Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Kislev 5765 - December 8, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Agudath Israel of America's 82nd National Convention

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

The annual Agudath Israel of America convention is held during the Thanksgiving Weekend, the last week in November. Thousands of delegates and guests arriving from all parts of the US and Canada converged on the Westin Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut to consider issues on the current agenda.

Generally a vacation spot totally at odds with the Torah world, for four days the hotel assumed the appearance of a chareidi neighborhood. The facilities were specially koshered and prepared to accommodate the numerous participants, whose numbers swell from one year to the next kein yirbu.

The participants expressed their appreciation for all the hard work done by the Agudath Israel office staff to plan the complex event. The fabulous organization and detailed arrangements that characterize Agudath Israel of America event planning have made the organization into an emblem of outstanding endeavor for the sake of Klal Yisroel and dedication to disseminating Torah and everything sacred.

The staff is headed by a long list of accomplished, resourceful, farsighted activists including three executive vice presidents: Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, who work under the watchful eye of the Admor of Novominsk, the Rosh of Agudath Israel of America, and under the guidance of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America.

During the convention numerous problems currently on the agenda of chareidi Jewry both in the US and elsewhere are raised for discussion.

Although in some cases (Rabbi Bloom and HaRav Salomon) we already published some highlights of their addresses, we are happy to be able to supplement our earlier report with additional reports contributed by Yated Ne'eman staff.

At the Thursday keynote session, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom surveyed the organizations and institutions run by Agudath Israel of America to help solve a series of problems: from challenges in education to assistance with shidduchim. He also warned these organizations and also many of the problems the convention participants were sent to consider are the fruits of chareidi Jewry's flourishing success. Previously there was no need for all of these aid organizations, he said, and we did not have to confront these problems because we hadn't such a large chareidi community.

Rabbi Bloom also gave a brief oversight of figures that speak for themselves—a geometrically increasing series that characterizes the blessed growth of the chareidi community in the US.

Thirty-six years ago (1968) an event was held to mark the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle. Rabbi Bloom himself was in Baltimore at the time, where he was the only Jew in the city to complete the Shas. The "mass" siyum was held at the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, with some 200 participants.

Seven years later some 1,200 people took part in the siyum haShas. In 5744 they already had to hire a large hall. They went to Madison Square Garden — but in one of the large secondary halls, not the main arena. 5,600 participants crammed into the large hall and another 2,000 stood outside. Seven years later the event was held in the main arena of Madison Square Garden, where 21,000 participants took part. At the last siyum haShas at the end of 5757 (1997) several enormous halls had to be rented, as well as smaller halls in 35 cities across the US to accommodate a total of 70,000 participants. Now, some 120,000 are expected to take part in the next siyum scheduled to take place three months from now.

"We must give thanks to HaKodosh Boruch Hu for this blessed growth, and Agudath Israel of America recognizes the weight of responsibility for assisting this holy public, and we raise forth a prayer to the Creator that He may give us the strength to increase kvod Shomayim and to expand Torah and glorify it," concluded Rabbi Bloom.

More Remarks of HaRav Salomon

The topic of the convention, "Bein Yisroel Le'amim, appeared to be a subject that only directly affects Diaspora Jewry, yet HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva, demonstrated that this topic affects every G-d-fearing Jew in our times, wherever he may be. The questions associated with "bein Yisroel le'amim" do not deal with physical persecution and decrees of annihilation, he explained, but rather the influence of foreign elements on the Jew's world and way of life.

We must not forget, he said, that it all began with the verse, "Vayivoseir Yaakov levado, vayei'oveik ish imo" (which appears in the parshas Vayishlach, read during the convention). HaRav Yeruchom, the late Mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir, cited the Medrash on this verse, which mentions the verse, "Venisgov Hashem levado bayom hahu."

Chazal explain that the state of "levado" Yaakov Ovinu was in at the time was not a state of distress. The word "levado" indicates he was isolated, for he had reached very high, exalted levels of spirituality.

It was at this exalted time that Eisov's minister came to Yaakov seeking to harm him and lower him from his madreigoh. Yaakov's victory in this struggle remains the foundation of spiritual ascendancy throughout the generations, allowing every Jew to maintain his spiritual stature in the face of foreign incursions. This is the secret to Jewish survival: "Hen am levodod yishkon."

