Thursday Night at Agudah Convention 2019: Your Story is Still Being Written

Photo Credits: Moshe Gershbaum and Moshe Bitton

If there was one thread that could draw all the 97th National Convention of Agudath Israel’s Thursday night sessions together, it was this simple message: You can do it.  And, as elaborated on by the Rabbanim and leaders who participated in the evening’s sessions, you can make a much bigger impact than you thought you might.

The convention’s theme is “Stories. Yours. Theirs. Ours.” The stories of the Avos, as described by Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and Rosh HaYeshiva of Beis Medrash Govoha, teach us how to live our lives; the story of Agudas Yisroel of America is the epitome of hashgachah pratis, as noted by Convention Chairman Ronnie Wilheim; and the stories of individuals whose “small” act, said Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, produced disproportionate results.

An example of this was brought home in a moving video detailing the story of Eliana Cohen. Eliana was 18 months old when she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. Unlike many such diseases there was a medical treatment available. But it cost 2.2 million dollars, and would have to be administered in a time-frame that made it almost impossible to execute. As Rabbi Moshe Matz, Executive Director of Agudath Israel of Florida, said, while introducing Rabbi Ariel Cohen, Eliana’s father, “The story of the Cohen family is a tome that consists of many chapters.” One of those chapters, certainly, was the assistance Rabbi Matz and Agudath Israel of Florida were able to offer the Cohen family. “Thank you for being there for us, for making our story, your story,” said Rabbi Cohen, thanking Klal Yisroel for their assistance. 

But there are other stories, too – the stories of the man on the street, his concerns and his troubles. 

Children of aging parents must deal with many issues and fight the blasé attitudes toward life’s value prevalent today among many medical professionals. “Somebody has to be around all the time, 24/7,” said Rabbi Yisroel Mantel, Morah D’Asrah, Khal Adas Yeshurun, on caring for ill parents, while in the same session, titled, “Aging Parents: Important Issues Parents and Children Must Know,” Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, President, Chayim Aruchim, and Rabbi Eliezer Gewirtzman, Member, Machon Chayim Aruchim, spoke to the need for a person to know his rights in hospitals and to own the strength of their religious beliefs. The session, chaired by Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, Chairman of the Board, Chayim Aruchim, and Rivie Schwebel, Vice Chairman of the Board, Chayim Aruchim, also addressed practical halachic considerations of avoiding family conflicts over inheritance issues, as detailed by Rabbi Ari Marburger, Director, Business Halacha Institute.

Other practical questions that concern many in our community due to the popularity of e-commerce is the need for guidance on how to deal with Shabbos concerns for one’s business. In a Yarchei Kallah session titled “Business Halacha: Operating Businesses on Shabbos and More,” Rabbi Yosef Kushner, Dayan, Bais HaVaad of Lakewood, guided the attendees in how to set up their business in consonance with Hilchos Shabbos. 
Addiction is a problem that too many in our community deal with, and in a panel discussion titled, “Lessons from Addiction: Real People. Real Stories. Real Impact,” Menachem Poznanski, LCSW, Director of The Living Room, and Moshe Frankel, CASAC, Clinical Case Manager at Amudim, along with Rabbi Zvi Gluck, Director at Amudim, and a panel of people impacted by addiction, discussed the sometimes tragic stories of addiction and what can be learned from them.  It was there that another theme of the evening became apparent.

The Power of One

What happens when one person tries to create change? Should they even try? In this year’s Leadership Lounge session, “Successfully Walking the Tightrope Between Life, Work and Family,” moderator Elchanan Schwarz LMHC, Director of Crisis Intervention, BINAH, asked this question to the panelists. According to Howard Tzvi Friedman, Chairman of the Board, Beis Medrash Govoha, who presented along with Rabbi Zvi Soroka, Rebbe, Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and Rabbi Naftali Miller, National Director of Development, Agudath Israel of America, “It doesn’t say anywhere that you have to be successful, just that you have to try.”

And this message was reiterated in many contexts:

Rabbi Yoir Adler, Rav, Bais Medrash Shoavei Mayim, during the keynote sessions, spoke of people whose accomplishments surprised even themselves: “We have the raw materials, the potential, the abilities, to shake heaven and earth, to inspire the masses, to accomplish things way beyond what we can imagine.”

This message was further enforced in a session titled, aptly, “The Power of One.” Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, Menahel, Ohr Naava, began his presentation by noting how Torah Anytime, Agudah’s partner in livestreaming all the Convention’s sessions, began with a single person who saw a need and worked towards filling it. There were one hundred people in the room, said Rabbi Wallerstein, but another thousand watching remotely at the same time! His co-presenter at the session, Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan CASAC, Mashgiach Ruchani, Yeshiva High School of Cleveland, spoke to the ripple effect of reaching out – whether it’s kiruv kerovim or kiruv rechokim, showing a person that you really care, can make more of a difference in their life than you could have ever imagined. 

Making Your Own Story

Over and over, the presenters stressed how important it is to reach out, to care for someone, to start writing a new chapter in your life: “You don’t have to be a shadchan to make a Shidduch!” said Rabbi Adler; “Your next door neighbor needs someone, there’s someone down the block – knock on the door!” was the way Rabbi Bender put it.  

The latest session of the evening, ending after 11:30 pm, was the Q & A session with Rabbi Elya Brudny, Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and Rosh Yeshiva, Mirrer Yeshiva, and Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva of Greater Washington. The no-holds-barred session, titled, “I’m Asking for a Friend,” was moderated by Rabbi Yisroel Besser, Editor, Mishpacha Magazine, who presented real problems that people had submitted for this panel. What do we do about anti-Semitism? Rabbi Brudny noted that we need to remember that we’re in Galus and act appropriately. May one pretend to be “frummer” than one really is to get his or her children into a school with stricter policies? Besides for the issue of Geneivas Da’as that Rabbi Brudny noted, said Rabbi Lopiansky, don’t send your children to a school that has different standards than you adhere to at home. “When you are playing a game with the school, that chinuch is worth nothing. Send your kid somewhere else.”

The Stories Continue…

In an unscheduled address, Chairman of Agudah’s Board of Trustees, Shloime Werdiger, confirmed the rumors that had been published in online media outlets this week. “It has been reported that we‘re making a major announcement here tonight. We have Boruch Hashem secured the Barclays Center as an additional venue for the Siyum on January 1st. But the stadium is not the story. Tonight, we celebrate not the additional venue, but the reason we need one in the first place.” 

The Agudah Convention continues today, with multiple sessions this Friday morning, addressing Shidduchim, teens, harbatzas Torah opportunities for baalebatim, relationships, and the challenges of contemporary chinuch. All the sessions are open to the public, free of charge, and can also be viewed at Join us in Stamford at the Crowne Plaza hotel today, at the major keynote session on Motzai Shabbos, or at Sunday morning’s concluding sessions and keynote.