Agudath Israel Of America Centennial Banquet Links Glorious Past To Thriving Present
In an emotionally stirring event that served as the unquestionable highlight of this year’s 90th Convention of Agudath Israel of America, a crowd of approximately one thousand members and supporters filled the main ballroom of the Hilton East Brunswick in New Jersey this past motzoei Shabbos for a Centennial Banquet, where they heard gedolei Yisroel recount the glorious history of Torah Jewry’s central organization from its founding in Katowice in Poland in 1912 to its thriving present in the United States and worldwide.
The banquet’s narrator, veteran Agudath Israel Board Member Yechiel Benzion Fishoff, set the stage for the evening by entrancing the audience with his vivid depictions of the organization’s crucial work for authentic Judaism over the past century. “With all of the secular philosophies – socialism, Communism, the haskalah movement – that were taking yidden in Europe away from frumkeit at that time,” Mr. Fishoff stated, “Agudath Israel literally gave the neshomo back to Klal Yisroel.” The speaker noted how the Chofetz Chaim marveled at Agudath Israel’s unprecedented ability to bring together diverse groups of Orthodox Jews over the common goal of heeding the directives of recognized Torah sages.
Briefly enumerating just some of the organization’s accomplishments in its early years, Mr. Fishoff mentioned the initiation of the daily study of the Daf Yomi by Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l, which recently marked a milestone with the grand 90,000-strong Siyum HaShas at Met Life Stadium; the legendary work of the Vaad Hatzalah – under the tireless leadership of Agudath Israel of America’s first president, Mike Tress, and Rav Elchonon Wasserman hy”d – that succeeded in rescuing thousands of Jews from the destruction of the Holocaust; and the establishment by Mr. Tress’ dynamic successor, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, of the organization’s national office in New York City. “The Agudah offices at 5 Beekman Street immediately became a ‘port of refuge’ for the numerous Jewish survivors of World War II,” the speaker emphasized, “who flocked to the United States seeking spiritual revival.”
Demonstrating the amazing expansion of Agudath Israel over the decades, Mr. Fishoff pointed out that the organization grew from just one office in New York to an active national movement with a current roster of offices in 26 states. “Agudath Israel can be compared to Avrohom Avinu,” he said, “about whom the posuk says ‘bah bayamim’ – he came with his days, which means he gained new strength and vigor in his advanced age.”
Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago, spoke passionately about how his mentor – Rav Elya Meir Bloch zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe in Europe – “drafted” him to run a new Zeirei Agudath Israel group when Rav Levin was a yeshiva bachur. “Rav Bloch told me to keep on working for Agudath Israel until he would tell me to stop,” Rav Levin revealed. “He never told me to stop, so I’m still doing that holy work.”
Recalling how Mike Tress would regularly interact with Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the Menahel of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, on behalf of other yidden, Rav Levin quoted the late Agudah leader’s widow as commenting that nobody truly knows the great deeds Mike Tress did for so many individual Jews. “But Hashem knows,” the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva thundered. “He records all the wonderful actions – of Mike Tress, and of such great Agudath Israel leaders as Rav Itche Meir Levine, Moreinu Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, and Rabbi Moshe Sherer – who took a relatively small group and transformed it into the most effective Orthodox organization in the world.” Mentioning two hardworking Agudah leaders who were recently niftar – Rabbis Chaskel Besser and Boruch Borchardt – Rav Levin declared, “We must all dedicate ourselves to Agudath Israel of America’s renewal and vigor.”
Rav Yosef Harari Raful, Rosh HaYeshiva, Ateret Torah, began his comments by noting that Agudath Israel plays such a crucial role in the ongoing struggle to protect the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel from the onslaughts against its religious rights by the secular Israeli government. The Rosh HaYeshiva went on to state that the biggest problem facing the Orthodox world today is the threat to our children’s chinuch from the insidious influences of modern technology. Referring to portable digital devices as the danger “in your pocket,” Rav Harari Raful commented, “I was at the Citifield asifa on the Internet, and I believe it will have siyata dishmaya.”
