Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Kislev 5764 - December 10, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Introspection and Action, Order of the Day at Agudath Israel Convention

by Staff of Agudath Israel of America and Yated Ne'eman Staff

Delegates to an Agudath Israel of America National Convention come not only to have their spiritual batteries recharged but to find ways -- based on the guidance and direction of Gedolei Yisroel -- to take action in a meaningful and realistic way on some of the critical issues that confront and challenge our generation today.

The convention formally commenced Thursday afternoon, 2 Kislev-November 27, with three powerful concurrent symposia on, "Dealing with Times of Economic Distress."

"Tefilloh: Reaching Out to Hashem in Tough Times," featured presentations by Rabbi Eliezer Ginsberg, rav, Agudath Israel Snif Zichron Shmuel; Rabbi Pinchos Jung; mashgiach, Yeshiva Kol Yaakov and rabbinic advisor, Agudath Israel of America's Commission on Kedushas Beis Haknesses; and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Lowy, rav, Agudath Israel of Toronto.

A second symposium, "Creating A Caring Community," included presentations by Rabbi Aron Kaufman, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah of Waterbury; Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, rav, Congregation Bais Yisroel, Minneapolis; and Rabbi Yosef Viener, rav, Agudath Israel of Flatbush.

"Combating the Effect of Stress on the Family" featured addresses by Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshiva Darchei Torah; and Rabbi Raymond Beyda; noted lecturer and author.

Those symposia were chaired by Rabbi Efraim Leizerson, menahel, Bais Yaakov of Miami; Rabbi Labish Becker, Associate Executive Director, Agudath Israel of America; and Chaim Leshkowitz, respectively.

The Thursday Night Plenary Session

Fealty to the wisdom and authority of those who have come before us was the theme of opening remarks delivered by Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member HaRav Avrohom Chaim Levin, rosh hayeshiva, Telshe Yeshiva (Chicago), at the Thursday night plenary session.

Quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma, the Rosh Hayeshiva stressed the vital continuity of "beginning where those before ended" -- of the chain of mesorah from the times of the Ovos until our own, a concept that is the very foundation of Agudath Israel.

Chazal said that "if they were men, we are donkeys" -- indicating that the difference between earlier generations and later ones is a matter not of degree but of essence. Our only hope for closeness to those who came before us lies in "beginning where they left off" -- an unquestioning acceptance of their decisions and approaches.

Rabbi Levin cited several contemporary issues, and Agudath Israel's response to them, to illustrate his point. When a recent law forbidding what amounts to a form of infanticide was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, "only one Jewish organization supported the legislation."

The secular Jewish organizations, the Rosh Hayeshiva observed, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" for kiddush Hashem. On any of a multitude of moral issues, "they have a 100 percent record -- for being wrong." Agudath Israel, too, he added, has a 100 percent record -- for standing up for the Torah's perspective.

And the reason is because Agudath Israel's leadership asks itself "what the gedolim and zekeinim of the previous generations would say."

Rabbi Levin also had warm words of praise for The Jewish Observer and its respected editor Rabbi Nisson Wolpin for consistently taking on important topics, as uncomfortable as they may make some readers. One example he cited is the current issue of the magazine, devoted in large part to the dangers of the Internet and the responsibilities of conscientious Jewish parents regarding this particularly treacherous technology.


The Rosh Agudath Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, then addressed the convention theme: "Measured Gains, Growing Pains: Shouldering the Burden of our Blessings."

The Rebbe began by wondering aloud what purpose might lie in revisiting issues that have been addressed many times before. It is tragically common to find that things that enter the heart end up "leaving" it soon thereafter. "It's easier," he said, "to move a mountain than to change a middoh."

But hopelessness is "the Soton's trap." We must never allow yi'ush, hopelessness, to overtake us. We must realize that as "dynamic creatures" we are not stagnant; we are always spiritually active, one way or another.

"If we do not seek constantly to grow," he declared, "we fall."

Thus, the purpose of hearing even the same admonitions we've heard before is to keep ourselves thinking. What matters in the end, of course, is change in our behavior, but it is an inescapable necessity to be brought to logical, clear thought first. And there is no limit to how much thought we give to any important topic.

The Rebbe focused his listeners' thoughts most prominently on Eretz Yisroel. There is a serious split among the populace. There is no clarity of approach, "only continuing bloodshed."

That, he said, is one of the signs of ikvesa deMeshicha, to which Chazal apply the posuk, "And the truth will be obscured." Chazal play on that last word, "ne'ederes," rendering it "flocks" -- there will be different "flocks," all equally convinced they have the real "truth."

And the posuk continues, Rabbi Perlow pointed out, "and those who turn from evil will be ridiculed" -- in fact the situation of the yir'ei Hashem in Eretz Yisroel today.

