“Leadership. Yourself. Your family. Your community.”  The theme of the 93rd annual Agudath Israel of America convention – leadership – was straightforward and applicable to every individual in our community. This was evident in the strong, diverse attendance at the opening night of the convention. The energy and interest that participants displayed in its various sessions was palpable.

Held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, the menu of food for thought was rich. So many speakers, so many topics, highlighting the importance of leadership – particularly cultivating the inner leader within each and every one of us. In addition to the thousands of men and women onsite, there were live broadcasts in 22 communities around the world, and thousands followed the sessions live online.

Concurrent Sessions

The convention opened with three concurrent sessions.

One discussion revolved around the definition of leadership, and the many misperceptions thereof. A candid, upbeat conversation was held by a panel of well-known leaders: Yisroel Besser, Contributing Editor of Mishpacha Magazine; Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, Director of Camp Sternberg and Dean of Bnot Chaya; lecturer and business executive Charlie Harary; and Rabbi Yaakov Salomon, LCSW, psychotherapist, writer and lecturer.

The panelists discussed how one can find leadership roles even in a time when our community is filled with leaders, institutions and organizations. Rabbi Greenwald, a trailblazer in the chinuch world who has been involved in numerous complex issues, laid down the gauntlet: “Leadership needs to start somewhere – start with your own family. I have traveled 2.5 million miles in my life, but have only been away from home on five Shabbosim.”

Another session tackled the burning issue of how the U.S. Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage affects our community at the grassroots level. Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director and Counsel of Agudath Israel of America; discussed the potential legal and tax ramifications for religious institutions that maintain a traditional religious view of marriage. Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, discussed how society’s acceptance of alternative lifestyles affects our children’s perception of them, requiring a considered approach on our part. Attorney Eric Stern, who specializes in employment issues, discussed the challenges frum employers face in today’s world.

The shortage of housing in major frum communities, especially in Brooklyn, is a well-known challenge and has reached crisis level. Rabbi Avrohom Jaffe, Executive Director of SBCO, Agudath Israel’s housing division, discussed some of the laws that can help build affordable housing for members of our community, as well as a number of projects in the works to build new Torah communities in the future. Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Vice President for Community Services of Agudath Israel of America, elaborated on the need for young families to be pioneers and move to areas that do not yet have large frum populations. A case in point was discussed in detail by Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Spira, an activist with the Jersey City Initiative, a project to grow a pioneering chassidishe community in Jersey City.

In addition, the leadership of the youth divisions, Bnos and Pirchei Agudath Israel of America, each held a session. The leaders of the boys’ group were addressed by Rabbi Ariel Shoshan, Rav, Ahavas Torah Scottsdale, AZ, while the girls heard from Rabbi Labish Becker, Executive Director of Agudath Israel of America.

Keynote Session

As always, the Thursday evening keynote session was a major highlight of the convention, where leading gedolei Yisroel articulate their vision on contemporary issues to the American Jewish community. Raphael Zucker, member of the Agudath Israel of America Board of Trustees, chaired the session. Mr. Zucker noted that it was recently the 50th yartzeit of Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim zt”l, the founder of Agudath Israel, and quintessential Jewish leader. A special historical tribute to Moreinu Rosenheim is being presented in the convention lobby by the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center. This Agudath Israel leadership continues to this very day, accomplishing on a wide range of issues: defending bris milah and traditional marriage; opposing assisted suicide laws; advocating for funding for mosdos hachinuch, and helping individual yidden in their personal lives.

The session began with the recitation of Tehillim, led by Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff shlit”a, Rav of Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah of Philadelphia, and member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, elaborated upon the need to recognize the truth of the Torah and the words of Torah leaders. The Rosh Yeshiva thanked Agudath Israel of America for its leadership role in bringing so many yidden together in honor of the Torah and gedolei Yisroel. “When I leave an Agudah convention, I walk away mechuzak,”Rav Shmuel stated.

Rav Elya Brudny shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva of Brooklyn, delivered divrei pesicha, explaining what it is to be “an Agudah yid.” Rav Brudny delved into the perpetual battle between Yaakov and Esav, with Esav seeing this world as the primary end, while Yaakov sees our world as merely a corridor to the World to Come. With visible emotion, the Rosh Yeshiva explained how a yid with a proper hashkafa doesn’t fall prey to the pitfalls of this world, such as sinas chinam, machlokes and pursuit of luxuries. If we uplift our lives, then the negative forces of Esav inevitably weaken. “We can do better!” Rav Brudny concluded.

The final speaker of the keynote session was Rabbi Ephraim Eliyahu Shapiro, Rav of Congregation Shaaray Tefilah of North Miami Beach, who expounded upon leadership in his trademark resounding, practical manner. Rabbi Shapiro explained how our various leadership roles are alluded to in the word “achrayus,” responsibility, which is at the core of leadership. Leadership means taking the initiative to improve oneself; lead one’s family; help others with their needs; show others how to lead; and know the need to follow Torah leaders – even when their dictums are not what you would have preferred.

Concluding the Evening

Following the keynote session, the attendees mingled amiably and discussed some of the issues raised. The atmosphere was decidedly upbeat. The empowering message of leadership left an impression. Though late in the evening, five concurrent sessions drew a respectable attendance.

The “Klal Talks: 1 Question, 5 Personalities” panel featured five diverse leaders discussing their view of leadership: Moshe Bane, Senior Partner, Ropes and Gray LLP, and member of the OU Executive Committee; Shrage Goldschmidt, General Counsel, Cammeby’s International Ltd.; Rabbi Aron Kotler, President, Beth Medrash Govoha – Lakewood; Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, Editor and Publisher of Yated Ne’eman of America; Rabbi Avi Neuberger, Rav of Congregation Shaarei Tefilah of New Hempstead. The panel was moderated by Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey.

An intriguing panel on the shidduch crisis featured Rabbi Chaim Schmerler, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Orysah in Yerushalayim, who recently founded a highly successful shidduch organization in Eretz Yisroel; and two prominent shadchanim from Brooklyn, Rabbi Moshe Meir Ornstein and Mr. Avi Stern. It was chaired by Rabbi Avrohom Nissan Perl, Director of Torah Projects of Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Yosef Viener, Rav of Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Monsey, hosted a session discussing Torah hadracha in everyday relationships. Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieffand Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Lob Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago, discussed the unique challenges of the “sandwich generation” that need to care for aging parents and young offspring alike. Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting; and Mr. Herschel Leiner, Founder and President of H. Leiner and Co., hosted a session on “Business Leadership: Branding and Finding Yourself.”

While fielding enthusiastic feedback from a steady stream of attendees, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, says that this year’s convention perfectly embodies the ideals upon which the organization was built. As he explained, “Leadership – achrayus towards a fellow yid – is the nekuda hapnimiyus, the core point, of Agudas Yisroel.”

(Author: Shimmy Blum)