This was the 92nd National Convention of Agudath Israel of America and everyone felt as if the convention was “for them,” tackling their concerns and working to improve their lives. Thousands of attendees from across the tri-state area – and beyond – traveled in the misty weather in order to participate. A busload of members of the Baltimore community traveled in for the occasion, while a long list of communities across the country followed the sessions via live hookup.
Walking through the halls, and peering into the rooms, you could see attendees of a colorful array of backgrounds: Litvish, Chassidish, Sephardic, etc. This year’s innovative convention attracted a particularly large crowd of young people, offering a distinct sense of energy and forward looking accomplishment.
The initial sessions – held in conference rooms in the hotel lobby – tackled several pertinent topics. Each discussion was hosted by noted experts in the respective field. However, in the spirit of the convention’s “What’s on Your Mind?” theme, the sessions were arranged in roundtable style, where each member of the audience had the opportunity to share his or her thoughts with the entire audience.
“The two most important words in marriage are…cleaning lady.” The crowd laughed as noted psychologist and lecturer Dr, David Lieberman delivered his tips on “Marriage: From Good to Great.” They were as simple and down-to-earth as they were potentially transformational. A particularly large crowd filled the hotel’s ampitheater in order to hear Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, Menahel of Ohr Naava and Bnot Chaya Academy for Girls, discuss contemporary chinuch challenges. In his trademark powerful and vivid manner, Rabbi Wallerstein stressed that our children’s attraction to technology is its interactive manner. The only way to counter that is to make their chinuch at home and in school as interactive and live as can be. If we do so, Rabbi Wallerstein assured us, we will succeed, b’ezras Hashem: “This is nothing on the Internet that can excite you like Torah…It is life.”
In yet another conference room, an overflow crowd shared their thoughts with noted lecturers on emunah and hashkafa, Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein and Rabbi Pinchos Jung. The rabbanim listened to members of the audience’s concerns about gaps in chinuch which may leave our children with weak foundations in emunah and passion for the lifestyle we expect. Rabbis Rubinstein and Jung spoke about the myriad resources available today to answer tough emunah questions, as well as how to relate halachos and restrictions in a positive manner. “‘Make it fun’ should be the motto of every classroom,” said Rabbi Rubinstein.
A diverse group of our community’s elected officials, political activists and journalists filled the seats around the table at the “Jews in Politics: Opportunities and Pitfalls” discussion. The conversation was moderated by Rabbi A. D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, who discussed issues related to the expectations from Orthodox elected officials, boosting voter turnout, and effectively lobbying elected officials on behalf of our communities’ concerns. “The most important thing is to say ‘Thank you’ to an official when they do something we wanted them to do,” advised Rabbi Motzen.
Thursday night’s keynote session took place in the hotel’s grand ballroom, which was filled beyond capacity. The dais was graced by dozens of our generations leading Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim, shlit”a. Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey branch of Agudath Israel of America, opened the night’s flagship session. Convention co-chairman Rabbi Mordechai Levin, sgan menahel of Bais Yaakov Academy (BYA) of Brooklyn, delivered a moving address on how klal Yisroel must appreciate and honor its gedolim. The massive crowd at this session, he explained, epitomizes just that. A special historical video presentation was shown, produced by the Kleinman Family holocaust Education Center, documenting the myriad hatzolah and communal efforts that the quintessential Agudath Israel of America activist, Reb Elimelech (Mike) Tress, z”l, accomplished, which serves as the perfect inspiration for present day and future askanim. Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, shlit”a, Rosh HaYeshiva Telshe-Chicago and member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, then stood at the podium. He explained that one who devotes himself to others earns a special Heavenly protection from the harsh chevlai moshiach : “You are not a ‘far zich yid’; you are a ‘klal Yisroel yid.'”