What is more, the merit that has protected Israel for decades, the state's support of Torah -- its study and its practice -- has now been severely curtailed as well. The secular forces in Eretz Yisroel, the Rebbe bemoaned, are oblivious to the correlation between Torah and the security of Jews.

Yet, the onus of the current situation cannot be laid entirely at the secularists' feet. Just as the novi Yonah, as the Brisker Rov explains, could well have attributed the ship's floundering to any of the others on board, who were certainly not tzaddikim, but chose to focus instead on his own failing, we must introspect along similar lines. It is left to us to invigorate Klal Yisroel's neshomoh to help ensure the security of its guf.

The Rebbe then addressed several serious issues, particularly in the realm where "neshomoh and guf commingle" -- like an international demonstration of "pride" in sinfulness planned to take place in a year's time in Yerushalayim, and the dangers of the Internet. At risk in facing the latter, he averred, "is our status as an am kodosh.

He admonished every Jewish family that values yir'as Hashem to "use every method imaginable" to "create fences around the Torah" and protect itself from the pernicious effects of new technologies.

At the same time, though, an army of dedicated individuals has emerged on the Jewish scene: the bnei Torah of our yeshivos and kollelim, and ba'alei teshuvoh. They share a commitment to resist secular culture, he said, and declared them "our greatest zchus."

With their help, the Rebbe concluded, we can all join efforts to make truth reappear, and merit that once again "the earth will be filled with Hashem's glory."


Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, rav, Agudath Israel Zichron Chaim Tzvi of Madison, was the first of Thursday evening's two featured speakers.

He focused on the "only negative commandment heard by Klal Yisroel directly from Hashem": the prohibition against idolatry. Rabbi Reisman posited that ancient people's devolution from paying homage to Hashem through His "messengers" like the physical forces and luminaries, to their creation of symbols of those "messengers" and then to veneration of those symbols themselves,as described by the Rambam, is intended to teach us that avodoh zorah is a sin of opting for chitzoniyus, superficiality, over penimiyus or essence.

And that aspect of idolatry, despite the fact that we no longer possess the yetzer hora for worshiping symbols, remains pertinent even in our day.

With his characteristic blend of keen insight and humor, Rabbi Reisman proceeded to catalogue a number of modern-day pitfalls of confusing superficiality with what really matters in life, citing common materialistic focuses on things like houses to shidduchim to celebrations. At the same time, though, he expressed hope that things are changing for the better, noting the fact that, while the takkonos of Gedolim regarding chasunos may have yet to become universally observed, "we don't admire lavishness any more. We say "nebbach" about such excess. And that way, he averred, lies the ultimate geulah, when we will "no longer call " `gods' the creations of our hands."

The final speaker of the evening was Rabbi Yissocher Frand, rosh yeshiva, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (Baltimore), and he introduced his remarks by identifying children as the greatest blessings we have, and their upbringing as one of our most formidable challenges.

Seeming to switch topics, Rabbi Frand then turned to the topic of cell phone etiquette, the practice of turning off, or not turning off, cell phones in particular circumstances. After recounting how rings and electronic melodies have disturbed not only meetings and shiurim but chasunas and even funerals, Rabbi Frand contended that the decadence of such behavior is clearly indicated in the Torah. Some may well ask, he said, "Voo shtait?" -- Where is it written?" It is written, he answered, in sefer Bereishis.

In fact it is the theme of the Sefer, he explained, which is why it is called Sefer Hayoshor -- the Book of the Straight and Proper -- a reference to the lessons in human behavior exemplified by the actions of the Ovos, who are called "yeshorim."

Rabbi Frand demonstrated that the Ovos teach us the imperative of menshlichkeit -- which requires us not only not to disturb others with our cell phones, but not to double park, not to honk horns in residential neighborhoods late at night, and not to park in spaces for the handicapped - - to cite only a few unsavory behaviors.

Which observation led him back to the need to raise our children well. For there is, he reminded his listeners, only one effective way to imbue our young with menshlichkeit -- and that is to exemplify it ourselves.


Greetings at the Thursday night session were offered by convention cochairman Menachem Klein of Los Angeles; and convention coordinator Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, director of Agudath Israel's New England Region office. The session was chaired by Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg, rav, Chofetz Chaim Torah Center (Cedarhurst).

Unity and Havdoloh at the Melave Malka

On motzei Shabbos it was only several short hours since Sholosh Seudos and no one seemed particularly hungry -- for food. But there was a craving for words of mussar, direction and insight.

Opening remarks for the Melave Malka session were delivered by Agudath Israel of America Nesius member Rabbi Chaskel Besser. The beloved elder statesman of the Agudath Israel movement told his listeners that the younger ones among them -- and one suspected he meant most of those in the room -- may not fully appreciate just "how good they have it today."

