agudah_logoThe atmosphere at the Hilton Woodcliff Lake in New Jersey literally crackled with excitement this past Motzoei Shabbos as the thousands of participants at the 91st National Convention of Agudath Israel of America gathered to hear renowned Torah leaders discuss the Keynote Session’s controversial but pressing topic, “The Unprecedented Assault on the Chareidi Community in Eretz Yisroel.”

Opening the session, Convention Chairman Hashi Herzka – who was surrounded on the multi-tiered dais by members of Agudath Israel’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and numerous other distinguished senior roshei yeshiva, admorim and rabbonim – paid tribute to a number of recently departed activists in the Torah world. These included Reb Moshe Reichmann, Reb Yisocher Hasenfeld, Reb Yoel Klugmann, Reb Eli Hirsch, and Reb Yosef Friedenson, zichronom livracha.

Mr. Herzka then introduced Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member Rabbi Yosef Harari Raful, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshivat Ateret Torah.  Rabbi Raful provided an in-depth appreciation of the life of the venerated sage Chacham HaRav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l whose recent passing left a great void in the Sephardic community as well as in Klal Yisroel.

Rabbi Raful enumerated Rav Yosef’s many outstanding traits, including his photographic memory, phenomenally rapid comprehension of sefarim, and profound love of Torah study, which was coupled with a strong desire to teach Torah to his fellow Jews. “Rav Ovadia was an ever-flowing wellspring of Torah knowledge,” the Rosh HaYeshiva stated, “and – as Chief Rabbi of Egypt and later Israel – he showed total mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the klal.” Noting that the sage’s moral strength rendered him unafraid to express his opinion on Torah matters, Rabbi Harari Raful said that his halachic ruling on any issue was immediately accepted by everyone within the Sephardic world.

The Rosh HaYeshiva recalled how Rav Yosef publicly expressed his appreciation to Agudath Israel for three historically significant accomplishments on behalf of the residents of Eretz Yisroel, namely the Chinuch Atzmai system of Torah schools, the Bais Yaakov system of schools for girls, and the establishment of regular shiurim for ba’alei battim. Rabbi Raful concluded by asserting that Chacham Ovadia’s massive funeral – which became the largest levaya in Israeli history – caused the country’s generally secular media to realize the spiritual greatness they had overlooked in their news coverage over the preceding decades.

In a surprise presentation, the large audience was treated to a video news report highlighting the great Kiddush Hashem recently generated in the larger world by Rabbi Noach Muroff, a young Connecticut mechanech who went out of his way to return the $98,000 he had discovered hidden inside a desk he had purchased from its unsuspecting Gentile owner. Rabbi Muroff caused quite a buzz in the convention crowd by appearing in person to proclaim the great value of honesty and the need to consistently sanctify G-d’s name in this world with one’s actions.

This inspiring interlude was followed by another one, in the form of a video highlighting the impressive achievements of Agudath Israel’s new Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative, which has recruited a group of young adult askonim to successfully engage in political and social activism on behalf of various causes benefiting the organization’s vast Orthodox constituency. The video served as the perfect prelude to the ensuing address by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. Declaring that Klal Yisroel needs the strengths of the upcoming younger generation, Rabbi Zwiebel cited Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s incisive analysis of the weekly parsha’s incident wherein Shimon and Levi annihilated the residents of Shechem as a means of standing up for the honor of their violated sister Dina.

Noting how the Torah appears to both approve of the two brothers’ impetuous reactions as well as criticize them – in the form of Yaakov Avinu’s subsequent rebuke – the Agudath Israel leader related Rashi’s comment that the descendants of shevet Shimon would be the Torah teachers to Jewish children. “On the one hand, these are the people who we want to be our children’s rebbeim,” Rabbi Zwiebel explained, “because they are ready to demonstrate their mesiras nefesh on behalf of their fellow Jews. At the same time, though, they need to have their energy channeled properly under the guidance of the gedolei hador.” Passionately urging the younger generation to become more actively involved in the organization’s activities for the klal, Rabbi Zwiebel insisted, “Agudath Israel needs you – and you need us.”

