The Opening Day
There is always risk in change, but opportunity too. And to
judge from the response of the thousands who participated in
Agudath Israel's 83rd national convention this past Shabbos
and weekend, the new format instituted by the organization's
executive vice president, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, proved itself
Throughout the four-day gathering at the Westin Hotel in
Stamford, Connecticut, eight distinct topics were explored by
experts and amcha alike — each topic the subject
of a forum that met five times over the course of the
The topics ranged from tefilloh to tuition, from
shidduchim to kids at risk; and the forums were
engines of communal introspection and incubators of
The true measure of their success, of course, will only
become evident in time, if and when ideas are translated into
action. But Rabbi Bloom and his fellow Agudath Israel
executive committee members, along with Agudath Israel's
staff, have every intention of seeing to it that the
tremendous energy that was evident at the convention carries
over into a year of accomplishment on behalf of Klal
Thursday afternoon saw the initial convening of the forums,
which were not only attended by registered convention guests
but also attracted many travelers who, although they were not
spending Shabbos at the convention, wanted to participate in
the discussions and to benefit from the spiritual nourishment
offered that evening at the convention's Keynote Session.
Emes and Action
The evening's first address was delivered by the Novominsker
Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Rosh Agudas Yisroel of
America. His theme was the need for a Jew to strive for
emes: truth and integrity, "at all times, at all
Bikush ha'emes, he averred, quoting the Rambam, means
seeking truth for its own sake, without ulterior motives or
preconceptions. "Emes," he declared, "is sacred."
And, he added, it is not always easy. In a society like ours,
the Rebbe explained, characterized by a variety of different
groups with different viewpoints, it is important not to take
one's stances with an eye to how they might affect one's
image or reputation. Emes is the Jewish imperative, he
asserted, and therefore the imperative of Agudath Israel.
The Rebbe also stressed the responsibility each and every Jew
has to contribute to ribui kvod Malchus Shomayim.
Quoting a Midrash on Mishlei, Rabbi Perlow
explained that while the "rabos bonnos" of Eishes
Chayil, the nations of the world, have accomplished much
— with science and technology — "you are exalted
over them all." Klal Yisroel alone stands
uncompromisingly for the moral imperative of avodas
And Klal Yisroel's ideals are evident in her actions:
"Give her of the fruits of her hands."
"Anyone who knows the history of Agudath Israel of America,"
the Rebbe continued, "must admit that it is an Eishes
Chayil too," in Jewish communal life.
The Mechitza Mandate
The Rebbe then addressed a number of the issues that were
being discussed at the convention forums, encouraging his
listeners to explore ideas like a communal tax on individuals
and communities to help support mosdos chinuch. He
stressed how, since "modern technology has broken down the
mechitza of kedusha, we need new
mechitzos," to fend off the invasion of our homes and
our lives. "Everyone," he said, "not only our young, is in
Rabbi Perlow closed his address with heartfelt words about
"our brothers in Eretz Hakodesh, their safety and
their matzav haruchniyus." Mentioning by name Chinuch
Atzmai, Shuvu and Keren Nesivos Moshe, the Rebbe declared
that each and every one of us needs to do what he can to
strengthen chinuch and help alleviate the economic
plight of Jews in Eretz Yisroel.
Aspiration and Accomplishment
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom then delivered his message to the
gathering, beginning with a moving story about an overheard
tefilloh of the Steipler Gaon, in which he pleaded
with Hakodosh Boruch Hu to spare the life of a disease-
stricken klal-activist with the words, "We have so few
ehrliche askonim! Must he be taken too?"
Indeed, said Rabbi Bloom, honest, efficient, dedicated and
earnest oskim betzorchei tzibbur be'emunoh — who
understand that all is from Hashem, not themselves —
are all too rare.
When, however, we fully internalize that recognition that it
is not we who accomplish but Hashem nothing can stand in our
way. Rabbi Bloom recounted how the Brisker Rov once, on an
erev Yom Kippur, told a certain man who had
apologetically demurred that he couldn't help with an
official governmental matter until after Yom Kippur: "You
can. You don't want."
Quoting Rabbi Don Segal, Rabbi Bloom explained that
"Hakodosh Boruch Hu does the doing — but we must
want, really want."