Recalling his youth in prewar Poland, when Jews were largely without influence and Yiddishkeit was being abandoned by so many, Rabbi Besser remarked how radically times have changed, how we contemporary Jews take the phenomenal growth of Torah and its study almost for granted. And likewise, he contended, the work of Agudath Israel. As an example, he contrasted the legendary rabbis' march on Washington during the Second World War, when President Roosevelt would not pay his petitioners the honor of a meeting, with the attention paid today by presidents and legislators to Agudath Israel of America, exemplified by its Washington missions.

We truly must say, he contended, "Modim anachnu loch . . ."

Greetings were then extended by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (Baltimore), who focused on the vital importance of establishing, and living by, proper priorities. The Anshei Knesses HaGedola, he reminded his listeners, met the challenge of a mesorah removed from its source by expressing three mandates, as we are taught at the very beginning of Ovos. "Fences" around the Torah, and increased numbers of students, he contended, are understandable. But why "patience in judgment?"

The Baltimore Rosh Hayeshiva answered that in areas that are not clearly determined by straightforward halacha -- so much of our everyday behavior and attitudes -- the only means of ensuring that we will do what is right is taking care and deliberation to properly set our priorities -- part of the reason, he added, that Jews come to an Agudath Israel convention.

Citing a story where a father scolded his son for dropping "an expensive siddur," Rabbi Feldman observed that "a siddur isn't important because it costs money; money is important because it can buy a siddur."

A special message was then delivered by Yerushalayim Mayor Rabbi Uri Lupoliansky who told his listeners that while he is rightfully proud to be the first chareidi mayor of the Holy City in 2000 years, they "should not be jealous" of him. Although he received a mandate from a majority of Yerushalayim's religious and secular citizens, he explained, running a city like Yerushalayim is no simple matter -- and his goals of peace and unity, while surely attainable, are not easy ones to pursue.

Mayor Lupoliansky lauded the "unique contribution of Agudath Israel of America to institutions of Torah and chesed," gave special praise to Rabbi Bloom and the rest of the Agudah's leadership for the organization's Boruch MiBanim and Terror Victims funds, and paid tribute to the work of the late Agudath Israel leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt"l, "whose work influenced religious life in Eretz Yisroel" as well as in North America. The mayor revealed that, on his suggestion, the Jerusalem city council is considering naming a street after Rabbi Sherer.

He suggested, too, that, even if Moshiach has not yet arrived, Agudath Israel consider holding its convention in Yerushalayim next year.

Agudath Israel of America executive vice president Rabbi Shmuel Bloom then delivered his message to the gathering. He began by recalling how Rabbi Sherer would cringe at the description of Agudath Israel as an "organization"; it is, rather, he would always correct the speaker, a movement -- indeed a "sacred trust" placed in our stewardship. Five years since Rabbi Sherer's passing, Rabbi Bloom averred, is a proper time for assessment of the movement's successes and of the areas where work still needs to be done.

Among the former, he noted, is the growth of Agudath Israel from a largely New York-based movement to a truly national one, with branches all over and regional offices in Miami Beach, Chicago and Boston.

Rabbi Bloom went on to list a number of major accomplishments over recent years on the legislative, educational and social services fronts, as well as activism on behalf of Jews in Eretz Yisroel.

At the same time, though, the Agudath Israel executive vice president expressed deep concern for the "neshomoh" of Agudath Israel, the perceived tendency among many of its members and supporters to not fully focus on the fact that the movement was, beyond all that it does, most essentially meant to be a unifier of "all the shevatim of Klal Yisroel under the leadership of the Torah as interpreted by the Gedolei Yisroel." How, he asked, can we get our constituency, "the yeshivishe velt, the chassidishe velt, the Sephardic community, young baalei batim, to realize that they are in fact agudah achas, Agudas Yisroel -- and that Agudas Yisroel cannot exist without them?"

The key, he suggested, is for each of us to recognize that all of Klal Yisroel is part of ourselves, and to fully love it as such. That, said Rabbi Bloom, is what it means to be a true "Agudist."


The evening's main address was delivered by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, mashgiach, Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood). His theme was the vital need for Jews to recognize the demarcation line between kodesh and chol, and bein Yisroel lo'amim. As Rav Elchonon Wasserman wrote in the name of the Bais HaLevi, he recalled, "bein kodesh lechol" implies no less an incongruity than "bein ohr lechoshech."

Our multitudinous blessings, however, the Lakewood Mashgiach observed, have "muddled the line between holiness and its opposite." As the Chovos Halevovos puts it, true love of this world cannot coexist with true love of the next.

And, he continued, it is imperative that we assess which of these loves we encourage in ourselves and our children. At every stage of the development of our young in particular, he declared, we must make kedushoh the mandate, especially living, as we do, in a world so filled with tumah.

