The Story of this Year’s Agudah Convention
It is hard to describe the energy in the air at the Agudah Convention, which took place over the weekend of Shabbos Parashas Toldos in the Crowne Plaza Stamford. The theme of this year’s Convention was “Stories: Yours. Theirs. Ours.” But – to fully tell the story of the Convention; to list all the speakers and topics discussed; to describe the atmosphere at the beautiful Shabbos seudos; to even give justice to the topics discussed in the Yarchei Kallah shiurim, is all but impossible in the space allocated for this article. With no other choice, this will give a summary of the main keynote sessions of the Convention, which took place Thursday night, motzoei Shabbos, and Sunday, and end with a recommendation that someone who would like to feel the full Convention experience sign up early next year. As in past years, the Agudah Convention was completely sold out weeks before it began.
“When recounting a story, with the advantage of hindsight and the ability to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, we are shocked to discover that those same random events, seemingly lucky breaks, Rachmona l’tzlan heartbreaking tragedies or failures, are clearly hashgachah pratis, the actualization of the Ribono Shel Olam’s master plan.” These words, from the evening’s chair, Ronnie Wilheim, helped set the tone of the evening: Our actions and what happens to us have import. In the words of Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and Rosh HaYeshiva of Beis Medrash Govoha, “Our ma’asim are not stories – our ma’asim are yetzirah, our ma’asim are bringing the geulah to Klal Yisroel!” One way to have our ma’asim make a disproportionate impact, said Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, is to reach out to someone near you: “Your next door neighbor needs somebody. There’s an almanah down the block. There’s people who don’t have parnassah. Knock on the door!”
What impact will you have? Maybe it will be very little, but like Rabbi Yoir Adler, Rav, Bais Medrash Shoavei Mayim, said, once you start doing something, your accomplishments might surprise yourself: “We have the raw materials, we have the potential, we have the abilities, to shake heaven and earth, to inspire the masses, to accomplish things way beyond what we can imagine.”
An example of the very phenomenon described by Rabbi Adler was shown in a moving video detailing Eliana Cohen’s story. Eliana was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder when she was 18 months old. The treatment would cost 2.2 million dollars, and all that money would have to be raised in one week for the medicine to be given in the medically-approved time for administering it. Rabbi Moshe Matz, Executive Director of Agudath Israel of Florida, who was instrumental in the quixotic, but ultimately successful, campaign, introduced Rabbi Ariel Cohen, Eliana’s father, to the convention’s guests. Rabbi Cohen, for his part, took the opportunity to thank Klal Yisroel: “Thank you for being there for us, for making our story, your story.”
Some stories were shared although not being on the Convention program. In an unscheduled address, Chairman of Agudah’s Board of Trustees, Shloime Werdiger, announced that Agudas Yisroel had reserved the Barclays Center for the Siyum HaShas, to accommodate the huge demand for tickets. But it wasn’t about the Siyum: “This is not the story of a great Siyum,” he said, “this is the story of a great people. We, the am hanivchar, are bigger than a stadium and our aspirations cannot be contained in any one arena or coliseum.
Motzoei Shabbos’s keynote session could, perhaps, be described as a “State of the Union” session for Klal Yisroel.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudas Yisroel, noted that Klal Yisroel’s growth has been phenomenal over the past seventy years. “There are more bochurim and yungerleit learning in Lakewood today than in all the pre-war yeshivos of Lita put together.” The Siyum HaShas, the greatest ma’amad of kavod haTorah in recent Jewish history, will be an impetus for further growth: In the words of Rabbi Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshiva, Mirrer Yeshiva, and Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah: “Hundreds of thousands of us will be shteiging because of the Siyum HaShas.”
But there is another side of the story.
Rabbi Perlow bemoaned the growing Chillul Shabbos in Eretz Yisroel, and he reminded those present that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah recently proclaimed in a Kol Korei, that we, here in the United States, need to be mechazeik in shemiras Shabbos in response to this.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President, Agudath Israel of America, remarked on the anti-Semitism that is a danger to Klal Yisroel, and, even more so, the attacks on the very concept of religion itself.
In a further development in Eretz Yisroel that concerns us, as well, Chinuch Atzmai is suffering unprecedented financial hardship, as described by Rabbi Berel Povarsky, Rosh Yeshiva Ponovezh, Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah b’Eretz Yisroel. The potential consequence of this could be thousands of young children not being able to go to Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov.
Perhaps the perspective to help deal with all these challenges was best articulated by Mendel Tress, the evening’s chairman and son of the Agudah hero R’ Elimelech Gavriel “Mike” Tress: When it comes to Avodas Hashem, there is no room for any cheshbonos. “This was my father’s life’s mission, and this is what I believe he implanted in every fiber of Agudas Yisroel.” Keeping this in mind will help us deal with what otherwise might seem insurmountable.
One way that the Agudah has learned to deal with the issues facing the Klal is through shtadlanus. The evening’s audience watched a video highlighting some of the work of the regional offices of the Agudah in such areas as school choice funding and fighting anti-Semitic zoning laws.
There are, indeed, highs and lows. Rabbi Yechiel Spero, author of the Touched by a Story series, closed out the evening, and told a moving story of a mother, in the Holocaust, whose lesson to her young son was that notwithstanding all the bumps in the road, the road we’re all on is the road to Yerushalayim.
Sunday’s keynote session addressed a problem that is becoming a rising concern: anti-Semitism. The session was moderated by Rabbi Labish Becker, Executive Director of Agudath Israel of America, who noted that anti-Semitism is a mystery. “The same thing that everyone does, and it’s ok; if we do it, it’s terrible.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations spoke of the current state of the anti-Semitism, and the grave danger of the BDS movement. “Pittsburgh was the end of the age of innocence for American Jewry,” he said. He called for everyone to call out and protest anti-Semitism, and to work towards eradicating it.
Sometimes people are apathetic – “What will my call do anyway?” Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director, Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office, noted that voting and reaching out to public officials can work wonders towards showing them that their constituents are concerned about anti-Semitism. And, “We must report every incident of anti-Semitism, no matter how trivial!”
Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky, Rosh Yeshiva, Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, closed out the Convention with a deep hashkafic look at anti-Semitism, based, in part, on the Netziv’s She’eiris Echad. According to his explanation, anti-Semitism and hefkeirus go hand-in-hand; the Yid represents order in this world – Hashem commands us what to do, and we follow. But anyone who wishes to live a life of hefkeirus is reminded when he sees the Jew that this is wrong, causing hatred and anti-Semitism. There are three responses to anti-Semitism, as modeled by Yaakov Avinu: doron, tefillah, and milchamah. While the “to do” items noted by the first speakers are certainly important, we must remember that milchamah is the last resort, after quiet shtadlanus and tefillah have not solved the problem.
Is That It?
The Convention is over, but the lessons of the Convention live on. All the (weekday) Convention sessions have been recorded, and can be accessed by going to www.agudahconvention.org/program, or via Torah Anytime.
Motzoei Shabbos Photos