HaRav Salomon also said that as the Torah world develops and flourishes Eisov's messenger has again arrived to threaten the level of "levado," and is waging a murderous attack that seeks to bring the contamination of the non- Jewish streets into our homes.

Motzei Shabbos Melave Malka

It was his fiftieth Agudath Israel of America national convention, which meant that the distinguished and eloquent gentleman delivering opening remarks at the convention Melave Malka could only have been veteran Agudath Israel askan and Nesius/Presidium member Rabbi Chaskel Besser. Following Rabbi Besser's remarks, greetings were offered to the large tzibbur present at the seudah by Stephen L. Rosedale of Cincinnati, the convention co- chairman.

Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin, Rosh Hayeshiva, Yeshivas Telshe-Chicago, offered greetings on behalf of the Moetzes. He took the occasion of the recent 40th yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz zt"l to offer some memories of the late Rosh Hayeshiva of Telshe- Cleveland, whom he described as someone who turned affliction into strength. Rav Katz, Rabbi Levin recalled, although he lost his wife, nine sons and a daughter to the Nazis ym"sh always showed a smiling countenance and great vigor in his avodoh.

Rabbi Levin lamented how Rav Katz, Rav Elya Meir Bloch zt"l, and so many others weren't zocheh to see the great kovod haTorah of our times, as evidenced in wonderful happenings like the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas and the recent visit of HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman to the USA. He stressed the vital importance and significance of such honor shown for Torah.

HaRav Avrohom Chaim Levin also talked about the recent visit of HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman who demonstrated mesirus nefesh by traveling great distances to stir and strengthen the tzibbur in places of chareidi concentrations all around the US and Canada. He said the visit left an indelible impression on the Torah world, making special note of HaRav Shteinman's denouncements of certain fringe elements who have no place in the Torah world and who sought to harm the honor of Torah through various means and to cause chilul Sheim Shomayim.

Bnei Brak Mayor Rabbi Yissochor Frankental, who was invited to the convention as a guest of honor, spoke in Hebrew, surveying the history of the City of Torah and Chassidus from its founding to the present when it is the tenth largest city in Israel and one synonymous with Torah-study and life. He laid forth impressive statistics on the city and the blessed growth of the chareidi population in Eretz Hakodesh and called on the heads of Agudath Israel of America to use their connections with top-ranking government officials to stop the Israeli government's regular and systematic discrimination against chareidim.

Rabbi Frankental said the revolution taking place in Eretz Yisroel is apparent in the election of several United Torah Jewry mayors, including convention participants Modi'in Illit Mayor Rabbi Yaakov Gutterman and Beitar Illit Mayor Rabbi Yitzchok Pindrus.

The Bnei Brak Mayor said that shortly before his departure he went to HaRav Shteinman to ask for a brochoh and advice on what message to convey. "Stress the need to strengthen the ties between Bnei Brak and Agudath Israel of America," the Rosh Yeshiva said, "for just as Bnei Brak is a completely chareidi city based on holy purity, similarly Agudath Israel of America is a movement of yirei'im and chareidim ledvar Hashem. Therefore despite the distance the deep bond should be strengthened."

Rabbi Frankental noted the unity in chareidi Jewry which was manifest in the Bnei Brak elections, and he said that he and his colleagues on the city council must work hard to confront the hostility and estrangement the Israeli government shows toward the City of Torah and Chassidus.

Emunoh was the theme of the evening's address by Rabbi Uren Reich, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village in Lakewood. Rabbi Reich contended that uncompromising and unapologetic affirmation of the truth of our mesorah is what impelled the creation of Agudath Israel, and what maintains the integrity of the Torah community today. When we do mitzvos, he said, we must have emunah in their meaningfulness, in their power to affect our lives and the world.