Focusing on Agudath Israel’s efforts over the decades in the Holy Land, the Rosh HaYeshiva said, “It historically fought against the Israeli government to uphold chinuch, Shabbat, kashrut – but today’s struggle is different; the secular Zionists – and the world – have no real values at all.” Adding emotionally, “What would we have today in Eretz Yisroel without Agudath Israel?” Rav Harari Raful exhorted his listeners, “Everybody should think carefully about the problems we currently face, and ask themselves, ‘What can I do to help?’”
As the banquet’s attendees enjoyed their gala melave malka seudah in between the special addresses, an adult male choir – with special guest singer Mordechai Ben David – serenaded the hall with a medley of beautiful nigunim that evoked Hashem’s love and compassion for His chosen nation.
Speaking in Yiddish, Rav Doniel Alter, Rosh Kollel, Kollel Ari Shebi’chabura in Yerushalayim – who is a son of the Pnei Menachem, one of the previous Gerrer Rebbes – began by delivering a special bracha from the current Gerrer Rebbe in Eretz Yisroel. He then quoted the posuk from Parshas Vayechi wherein Yaakov Avinu told his sons to gather around him so that he could reveal to them the future time of the end of galus. Playing on the words of the posuk, Rav Alter said, “If you gather together (for Torah purposes), it will bring closer the ketz (“end” of the exile); the kuf of the word ketz, whichequals 100, represents Agudath Israel’s 100 years since its founding in Katowice, and the tzadik of ketz equals 90, which represents Agudath Israel’s 90 years in the United States.”
Asserting that Agudath Israel has exalted Hashem’s name for every Jew over the past century, Rav Alter told the rapt audience that Rabbi Sherer had commented that although he had no Chassidic background whatsoever, he always felt lifted up when he saw a photo of the Imrei Emes, the Gerrer Rebbe in the early 1900’s who was one of the sages at the helm of Agudath Israel at the time of its founding. Summing up his perspective on the organization’s mission, Rav Alter stated, “If one Jew helps another who is undergoing difficulties, that creates a special koach in the world.”
Convention Chairman Rabbi Menachem Lubinsky informed the audience – which, in addition to those in the ballroom, included untold numbers watching via satellite video from locations around the U.S. and in other countries – that many leading Torah sages considered Agudath Israel to be of utmost importance to the spiritual wellbeing of Klal Yisroel. “The Chofetz Chaim constantly exhorted frum yidden to join the organization,” he said. “The Imrei Emes specially traveled to help establish it, Rav Aharon Kotler immediately began to build it anew after the Holocaust, and Rav Boruch Ber Liebowitz stated that it is a halacha to fight on behalf of the organization. Agudath Israel now more than ever!”
In another interlude between the evening’s inspirational speeches, the crowd was treated to a powerful video entitled “The Heritage of Katowice,” which utilized archival footage, rare documents and photos, and contemporary narration to trace the arc of Agudath Israel’s history and outline its myriad accomplishments. Images of the aforementioned Mike Tress and Rabbi Sherer flashed on the large screens, accompanied by the dramatic sounds of their voices rallying Jews from all over to display their fidelity to gedolei Yisroel and the organization that carries out the sages’ dictates.
Touching on the just concluded weekly parsha of Vayechi to bring out his message, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rosh HaYeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, explained that when Yaakov Avinu made a point to stop and say Shema Yisroel – which affirms our belief in the unity of Hakodosh Boruch Hu – he was telling the Jewish people that everything in this world emanates from Hashem. Rav Kotler noted that by focusing our minds on Yaakov, our emunah in Hashem can approach our forefather’s exalted level of emunah. Commenting that the hashkafos of the average Jew are naturally not as refined as those of the gedolim, the Rosh HaYeshiva said, “At times we may have such thoughts as, ‘perhaps we do not need so many full-time lomdei Torah’ – but our gedolim have their own awareness that supersedes ours.”
Rav Kotler followed up his point by recounting how his zeide, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l – who was the leading member of Agudath Israel’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah at the time – spoke daily with Rabbi Sherer for 11 years to counsel him on directing the organization effectively. “Agudath Israel of America is still following in Rabbi Sherer’s footsteps,” the Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva insisted. “Every move its leaders make is discussed beforehand with the gedolei Torah.”