A riveting address by Rav Yissocher Frand, shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Ner Yisroel – Baltimore, followed. Rav Frand expounded upon an individual’s range of responsibilities: personal spiritual growth, showing children a passion for mitzvos, and the realization that everyone has a unique mission to accomplish in this world. “You know what your mission in this world is based upon what you have a particular passion for,” he advised.
The final speech of this session was delivered by Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, shlit”a, Rav of Congregation Nachlas Yitzchok of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. The crowd listened spellbound as he noted the historical ruchniyus challenges that American Jewry faced – and overcame – and how we too can do the same regarding our generation’s challenges. He stressed the need for a yid to learn Torah on a steady basis; the need for parents and mechanchim to realize their capability and responsibility to nurture even non-metzuyanim to their maximum potential; as well as the need for klal Yisroel to recognize that we must do everything possible to bring every child or adult closer to Hashem. “Hashem is our Father, and He cannot be consoled when even one of His children is away from Him,” Rav Oelbaum exclaimed.
Agudath Israel of America has long been successful, b’siyatta dishmaya, in helping launch important klal organizations and projects. Many of them were conceived based upon discussions at conventions throughout the years.
This year, a special “The Next Great Initiative” program was launched. Nearly 100 submissions for potential new communal projects were submitted in advance of the convention.
Several of them were presented at a late night session, moderated by Rabbi Gavriel Friedman, senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah in Yerushalayim. Philanthropists Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of the board of trustees of Agudath Israel of America; Yaty Weinreb; Leon Melohn; and Reuven Wolf, listened and inquired about the presentations, which proposed initiatives for chinuch, parnassah, daas Torah and more. Agudath Israel of America and its askanim will commit to support some of these initiatives in the upcoming weeks. One presenter, Reb Itche Toder, summed up the feelings of the audience: “Thank you Agudas Yisroel for reaching out to klal Yisroel in such a real way.”
In another session that took place at the same time, Rabbi Paysach Krohn delivered an impassioned speech about the need to help others with parnassah., He spoke about the innovative work that Reb Duvi Honig has accomplished in this arena with Parnassah Network, Parnassah Expo, and other major projects. Reb Duvi then related the breadth of the need for communal support, the specifics of some of the projects he launched, as well as real-life anecdotes of people who were helped to become self-sufficient in a dignified manner.
Reb Duvi launched a new “Parnes Bais Knesses” program at the convention. The program calls for special gabbaim to be designated in each shul to evaluate members’ parnassah needs and offer them help. Representatives of several
shuls signed up on the spot.
Another session dealt with the pressing challenges regarding end-of-life medical care and the work of Chayim Aruchim, a branch of Agudath Israel of America. Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, chairman emeritus of agudath israel board of Trustees, elaborated upon the comprehensive training that a special group of Chayim Aruchim rabbanim have received in this area. Rabbi Weinberger also noted how Chayim Aruchim has already successfully advocated for several prestigious hospitals to modify their end-of-life policies to accommodate frum patients.
Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president for community affairs at Agudath Israel of America, spoke about how end-of-life issues present a growing challenge to our community. A prestigious panel recently advised that physicians be given greater leverage in deciding patients’ fate, even without the consent of patient or family.
Yet another major session tackled key issues relating to our relationships with our spouses and children. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, R”M in Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, spoke about the importance for children to feel secure in their homes and thus develop a healthy sense of self-worth. He implored parents to relate to their children positively, at their level. Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman, Mashgiach at Yeshiva Ohr HaChaim, offered a range of pertinent advice related to maintaining a healthy process for shidduchim, shalom bayis, and relationships with parents and parents-in-law. He stressed how discord between parents is perhaps the most damaging phenomenon in children’s chinuch.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, was pleased by the public’s enthusiastic response to the convention’s myriad sessions. “There is no doubt that the convention is tackling issues that genuinely affect the lives of our families,” he remarked. “With the personal involvement of so many diverse members of our community, we can, b’ezras Hashem, accomplish more than ever.”