The Nochosh hakadmoni's message to Chava, said Rabbi Reich, was essentially, "So what?" — So what if Hashem commanded you? Think for yourself! Once a person is guided to question truths, once he permits himself to think that he knows best, tumah follows. And what dispels it is our subjugation to Hashem. And part of that subjugation, Rabbi Reich continued, is our recognition that, as Chazal put it, "If we are humans, those who came earlier are angels; and if they are considered humans, we are donkeys."

Quoting the Chasam Sofer, he shared a subtle but meaningful pshat on those words: only if we choose to see those who came earlier as angels can we dare to consider ourselves humans; if we don't make that choice, we are no better than animals.

In that same vein, Rabbi Reich decried how prepared some are to question aspects of our mesorah simply on the basis of scientific speculations concerning the distant past, when experts still cannot even speculate about the day after tomorrow's weather with any degree of accuracy! It is our mesorah, he declared, not such "expert"speculation, that may not be questioned.

Rabbi Aaron Twerski, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and chairman of Agudath Israel's Commission on Legislation and Civic Action, spoke next. His theme was the need to know not only how to "wage war" but how to "rebuild," not only how to reject societal ills but how to ensure that the engines of our future, our primary educational mosdos, are strong and healthy.

We cannot, he averred, trust in the availability, or the sufficiency, of educational vouchers, even if they become reality. Nor can we have hope that Jewish federations will recognize the vital need for truly Jewish education. And so, with our yeshivos, especially our yeshivos ketanos, in such dire straits — with melamdim receiving subsistence wages, when they are even paid, and juggling multiple jobs — we have a pressing, urgent achrayus to address the need.

Rabbi Twerski lamented the crowded classrooms and dropping achievement common in many yeshivos these days, and the "sellers' market" that allows schools to turn away talmidim or talmidos at will because they know that there are so many others. "Kids are at risk," today, he asserted, "simply as a result of our inability to cope" with the challenges of our educational system.

Rabbi Twerski raised the idea of "nationalizing" local yeshivos ketanos, "the future of Jewish children." Our community, he asserted, is "not an impoverished one anymore" and what is needed is to address the problem on a national level.

"Our successes," he declared, "are enormous."

"But," he added, "we cannot continue with our failures."

The program ended with a message from Agudath Israel of America, delivered by its executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.

Presenting the anatomy of a legal battle Agudath Israel of America waged years ago with the City of New York, Rabbi Zwiebel colorfully demonstrated how Agudas Yisroel operates in total deference to the wishes of the Gedolim at its helm, and how it regards the hatzlochos it has to be in the merit of that deference, and of the brochos of Gedolei Yisroel.

And so, he added, it behooves us all to recognize that, as "we have the leadership," we need "to have the `followership'," which will "ensure our ultimate victory in every struggle lesheim Shomayim."

Chairman of the Melave Malka session was Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg, rav of Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Cedarhurst. In the course of his remarks he recounted how 25 years ago he went to Maran HaRav Eliashiv's home for Melaveh Malkoh, and on the way he saw a notice in the streets of Meah Shearim that ended with the words, "May we merit greeting Moshiach Tzidkeinu." When he mentioned this at HaRav Eliashiv's home the Rebbetzin o"h said that when her father, HaRav Aryeh Levine zt"l, had been sick and was blessed with these words he objected, saying that he was praying he would live in order to help widows and orphans waiting for Moshiach!

The gedolei Torah of the US, in a special meeting on motzei Shabbos that we reported on last week, echoed the position of gedolei Torah in Eretz Hakodesh, saying the issue of Education Ministry interference should be addressed in all earnestness, backed the Torah-based educational institutions in resisting such incursions and discussed ways of rousing public opinion in the US and encouraging yirei'im to take part in the difficult campaign.

Late Saturday night following the Melaveh Malkoh, the spirit of unity at the convention reached a peak as R' Abish Brodt moved the participants with niggunim of yearning and holiness. The entire crowd joined in singing in unison and harmony. This year Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Breyer, the renowned Belz composer, joined him and when the two broke into fervent, joyous song the entire crowd rose to its feet and spontaneously formed a circle, dancing into the night.

Helping Change Lives and Learning Life Lessons

The plight of Eretz Yisroel's chareidi community was the focus of the first symposium at the closing Sunday morning session.