All the problems being discussed at the convention, Rabbi
Bloom averred, while daunting challenges, are "good problems"
— in the sense that they are born of our success and
growth as a tzibbur. Agudath Israel instituted its new
convention format, he explained, precisely because there are
so few "ehrliche askonim," so few who want, "really
want," to solve problems. And those who have chosen to be
at the convention and participate in the discussions and
brainstorming are such people, people who, Rabbi Bloom
declared, will surely merit siyata deShmaya.
When it comes to accomplishing, he said, "We can't."
"But," he stressed, "He can."
A Godol's Death, and Life
An address was then delivered by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, rosh
hayeshiva of Yeshiva Meor Yitzchok and rav of Congregation
Ahavas Torah. He began with a compelling image recalled from
a photograph of Rav Elchonon Wassermann zt"l, Hy"d on
the boat that was taking him back to Europe on the eve of the
Second World War. The Baranovitch Rosh Yeshiva was looking
back at the receding shore of America. Rabbi Wachsman
imagined him figuratively looking into the eyes of American
Jewry, charging it with cultivating the future.
In fact, he continued, Rav Elchonon taught his
talmidim in 1941 the brochoh to make before
dying al kiddush Hashem, and instructed them that when
they feel the bullets, to have kavonoh that their
deaths be a kaporoh for their brethren in America.
Then Rabbi Wachsman described the scene earlier that day in
his yeshiva, where talmidim, studying Yevomos,
were spiritedly arguing over Rav Elchonon's Kovetz
He'oros, discussing what Rav Elchonon meant, what he was
asking, how he "learned pshat."
"Did Rav Elchonon know this would be the scene 60 years
later?" asked Rabbi Wachsman. "He was certainly
mispallel for it."
The accomplishment of past decades, he continued, is
undeniable. "But," he challenged his listeners, citing the
number of convention topics with the word "crisis" in their
titles, "how successful have we really been?" Some of the
problems we face, he asserted, "are potentially
Paradox and Purity
Our success and our problems, Rabbi Wachsman implied, are no
less real than the reality of a human being who can "cry his
eyes out at Ne'ilah but be dishonest in his business
dealings, or study Torah and yet view inappropriate things on
his computer, or flout chasunah takkonos and proudly
allow himself to be photographed doing so!"
Quoting the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Wachsman explained that a human
being possesses both pure rational thought, and superficial
imagination. The latter, although it can mislead us gravely,
holds us all captive. It seeks temporal pleasures and shuns
Amid our generation's strange mixture of kedushoh and
crass materialism, he said, we need to assert our
seichel, to remind ourselves: Eved Avrohom
And, Rabbi Wachsman further asserted, we need to act upon
that realization. The mandate of the moment, he said, is
clearly the strengthening of the yeshivos that are Klal
Support of Torah-study, he declared in the name of the
Chofetz Chaim, can purify our neshomos. The purpose of
the material blessings we have in America, he concluded, is
because there are needs to be addressed.
The convention chairman was Raphael Zucker (Lakewood), and
its coordinator was Yaakov Feiler (Chicago). The Thursday
evening session's chairman was Rabbi Yosef Eisen, rabbinic
administrator of the Vaad Hakashrus of Five Towns and rav of
Kollel Bnei Torah.
Confront Technology's Downside With Heightened
As soon as the doors to the grand ballroom at the Stamford
Westin Hotel were opened on motzei Shabbos, a torrent of
enthusiastic Jews flowed into the cavernous room.
It was only several short hours since Sholosh Seudos
and no one seemed particularly hungry — for food.
But there was a palpable craving for words of mussar ,
direction and insight — and the crowd, along with
another one in an adjoining room to which the proceedings
were electronically transmitted — would not be
In the motzei Shabbos hours preceding the Melave Malka,
convention delegates again gathered in the hotel's
various conference rooms to further explore — this time
from an halachic perspective — the important
issues which were the foci of this year's convention.
The Melave Malka commenced with an opening address by veteran
Agudath Israel askan and Nesius/Presidium member Rabbi
Chaskel Besser. Following Rabbi Besser's remarks, greetings
were offered by the evening's chairman, Rabbi Eliezer Dovid
Rapaport, rav of Khal Zichron Avrohom Yaakov.
Next to step up to the podium was Rabbi Aharon Dovid Dunner,
dayan of Hisachdus Kehillos HaChareidim in London, who, as
always, delivered his remarks with extraordinary warmth and
Dayan Dunner began his talk with an urgent message from the
Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah asking the assemblage to help
alleviate the enormous financial difficulties currently
plaguing our yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel.