Despite the lateness of the hour, the packed crowd listened attentively as Nathan Lewin, a leading attorney whose career has been highlighted by successful legal advocacy for the religious rights of American Jewry, described in dramatic detail his many years of professional activity. In particular, Mr. Lewin devoted part of his presentation to stressing the importance of fighting for wider governmental acceptance of Shabbos observance by Orthodox Jews. “After beginning to work as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,” he recounted with some humor, “I finally had to tell him that – not only could I not work late on Fridays and on Saturdays because of my keeping of Shabbos, I needed to take off many days from work due to the upcoming fall season of Yomim Tovim. Justice Marshall replied to me, ‘Don’t worry, I know all about the rules of Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos. You see, I was a Shabbos goy when I lived years ago in the Jewish section of Baltimore.’“
Noting that Justice Marshall was a member of the Supreme Court when the famed Orthodox lawyer argued in front of it for the legal right of an Orthodox United States Air Force chaplain to wear his yarmulke on the job, Mr. Lewin regaled the audience at the Centennial Banquet with his memories of how someone involved with the case designed a military-style green camouflage yarmulke that would hopefully be permitted for a Jewish military chaplain to wear. The crowd laughed uproariously as Mr. Lewin – holding up the actual camouflage yarmulke for all to see – told of the time Justice William Brennan, another sitting Supreme Court member at the time, put on the religious head covering while in his office and forgot to remove it at the end of the workday. When Brennan’s wife finally asked him at home why he was wearing the yarmulke, the Justice answered, “It just felt so comfortable I forgot to take it off!”
Returning to the theme of shemiras Shabbos, Mr. Lewin stated, “In 1973, I wrote an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that protected employees who wished to take off from work every week for Shabbos.” He further impressed his listeners by informing them that law firms in this country that had historically displayed blatant anti-Semitic bias against Jewish lawyers attempting to join their practices, nowadays provide their observant Jewish legal staff with kosher food, Mincha minyanim, and even Daf Yomi shiurim.
The distinguished attorney nostalgically outlined the Torah activism of his late grandfather, the Reishe Rav, who – as President of the Agudath Israel World Organization’s Central Council – called for European governments to recognize and protect the needs of Shabbos observers, and corresponded with the Chofetz Chaim on that issue. Mr. Lewin also spoke of his father, who was active in Agudath Israel’s hatzalah efforts during the Holocaust and battled for the rights of Orthodox Jews in America. Declaring “You have to continue to fight for religious Jewish rights,” Mr. Lewin concluded by reminding his listeners about the unfortunately dormant Rubashkin case, in which he has expended herculean efforts to win freedom for the excessively imprisoned kosher meat manufacturer. In a clever play on words, the attorney invoked the zachor v’shamor regarding Shabbos in the Aseres HaDibros, and exhorted the audience, “Remember Shin Mem Resh – Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin.”
While it was then already well past midnight, the capacity crowd sat transfixed as Rabbi Aharon Dovid Dunner, Dayan, Hisachdus Hakehillos in London, delivered an address filled with passion and purpose. Citing a recent shocking case in which Jewish parents in Finland were charged by the authorities on multiple criminal counts for having a bris milah performed on their newborn son, Rabbi Dunner bemoaned that virtually every public mitzvah is now coming under legal scrutiny in Europe. “In 1951, I was in Camp Agudah in England,” he said, “and I asked a guest speaker, ‘Who was the first Agudist?” and he replied, ‘Moshe Rabbeinu.’ The message is that every Jew should be involved with Agudath Israel so that we can defend our religious rights.”
Rabbi Dunner strongly emphasized that the organization’s founding sages – the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes – based their entire lives on speaking and behaving in accordance with absolute truth. “Agudath Israel was founded on the truth – on emes,” he intoned. In keeping with that concept, Rabbi Dunner concluded the evening by urging Torah-loyal Jews to maintain their religious integrity at all times as a means of ensuring that governments would respect our beliefs and our heartfelt desire to maintain total mitzvah observance.