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2 Av 5760 - August 3, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
World Agudah Conference Discusses Eretz Yisroel, Jews in Former Soviet Lands, Cemetery Preservation

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

A number of issues of urgent concern to religious Jews around the world were addressed, debated and discussed over three days by the close to 100 Agudath Israel rabbinic and lay leaders from around the world who gathered here for the most recent conference of the international board of the Agudath Israel World Organization (AIWO -- the Vaad Hapoel Haolami).

Security and social issues in Eretz Yisroel were a prime focus of the conference, which featured a number of prominent roshei yeshiva, rabbonim and askonim.

A resolution was passed by the conference expressing "deep pain and profound concern" over developments across the Atlantic indicating that greater Yerushalayim has apparently been placed on the Israeli-Palestinian bargaining table.

That development was seen by AIWO's chairman, Rabbi Yehudah Meir Abramowitz, as not unconnected to the dire internal state of contemporary Israel. A number of concerns in that regard were addressed as well, including tensions between Israel's religious and nonreligious populations, the onslaught of American-style "Jewish religious pluralism," the campaign for shemiras Shabbos, the Israeli High Court's rulings on a variety of religious matters and the Tal Commission bill concerning military service for bnei yeshiva.

Rabbi Menachem Porush, former Knesset member and acting chairman of Mercaz Agudas Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel, reported on latest developments in Eretz Yisroel.

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine; Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow; and Rabbi Moshe Kishon, the Chief Rabbi of Azerbaijan, outlined the tremendous opportunity before world Jewry to help Eastern European Jews reconnect to their Torah heritage.

Rabbi Shmuel Dishon, mashgiach ruchani, Yeshivas Karlin- Stolin, delivered a stirring emotional appeal, calling on the Vaad Hapoel Haolami to undertake responsibility for the spiritual needs of Jews in former Iron Curtain lands. We must stop thinking of Jews who live in Russia, he said, as "Russian Jews," because what they are, simply, are Jews, our brothers and sisters who happen to reside in Russia.

One proposal raised during discussion was that the world's yeshivos and Chassidic groups each "adopt" a particular community in a former Soviet land, taking responsibility for seeing that it has a competent rabbi, kosher food, a mikva and other Jewish needs.

The state of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe was also a topic of major concern to the conference. In a session chaired by Reb Yechiel Ben Zion Fishoff, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America, there was intensive discussion about how best to utilize the laws of Eastern European countries to serve the cause of cemetery preservation. Over 500 known Jewish cemeteries are in dire need of fences and upkeep.

Agudath Israel of America presidium member Rabbi Chaskel Besser, a longstanding and only recently reappointed member the U.S. government's Commission to Preserve America's Heritage Abroad, described how certain local groups in Gdansk and elsewhere have improperly claimed to represent Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, thereby harming efforts to preserve botei dinim and otherwise undermining important Jewish communal interests. The delegates passed a resolution calling upon Eastern European governments to deal exclusively with the legitimate representatives of local Jewish communities.

Jewish concerns in the United Nations and other diplomatic settings was a topic addressed by Agudath Israel World Organization director of international affairs and United Nations Representative Professor Moishe Zvi Reicher, who presented a broad overview of AIWO's work in the world body.

Professor Reicher spoke to the delegates about a project AIWO has undertaken to establish an international legal resource center, to help share ideas and approaches toward legal problems facing Jewish individuals and communities the world over. Even as the session on international affairs was ending, a call came in to a participant regarding a disputed kever -- believed to be that of Rav Ashi -- on the Lebanese border with Israel that was presenting a dilemma for United Nations peacekeeping forces charged with fine-tuning the border between the two countries. Professor Reicher was duly informed and told Yated that AIWO will be weighing in at the U.N. on the issue.

A session on the issue of Holocaust-era restitution, chaired by Mr. Yitzchok Meir Cymerman, heard reports from Agudath Israel representatives to a number of international bodies involved in restitution issues, including the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization. Much discussion ensued.

Mr. George Klein, who spearheaded a special AIWO historical research project that formed the basis of the organization's presentation on behalf of Orthodox institutions in the "Swiss Banks" lawsuit, made an impassioned plea for the strengthening of the World Agudah movement. So much could be accomplished, he said, if we were only able to present a unified voice on behalf of Torah concerns the world over.

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president, called on those present to undertake the empowerment of the World Agudah by both organizing new chapters of the international organization in countries around the globe that currently lack them, and by taking concrete steps to facilitate communication and interaction among all AIWO branches.

Rabbi Abramowitz announced his intention to establish two positions, one in Europe and one in South America, to be manned by professionals charged with facilitating the establishment and coordination of new branches of the organization.

Another important session at the conference was dedicated to media issues. Rabbi Yisroel Eichler, editor of Hamachane Hacharedi, and Yonason Rosenblum, Am Echad's Israeli director and columnist for the Jerusalem Post, focused on the difficulties of ensuring that the Orthodox community's positions are effectively and accurately conveyed to the press.

The major highlight of the conference was a special session on "The Vision and Responsibility of the World Agudah", which featured Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, rosh hayeshiva, Yeshivas Telshe, Chicago; Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, av beis din (Gateshead); Rabbi Yaakov Meir Rosenbaum, rosh hayeshiva, Lev Simcha (London); and Rabbi Shmuel Akiva Schlesinger, rav of Strassbourg.

Rabbi Keller bemoaned the contemporary spread of the "uprooters of Torah" who have taken over so many public forums and media, and stressed the historic role of Agudath Israel in fulfilling the Jewish mandate to have a holy effect on the entire world. The means for the execution of that mission, he declared, quoting from a letter from Rav Elchonon Wassermann, Hy"d, is by concretizing the thoughts and insights of gedolei Yisroel.

Rabbi Schlesinger, quoting the Chasam Sofer, stressed that the Ovos Hakedoshim were not ready to accept a "partial geula" and that neither should we be ready today to do the same. Klal Yisroel, he declared, should be ready to accept even extended golus in order to be zoche to the geula sheleima.

Absent for the first time in many years from a World Agudah conference was the late Agudath Israel leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt"l. Rabbi Abramowitz spoke movingly about Rabbi Sherer, and his memory and wisdom were repeatedly invoked by other speakers over the course of the three-day gathering.

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