Entitled, "For Our Brothers' Sake: Helping the Jews of Eretz Yisroel," the symposium, which was chaired by Mr. Yaakov Rajchenbach of Chicago, opened with a presentation by Rabbi Mordechai Green, director of Betzedek — the year-old Agudath Israel-affiliated office, which has since its inception undertaken numerous successful legal and economic efforts on behalf of the country's chareidi community.

The ever-widening chasm between Eretz Yisroel's chareidi and chiloni societies, noted Rabbi Green, is rooted in their very different perspectives regarding the meaning of Judaism and the character of the Jewish land. To illustrate his point, the Israeli-born attorney alluded to an observation by Israeli High Court Justice Barak that, certain Jewish cultural values and practices notwithstanding, Israel is in every respect a "normal western country." In private conversation with another High Court Justice, Rabbi Green was informed that one of the Justices believes that while Yiddishkeit may at one time have been necessary for the survival of the Jewish nation, the creation of the State has effectively negated that need. "Today it's enough to be an Israeli," the Justice told him.

At this time especially, observed Rabbi Green, when the ability of religious parties in the Knesset to have a strong impact is mitigated, there is a serious push in official circles to challenge the "legitimacy of living a Torah life" in the Jewish land.

Severe budget cuts and other discriminatory economic measures are the "weapons the government employs to induce Torah Jews to change their lifestyles," the speaker declared. As a result, the economic situation of chareidi Jews is worse than that of any other segment of Israeli Jewish society.

It was in response to this situation that Betzedek — which employs many of the same shtadlonus methods Agudath Israel of America has successfully used in the United States for decades — was created, Rabbi Green explained. Citing a number of Betzedek's successful legal undertakings on behalf of the chareidi community and its institutions — successes he attributed to siyata deShmaya, the achdus between the American and Israeli baalei batim involved in Betzedek, and the unwavering reliance on the guidance and direction of Gedolei Yisroel — Rabbi Green stressed that each court submission strengthens the government's growing perception of the Torah community as a force to be reckoned with.

"When the highest ranking government official in charge of support to yeshivas told me that we are going about things the wrong way and that we are taking up too much of his and his staff's time — I knew we are on the right track," Rabbi Green told an appreciative audience.

"Never has there been such a need for the spread of Torah as there is today in Eretz Yisroel," began the next speaker, well-known columnist and Am Echad-Israel director Rabbi Yonason Rosenblum.

"With 56 years of war behind them and, if things progress al pi derech hateva, another 50 years of war likely ahead of them," the typical secular Israeli, who lacks an understanding of this place and this people, "will leave the country."

Yet, there is a growing thirst in the secular world for that understanding, evidenced at least in part by the increasing number of secular students in religious schools — a fact the speaker supported with a number of specific examples. To attract secular Israelis to the world of Torah, he said, we must ourselves develop a strong, visibly thriving community that is capable of "holding on to its young" by addressing the problem of at-risk youth and by creating an economic infrastructure that is not dependent on the government.

He recounted the story of a young boy who, during a visit with Rabbi Aaron Leib Shteinman, suddenly threw his yarmulke to the floor. When asked for an explanation, the youngster replied, "Whenever I ask for something, the answer is, `No - we can't afford it; we learn Torah.'" If such a negative association with Torah is created in even a small minority of our children, it weakens us at the core, Rabbi Rosenblum declared.

Explaining that he had not come to "cry gevalt" but rather to explore ways of alleviating the Torah community's desperate financial situation, Rabbi Rosenblum called for American baalei batim to share with their Israeli brethren not only their money but also their entrepreneurial know-how. He praised the efforts of Betzedek, and stressed the great need, especially in light of the Torah community's drastically reduced political power, to explore other ways of helping to meet the chareidi community's needs.

The speaker made a number of other recommendations including the establishment of a "bridge fund" for out-of-kollel yungeleit in the process of learning a trade, the establishment of employment training and testing centers modeled after Agudath Israel's Professional Employment Services, the building of a "true partnership" between American and Israeli communities, and the strengthening of Yissochor/Zevulun relationships for the purpose of fortifying the core community so its values can radiate to the rest of the country.