The Dayan then turned to the main topic of his address,
which, he declared, was nothing less than "Yiddishkeit
itself." Alluding to the Rashi in Parshas Kedoshim that
tells us, "wherever one finds a restriction on immorality,
one finds kedusha" — the Dayan informed his
listeners that he would, that evening, be offering a
"practical suggestion" for guarding against the immoral and
dangerous influence of the surrounding culture.
Why, Dayan Dunner asked, were the righteous men of Sodom
included in the destruction of the city? Citing the Kli
Yokor, the speaker explained that the citizens of Sodom were
deeply immersed in sins of immorality. Immorality, he said,
poisons the very atmosphere, dragging the righteous down
along with the wicked.
To deflect the spiritual dangers in our own culture, we must
erect a solid barrier of kedushoh — an effort,
the Dayan declared, that best begins at our own Shabbos
tables, where opportunities for imparting important spiritual
lessons and values to our children abound.
Dayan Dunner suggested that heads of household take control
of the Shabbos meal in much the same way a CEO controls a
company meeting — with careful planning.
"Schedule every moment of the Shabbos meal," the speaker
recommended. "Don't be embarrassed to write it all down
— a maasehele at 12 o'clock, a joke at a quarter
past. Leave nothing to chance."
The closing address of the Melave Malka was delivered by the
mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood), Rabbi
Matisyahu Salomon. He suggested a new, global perspective on
the varied problems that had occupied the many hundreds of
participants in the forums that took place over the course of
Using as a springboard the "Horachamon" tefilloh
appended to Bircas Hamozone, in which we ask "the
Merciful One" to "be glorified through us forever, to
eternity," the Mashgiach powerfully made the point that our
existence, our destiny as Jews, is for one purpose: to be
vehicles for kvod Hashem. And to do so "forever, to
eternity" — by imbuing our link to the future, our
children, with that awareness.
To glorify Hashem is life's purpose, Rabbi Salomon explained,
not only for those studying in yeshiva or kollel, but
for each and every Jew. Boruch Hashem, he said, "those
who gather under the banner of Agudas Yisroel of America want
to be guided in that goal."
The Rambam, the Mashgiach pointed out, teaches us that the
Nevi'im did not long for the arrival of Moshiach for
the security and comforts it will afford, but rather for the
opportunity that the security and comforts will provide
Klal Yisroel to dedicate itself to Torah without
oppression or distractions.
We need to realize, Rabbi Salomon averred, that the
alleviation of the crises of golus — including
the crises that were the foci of the convention — is
not itself the goal. The true, larger, goal, is the freedom
to "pursue deveikus and kedushoh" — to
apply ourselves to avodas Hashem and limud
Torah — unburdened by trials and tribulations.
Elaborating on the challenges presented by golus, the
Mashgiach developed the theme of technology's downside,
something that is not always readily apparent at first but
which becomes undeniable. When electricity was harnessed, he
recounted, it was thought to be a great boon to Torah; no
longer would Torah-study have to be dependent on candles. But
Rav Elya Lopian, the Mashgiach recounted, realized the truth
of the matter, that the more "primitive" lighting facilitated
concentration and focus, and the new one undermined the same.
The telephone, Rabbi Salomon added, has further eroded our
ability to concentrate uninterrupted; and the more mobile the
technology, the more it disturbs our focus.
"Something that looks like a blessing," he continued, "can be
in fact a disaster." Ease of travel, he noted, is another
example. "Today, we're expected to be everywhere."
We need, therefore, to expend great effort to control such
things, the Mashgiach exhorted his listeners, "to apply to
them the Rambam's yardstick: are they bringing us closer to
our real goal, or distancing us from it?"
And so, Rabbi Salomon returned to where he began. We are
being small-minded, he said, when we limit ourselves to
addressing only the individual various crises that have
befallen us. To be sure, we must do so. But, he insisted, we
must also be "more broad-minded," rise above it all, and
realize that Klal Yisroel's crises will only fully go
away with Moshiach's arrival — and that bringing that
moment must be our overarching goal, even as we treat the
symptoms of its absence. "There is only one plague," Rabbi
Salomon declared. "Golus."
"And," he concluded, "only one cure: Geulah!"