Citing examples from advertisements aimed at Orthodox Jews and common activities within the Orthodox community, Rabbi Salomon decried what he described as embracing the "indulgences of un-Jewish senses."

We must, Rabbi Salomon maintained, speak of kedushoh to even our youngest children. If we don't, he asked, "what hope do they have?" We have to "make Havdalah," he declared, "not just say it."

And we must, he added, daven for our success in that mandate. For to not be mispalel for our children's growth in kedushoh despite "the golus of the street corner" is to be guilty of "negligence, even abuse."


The final speaker of the evening was Rabbi Shimson Sherer, rav, Congregation Zichron Mordechai. Rabbi Sherer recalled how he had harbored a modicum of youthful cynicism when his father, the renowned Agudath Israel leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt"l, would try to impress upon him the import of the Imrei Emes's declaration at the commencement of a Knessia Gedola, that an Agudas Yisroel gathering is a true kinus lesheim Shomayim. But, Rabbi Shimson Sherer attested, "I do believe that is true."

Rabbi Sherer brought sharp focus to developments on other parts of the American Jewish scene, decrying a Reform leader's declared intention, at a recent gathering of his movement, to solve the problem of antisemitism by convening an interfaith study session of the Ten Commandments.

He contrasted that misguided response to contemporary Jew- hatred with the inherently Jewish and time-honored response of another recent gathering, the Leil His'orerus held shortly before Rosh Hashana, where Jews gathered to hear words of inspiration to do teshuvoh.

Noting that one Jewish group's motto is "the courage to be modern and Orthodox," Rabbi Sherer suggested that "it takes more courage to be the keepers of a sacred trust."

"Surrender to misguided feminism is courage?" he asked his listeners, referring to the decision of some in that group's camp to say the brochoh of "shelo osani ishoh" inaudibly, to avoid anyone's taking offense. Rabbi Sherer recounted how he asked the renowned askanis Rebbetzin Miriam Lubling -- with whom "few can keep up in a hospital corridor" -- her opinion on the matter, as someone who has not only embraced her role as a Jewish woman but whose chesed and caring have inspired Jewish men and women for decades.

" `Meshuga bist di?'" she responded, confided Rabbi Sherer.

"Al titosh Toras imecha," he proclaimed. "That's true courage."

"Our mechanchim transmitting Torah lishmoh to a new generation," he continued. "That's courage."

That courage, and the passion that underlies it, said Rabbi Sherer, is the ideology that infuses Agudath Israel, and he called on his listeners to ensure that the passion be transmitted to the younger generation, so that they will be truly conversant with the "sugya called Agudas Yisroel."


The Melave Malka session was chaired by Rabbi Zev Cohen, rav, Congregation Yeshurun (Chicago). He delivered brief but pithy remarks throughout the course of the evening, and was introduced at the start by convention chairman Mendel Zilberberg.

Gracing the Melave Malka for part of the evening were Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, rosh hayeshiva, Torah Ohr (Yerushalayim); and Rabbi Simcha Schustal, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah of Stamford.

The Closing Address

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe, stepped up to the podium to deliver, as he did last year, the convention's closing address.

Observing that participants at every convention fall into two categories -- those who feel the words of the gedolim are directed at them and those who think they are intended for the person in the next seat -- Rabbi Horowitz pointed out that individuals in the former category would have their work cut out for them when they returned home; charotoh for past deeds is only half the battle, he said, kabboloh for the future is the next step.

The Rebbe then asked if he might add one more topic -- emes -- to the many that had already been explored over the last four days. As a young man in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rabbi Horowitz recalled, he and other talmidim would often approach their rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, to discuss the day's shiur. On one occasion, the Rosh Yeshiva spent so much time talking to a particular bochur that the other boys finally gave up and returned to their learning. The next day the Rebbe explained why he had been so engrossed in conversation with the talmid -- the young man had successfully refuted the Rosh Yeshiva's entire shiur. "I will give a new one on the same topic next week," the Rosh Yeshiva declared, imparting to his talmidim a never-to-be-forgotten lesson in emes.

Pointing out that the final letters of the first three words in Bereishis form the word emes, Rabbi Horowitz asserted that "emes is the very foundation of the world" and a Jew is obligated to "conduct all aspects of his life" with uncompromising emes. Emes is the basis of our relationships bein odom laMokom and bein odom lechavero, and it is emes that sustains the infrastructure of the bayis neeman.

With emes as our guiding force, the Rebbe concluded, we can fulfill life's greatest mission -- to be mekadesh sheim Shomayim.

With the Rebbe's heartfelt words still reverberating throughout the auditorium, the 81st National Convention of Agudath Israel of America drew to a close.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.