For the first time in Israel's history, noted the next speaker, the chairman of Torah Schools for Israel, Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Leizerson, the government is attempting to interfere in the limudei chol curriculum of yeshivos, using desperately needed money as an enticement to win them over. "If we allow the government to become involved in the schools' secular curriculums, it is only a matter of time before they attempt to interfere in our limudei kodesh," Rabbi Leizerson warned. "Our tafkid is to resist this war on our institutions; if we stand firm in the belief that only Gedolei Yisroel are our baalei batim, they will not prevail."

The morning's second symposium was entitled "Galus; A Spur to Growth." The session was chaired by Agudath Israel associate executive director Rabbi Labish Becker.

With the observation that each golus was meant to teach Klal Yisroel a spiritual lesson that would carry them through the next exile, the symposium's first speaker, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, senior lecturer at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, launched into a timely address on the lessons of Chanukah.

With humor and insight, the speaker described the uncompromising mind-set of the Chashmonaim, who emerged from the relative safety of their caves to do battle for the honor of the Ribono Shel Olam and the survival of Klal Yisroel. It was because of their unwillingness to compromise or cut corners in carrying out their mission, Rabbi Orlofsky pointed out, that the Chashmonaim merited their miraculous victory against the Greeks.

Switching gears for a moment, the speaker cited the well- known gemara in Shabbos, which tells us that the mitzvah of Chanukah requires that the household light one candle; the mehadrin mitzvah calls for each member of the household to light one candle, and the mehadrin min hamehadrin mitzvah calls for adding a candle on each successive night. Unlike what is the case with any other mitzvah, Rabbi Orlofsky observed, when it comes to ner Chanukah everyone paskens mehadrin min hamehadrin. The reason? The Chashmonaim were victorious only because they believed that, when kevod Shomayim is at stake, "good enough is not good enough." If they had not insisted on conducting themselves mehadrin min hamehadrin, there would be no Chanukah to celebrate.

How much are we willing to compromise in the way we live our lives or in our relationships with our children and our spouses, Rabbi Orlofsky asked his listeners. Chanukah, he said, is a most appropriate time to reflect on how we can, indeed, live our lives as mehadrin min hamehadrin, striving for a higher goal, a greater purpose.

Reaffirming our commitment to that ideal will surely end this Golus.

Noted author and lecturer Paysach Krohn next addressed the symposium topic. Announcing that he wished to share with the gathering the lessons he'd learned on a "life-changing" trip to Poland last summer, Rabbi Krohn first shared the trip itself. Through the showing of a moving audio-visual presentation, he took his listeners from the "majestic heights" exemplified by places like the famed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the Ramo's shul, the kever of Rebbe Elimelech, the Gerrer Bais Medrash and Sara Schenirer's seminary to the "valley of tears" that was Auschwitz.

In his inimitable style, Rabbi Krohn connected a life lesson to each stop on the itinerary. The visit to Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin prompted the story of Rabbi Meir Shapiro's mother who cried because her son — the future founder of Daf Yomi — lost a day of learning and the message that our conduct has a profound effect on our children. Based on the stop at the Chozeh of Lublin's kever, the speaker derived, and shared, a lesson about kiddush bemokom seuda — elevating the act of eating beyond the mundane; from a stop at the seminary of Sara Schenirer, who hung the posuk, "Limnos yomeinu cain hoda" on the classroom walls, a lesson to make every day count; from a visit to the kever of Rebbe Elimelch, the lesson of ve'ohavto lerei'acho comocho; from a heart-rending stop at Auschwitz, the lesson of mesiras nefesh and what it means to die — and live — al Kiddush Hashem.

As he has for the last several years, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, the Bostoner rebbe, closed the convention with an inspirational message.

When the chamor asked Bilaam why he'd struck him three times, Bilaam replied, "If I'd had a sword, I would have killed you." Was it really necessary for him to answer the chamor, the Rebbe asked.

In fact it was impossible for him not to answer, the Rebbe explained, because Bilaam had to have the last word — a sure recipe for discord and strife.

"The last word is poison," the Rebbe passionately declared and assured his listeners that controlling the urge to have the last word is the path to true shalom.


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