussing marriage, Rabbi Elefant said that social media - even kosher content - destroys intimacy between couples. "If one shares everything with everyone all the time, what is special about "us"?"
Dr. David Pelcovitz, Professor in Psychology, Azrieli Graduate School, noted that "Seven out of ten children worry that their parents are spending too much time in front of a screen," Dr. Pelcovitz encouraged parents to set boundaries, both for themselves and their children. It's ok for children to spend time not doing something, he said: "We need to grow our children's neshamos by having them comfortable with being as opposed to doing."
Motzoei Shabbos brought a crowd, including many who drove in specially for the evening's keynote session. Rabbi Perlow reminded everyone that personal growth is something that needs constant and consistent strengthening: "We should learn mussar every day, and look at the ikar of life," he said. Speaking of the upcoming Siyum HaShas, he said, "We need to prepare for the siyum - we need to learn Torah!"
Chinuch, too, was addressed, with Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh HaYeshiva Ateres Yisroel and Member of the Degel HaTorah Moetzes Gedolei Yisroel, quoting the Avnei Neizer, passionately proclaiming, "The principle of tumah hutrah b'tzibur doesn't apply in Chinuch!" On the responsibility of each person to be a Kiddush Hashem, Rabbi Ezrachi declared, "A Chareidi Jew represents the Borei Olam!"
Speaking of the challenges of learning Torah correctly, and the rewards when one succeeds, Rabbi Uri Deutsch, Rav, Forest Park Shul, Lakewood, told the attendees, "Torah learned correctly provides a person with a physical pleasure," and, "In eisek haTorah we encounter the Ribono Shel Olam Himself!"
A poignant and bittersweet moment of the Motzoei Shabbos program was a tribute to Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, Agudath Israel's Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, on his upcoming retirement. Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, Chairman of Agudath Israel's Board of Trustees, lauded Rabbi Gertzulin, saying that he never confined himself to the traditional job description of CFO in the 38 years he served in Agudah. After enumerating a long list of Agudah activities and accomplishments Rabbi Gertzulin is credited with, Mr. Werdiger and Rabbi Zwiebel presented Rabbi Gertzulin with a letter of appreciation written and signed by the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah.
Appropriately, Agudah's activity working on threats to Klal Yisroel's spiritual integrity was also addressed. Given the recent "blue wave" in New York and New Jersey, the sessions about promoting our hashkafic priorities in a progressive political environment ("Protecting Jewish Values When Society's Values Change") and about grassroots advocacy ("Advocacy Made Simple: How You Can Make a Difference") were attended by entranced assemblages.
But other challenges facing Klal Yisroel come from the outside: The Kedushah of Eretz Yisroel is under threat. Society's increasingly secular value system is seeping into our community. Speaking about the attacks on our Yeshiva system, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, said in his keynote address: "Government is coming into yeshivos and saying, 'Let's look at your curriculum, let's look at how you spend your day.'" Noting, in the name of the Birkas Shemuel, that, "It is obligatory upon each yid to see to it that his children and grandchildren will be talmidei chachamin and ga'onim," Rabbi Zwiebel detailed the work the Agudah is doing to combat this threat.
Also mentioning how anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States, Rabbi Zwiebel told of recent occasions where the Agudah has been involved in fighting against discriminatory legislation and legally questionable activities coming from towns with new Orthodox populations. "It's always good to focus on the positive, but we need to recognize that there are destructive fires burning all around us."
A notable but not well-known aspect of the convention was the third annual two-day exclusive track for 130 mental health professionals. Addressed by distinguished Rabbonim and recognized mental health professionals, the completely sold-out event gave participants a chance to seek guidance for helping their clients and an opportunity to network with colleagues.
Mr. Shimon Lefkowitz, son of Agudah stalwart Rabbi Yisroel Lefkowitz z"l, and - together with the illustrious Lefkowitz family - supporter of the Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative - was this year's convention chairman. "For the past few days," he said, "we have been zocheh to a momentous knessiah l'sheim shamayim. The Agudah looks to the future, forward thinking and forward moving." Mr. Lefkowitz asked the assembled to get involved: "Together let us be zocheh to continue the mission; together let us be zocheh to expand the Agudah and its important work for Klal Yisroel!"
To view recordings of this year's Agudah Convention, see https://www.agudahconvention.org.
Among the speakers and scenes were:
HaRav Yaakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudas Yisroel
HaRav Yeruchem Olshin, Rosh HaYeshiva, Bais Medrash Govoha
Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Gedola of Philadelphia
Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rav, Agudath Israel of Madison, Rosh Yeshiva, Torah Vodaath
Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, Baltimore, Gives Divrei Chizuk at the Mental Health track
A view of those attending the Convention