The crowd in the large hotel ballroom – along with the countless viewers watching a live satellite feed at approximately 30 locations around the United States – next viewed a video that heart-wrenchingly portrayed the dire state of poverty currently escalating among large Chareidi families in Eretz Yisroel, as a result of the severe cutbacks in educational and social service funding to that sector of the population by the current Israeli government. Moving descriptions of the insidious impact on children’s health combined with the haunting looks of hungry children brought home the point that the situation is one of severe crisis – and one that demands a strong response by caring Jews. In an unusual coda to the video, a choir in the ballroom performed a song poignantly invoking our need for Hashem’s mercy.

The stage was now perfectly set for the two speakers who proceeded to command the audience’s attention, each in his own distinctive fashion. Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Rosh HaYeshiva, Mirrer Yeshiva of Yerushalayim, passionately defended the fundamental value of those in the Holy Land who devote themselves with heart and soul to the full-time pursuit of Torah study, while decrying the secular Israeli forces seeking to curtail their sacred activities. “The world only continues to endure through the power of Torah,” Rabbi Finkel contended. “A fire is burning in Eretz Yisroel because of those who are fighting the Torah community.”  

Asserting that Torah study provides the ultimate protection for the Jews of Eretz Yisroel, the Mirrer Rosh HaYeshiva pointed out that the secular Israeli leaders who would like to effect the closure of the country’s yeshivos do not realize the risk such actions would pose to themselves. “Despite the dangers from the surrounding Arabs and the government’s financial persecutions, the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel has continued to flourish,” he pronounced. “We have no doubt that the Torah will be victorious over its opposing forces.” Rabbi Finkel then conveyed a message to the Agudath Israel convention from Maran HaGaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who told him, “We are currently in the Ikvesa D’Meshicha (immediate time of Moshiach’s arrival). Whoever assists Torah study will enter the redemption first!” Rabbi Finkel concluded with an appeal to support Torah institutions and the gedolim who guide them.

The evening then reached an emotional high point with a riveting address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Me’or Yitzchok in Monsey, NY. Drawing a comparison with the actions taken by today’s secular Israeli leaders, Rabbi Wachsman recounted an incident that occurred in the wake of efforts by Russia’s Czarist government to impose a mandatory secular studies curriculum upon the country’s yeshivos, allegedly to ‘raise the standard of living’ of the Orthodox population. When the local gedolim convened on the issue, they decided to translate the words of the ‘Ahava Rabbah’ prayer in a manner that would enable government leaders to understand its expression of the timeless and fervent Jewish desire to delve into Hashem’s Torah. “Rav Itzele Ponevezher suddenly stood up,” Rabbi Wachsman related, “and proclaimed, ‘If we would translate the words clearly to ourselves, then we would not have to worry about our enemies.’ If we would truly feel the love for Torah in our hearts, we would be able to deal with our secular adversaries.”

Outlining how the secular Zionist leadership that founded the modern state of Israel wanted to create a ‘new Jew’ whose physical strength and independence would render the chareidim as irrelevant, Rabbi Wachsman proudly delineated the virtual explosion of Torah institutions and profound Torah scholarship across the country. “It is the most idealistic tzibur on the planet,” he stated, “and yet they are being demonized as the enemy of Israelis.” Addressing his words directly to Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid – who has spearheaded the country’s wave of resentment against the chareidi community – the Rosh HaYeshiva explained that the fervently Orthodox world has remained stubbornly loyal to its Torah ideals, and that it will never relinquish them despite the Israeli government’s misguided effort to “re-educate” the charedim.

Making an impassioned plea for the Jewish community in the United States to increase its financial support of its besieged brethren in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Wachsman declared, “We must tell the Torah community there – ‘You are the crown of creation, and we are with you!’ We must be sure to come out on the right side of Jewish history.”

The subject of Israeli governmental actions against charedim was also raised in Shabbos addresses at the convention by Chavrei Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe; Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rosh HaYeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha; and Rabbi Yosef Frankel, Vyelepoler Rebbe.  In addition, Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Leizerson, director of Chinuch Atzmai, spoke on Sunday morning about “The Battle to Preserve the Purity of Chinuch in Eretz Yisroel.”

As the three-hour Motzoei Shabbos Keynote Session drew to a close, the looks of satisfaction on the faces of those in attendance – and the readily overheard expressions of sincere desire to turn exhortations into action – proved that the evening had undoubtedly succeeded as a manifestation of Kiddush Shem Shomayim b’rabim, and the absolute highlight of another supremely memorable Agudah convention.

(Author: Boruch Shubert)