Agudah’s ‘Yes We Can’ Moment

By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
April 28, 2010

It was raining on Tuesday night as Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel's director of public affairs, stood in the hallway of a home in Lawrence, amiably greeting people arriving for an open forum with Agudah's lay leaders. "Astonishing, we let you in the neighborhood," one guest joked with Rabbi Shafran.

The evening dubbed, 'What does Agudah mean to me?' was equal parts town hall meeting, pep rally, and group therapy for Agudah, which is involved in activities that range from lobbying the White House, Capitol Hill and numerous statehouses, to running summer camps in a number of states. It marked the first time that Agudah has held an informal panel discussion intended to connect with its constituents. A number of local rabbonim including Rabbi Yitzchok Frankel of Agudath Israel of the Five Towns, Rabbi Yaakov Reisman of Long Island in Far Rockaway, and Rabbi Aryeh Ginzberg of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Cedarhurst, joined about 75 residents of the Five Towns and surrounding areas.

Agudath Israel of America is one of the four groups that play a leading role in Orthodox Judaism in the United States, along with the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and, historically, the National Council of Young Israel. Agudah's lay leaders take cues from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the self-appointed Council of Torah Sages, that includes Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rav Dovid Feinstein, Rav Malkiel Kotler, and Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who heads the organization. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah meets in private to render halachic decisions and takes social positions recognized by most chareidim and many modern Orthodox Jews.

The panel discussion Tuesday night featured Agudah's lay leaders; a chance to put a public face on an organization that largely operates out of the spotlight.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who holds the highest lay leadership position in the Agudah as executive vice president, explained: "People know us by reputation; they don't know us as human beings and we are." ("Despite rumors to the contrary," Rabbi Shafran quipped.)

The Agudah has several state and regional offices, but the event in Lawrence was also an effort to drum up local, grassroots support and expand and deepen the organization's reach – an acknowledgement, perhaps, that there are Orthodox Jews outside of Brooklyn. "We're here to hear," Rabbi Shafran stated.

Styled on the health care debates that occurred several months ago, the scope of Agudah's activities seemed no less complex than the facts of health care. Switching from English to Hebrew to Yiddish and Yinglish, presenters struggled to answer the question: What does Agudah do?

"Can we put it in one word? Two? A phrase?" asked one speaker.

The presenters included Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, the vice president for community affairs; the Yale-trained legal counsel, Rabbi Mordechai Biser, who rattled off a list of activities that ranged from opposing school budget cuts in New York State, to fighting against dividing Jerusalem, to urging insurance companies to cover infertility treatments.

"Orthodox Jews should get our fair shake," explained Rabbi Yaakov Bender, the revered rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, who spoke later in the evening. (Rabbi Zwiebel credited Rabbi Bender with bringing him into the organization 23 years ago.)

The event was strictly not a fundraiser, but Rabbi Bender advocated that participants become members of the organization, tying Agudah's political prowess to its membership.

"It's numbers," Rabbi Bender maintained. "There's no reason why every single frum family ... shouldn't be card carrying members of the Agudah."

By moving somewhat closer to the public spotlight, Agudah also took the chance of stirring up notice of past errors, particularly how Agudah has dealt with the explosive issue of child sexual abuse. But it was Rabbi Zwiebel himself who raised that point, the lone critical one of the evening.

"What's the phrase, Mea Culpa?" Rabbi Zwiebel asked the crowd. "We have to acknowledge for quite a long time the issue was not understood; the extent of the problem was not understood; the severity of the scars that are left by the experience were not understood. Because they were not understood they were not dealt with properly," he said. "We are a lot of smarter, including the Gedolei Yisroel who stand at the helm of Klal Yisroel. A number of positive steps have been taken and, frankly, I think there are more positive steps that need to be taken."

He added that a meeting of summer camp directors was scheduled for April 29 to discuss how to educate parents and campers to prevent sexual abuse.

Shlomo Steimen, a soft-spoken tax attorney from Kew Gardens Hills, said he found the event "refreshing."

"I appreciated the dignified manner and the frankness about issues which are sensitive," he said.

During a Q and A session, the questions centered on the ever-present tuition crisis facing Jewish families, and on what was being done for Sholom Rubashkin, who faced sentencing this week by a federal judge.

Regarding Rubashkin, Zwiebel turned away two calls for action from members of the audience. "Don't do anything other than be mispalel (pray)," he said, explaining that, given the already steady effort on Rubashkin's behalf, any more could backfire.

In his brief remarks, Rabbi Zwiebel stressed the Rubashkin case and the relationship between President Obama and Israel as reasons why Agudah needs community support.

"We have to rise to the challenge," he said, before declaring, "We are becoming the voice of American Jewry."

Two-and-a-half hours after it began, the program ended. Amid the sound of chairs being shuffled back and forth, a loud murmur arose as the audience began davening Maariv.