Energized by 25 hours of inspiring sessions and warm camaraderie, approximately 1,000 people enjoyed an uplifting Shabbos at Agudath Israel of America’s 94th National Convention at the Crowne Plaza Stamford. Buoyed by an inspiring display of achdus that had people from all backgrounds coming together to celebrate the individuality that is the hallmark of Klal Yisroel, participants combined Oneg Shabbos with their quests to strengthen their commitment to our mesorah and their dedication to the needs of acheinu bais Yisroel.
The momentum that built throughout Shabbos lasted well into the night. Listeners were challenged to rise to the occasion and use their own innate talents and abilities to benefit others. They were inspired to get involved, both on an individual level and on a broader scale, through the efforts of the Agudah, whose network of services continues to expand with each passing year.
As always, the highlight of the convention was the Motzoei Shabbos Keynote Session, which began with warm words of welcome from convention chairman Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz. Rabbi Lipschutz shared his recollections of his first Agudah convention at age 13 and his awestruck moments as he met prominent gedolim face to face for the very first time. Emphasizing the importance of being part of a klal, an effort that requires both humility and a sense of achdus, Rabbi Lipschutz noted that our enthusiasm to help others is something that elevates us and allows us to achieve potential greatness.
The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Rosh Agudas Yisroel, spoke eloquently about the importance of coming together at the convention to confront our identity as Torah Jews and to work together as a group to effect positive change for Klal Yisroel. Describing the Agudah as a microcosm of Klal Yisroel, a diverse entity where everyone can find their own niche, Rabbi Perlow urged participants to become a part of the Agudah and to play an active role in its mission of bringing k’vod shomayim to the world. Rabbi Perlow also touched on several other topics, declaring that cell phones have no place inside shuls and publicizing recent efforts to provide a Torah education for the many French Jews who have recently immigrated to Eretz Yisroel. The Rebbe concluded his remarks with an exhortation that we appreciate the community of bnei Torah and all they have contributed to Klal Yisroel.
Drawing on the message of Parshas Vayera, Rabbi Doniel Alter, Rosh Kollel of Yerushalayim’s Kollel Ari Shebi’chabura, spoke emotionally about akeidas Yitzchak and Avraham Avinu’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at Hashem’s request. Rabbi Alter noted that Avraham Avinu always kept wood prepared in case Hashem ever called upon him to bring a korban and how he responded “Hineni,” when Hashem asked him to bring the ultimate sacrifice, his son, Yitzchak. So, too, said Rabbi Alter, the Agudah is also always prepared and ready to invoke the words of Avraham Avinu and say “Hineni – we are here, ready to sacrifice everything in order to do ratzon Hashem.”
Acknowledging that people often wonder what type of work the Agudah does, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, the Agudah’s executive vice president for finance and administration, described some of the many calls for assistance from all across the United States that flood the Agudah office. Rabbi Gertzulin asked for financial support for the Agudah’s efforts, noting that with even a $100 donation from every listener, thousands of dollars could be raised to fund more programs to benefit the Jewish community. A short audio visual presentation highlighted some of the Agudah’s many programs that provide community services including yeshiva services, educational training, government advocacy, special education services, youth programming and more.
A passionate Rabbi Eytan Feiner, Rav of Congregation Kneseth Israel, Far Rockaway, spoke about the most recent Siyum Hashas, saying that transforming a sports stadium into a the site of a Torah gathering attended by more than 93,000 people was the ultimate glory for the Ribono Shel Olam. Expounding on the meaning of the word “agudah,” Rabbi Feiner noted that while the Siyum Hashas was a monumental event, the Agudah is hard at work every day of the year coordinating events both large and small and is an indefatigable force that continues to be a beacon of light that brings unity to Klal Yisroel.
Lamenting the general downturn in society, Rabbi Yitzchok Sorotzkin, Rosh HaYeshiva Telshe Yeshiva and Mesivta of Lakewood, spoke strongly about the negative effects of talking during davening and using technology to publicize private matters. The true sign of a yid, observed Rabbi Sorotzkin, is someone who lives a life that is both refined and elevated and strives to better the lives of others daily. Rabbi Sorotzkin urged listeners to dedicate their lives to increasing k’vod shomayim by providing chizuk to those in need, being sensitive to others and being a holy nation so that we can be a true source of nachas to the Aybishter.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudah, was the final speaker of the evening, speaking soberly about continuing threats that challenge the very foundations of our lives including the yeshiva system. Stressing that the transmission of our mesorah to the next generation is our single most important obligation, Rabbi Zwiebel said that the deterioration of our society echoes words of the Gemara which describes the days that precede the coming of Moshiach. Even amid all the breakdowns that will occur at that time, the Gemara provides us with an answer of how to conduct our lives, enumerating the thirteen character traits that are the basis of Mesilas Yesharim and will lead us to the ultimate geula.
Other Motzoei Shabbos sessions were both informative and enlightening. Noted author and lecturer Rabbi Paysach Krohn offered a fascinating look at the bygone era of Polish Jewry as a prelude to the future. Convention co-chairman Rabbi Dovid Lefkowitz and Rabbi Shlomo Farhi, educational director of London’s Jewish Futures Trust, spoke about how to help baalei teshuva thrive in the frum world. Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, Yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Harabonim of Detroit and Rav of Pine River Village in Lakewood, joined with Rabbi Gershon Bess, Rav of Los Angeles’ Khal Kehillas Yaakov, taking their audience on a journey through the world of kashrus, focusing on the particulars of issues related to domestic help, caterers, restaurants and hotels. A live Agudah recap with interviews offered unique perspectives throughout the night and both a Yarchei Kallah session and a Pirchei Avos U’Bonim had masmidim of all ages deeply immersed in their limud Torah.
Despite the late hour, the amazing ruach continued for hours. Following melava malka, Rabbi Boruch Levine and Simcha Leiner led the tzibbur in heartfelt zemiros, stirring deep emotions and electrifying the room with passion and genuine simcha. Spontaneous, exuberant dancing lasting well into the night.