The yearly gathering of Jews from the tri-state area and beyond to hear words of chochmah, chizuk, and mussar from gedolei doreinu and to bask in the light of their presence usually takes place at the end of November. This year, however, explained Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel of America executive vice president who chaired the convention’s opening plenary session on Thursday night, the 90th annual convention was taking place a full month later. The original idea had been to use the centennial to reflect on the unprecedented convergence of 90,000 Jews this past summer at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the siyum haShas and demographic studies that showed the growth of the Orthodox community; “K’kochvei HaShamayim LaRov” was, accordingly, to be the theme.

But it was felt in November, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and with rockets raining down on Jews in Israel, that a relaxed and happy gathering was somehow not appropriate. And so the much-anticipated annual event was postponed and its theme was changed to “Shomrei Acheinu Anachnu: Our responsibility to one another in times of challenge.”

The originally planned theme and the eventual one were related. The blessing of our community’s growth and strength and the responsibility of each of us for the other go hand in hand. There is much to do to meet the challenges of growth, and caring for one another is the key to doing so effectively.
Hurting Hearts, Helping Hands At Agudah ConventionAssessing and addressing the problems before us, he said, “is why we’re here.”

Rabbi Zwiebel introduced the Novominsker Rebbe and rosh Agudas Yisroel, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who offered the traditional “Message from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. “We are comforted by our accomplishments,” the Rebbe began, “but troubled by our failures.” Elaborating, he cited the mammoth gatherings for the siyum haShas and the Citifield asifah but also the concurrent desecrations of k’vod Shamayim in other places and happenings. Although the outpouring of chesed in the wake of Sandy was both astounding and healing, there are still many who are suffering trauma and need. “Are we sufficiently shouldering the burdens of our fellows?” he asked.

Rabbi Perlow noted that we suffer too from how the secular world, egged on by an often hostile media, views us, and how some self-styled crusaders seize freedom of speech and modern technology to attempt to tear down worthy institutions and people. He referenced “the latest issue, the gezeirah of New York City to set foot in the practice of metzitzah bipeh,” something, he lamented, that we never expected to see in this land of religious freedom.

Addressing the theme on a philosophical level, the Rebbe explained that the root of achieving growth in bein adam lichaveiro lies in honing our relationships with Hashem, for He is the source of the nefesh that is Klal Yisrael. Seeking spiritual growth, he continued, entails not just observance but living like Jews, eating, conducting ourselves, and doing business in a way that sets us apart as a sublime people. We have to endeavor to achieve not only “kiddush ma’asim” but “tziyun ma’asim”–not only doing the right things, but doing all that we do the right way.

Rabbi Uren Reich, rosh hayeshiva, Woodlake Village, then took the podium. He stressed how, when disasters strike, whether it be a storm or the histalkus of Gedolim, we must not succumb to the natural human temptation to just brush off the event and move on; we must be agitated and take it deeply to heart.

Rabbi Reich delivered a fascinating discourse on the Torah’s account of Yosef and his brothers, demonstrating that throughout the narrative all of the shivtei Koh, Yosef and his brothers alike, were making cheshbonos hanefesh, focusing on what events were intended to mean to them.

Nothing, he emphasized, is “chance.” That is the attitude of Amalek and diametric to a Jewish mindset. When we feel that, like Yosef, who “spoke harshly” to his brothers, Hashem is dealing “harshly” with us, we should “not be fooled,” but rather realize that challenges are opportunities, indeed mandates, for us to make a cheshbon hanefesh, and to grow spiritually from the experience.

As one example of where such action is required, Rabbi Reich expressed the shock all mesorah-respecting Jews must feel as a result of the largest city in a malchus shel chesed seeking to regulate b’ris milah. “Unbelievable,” he characterized the development, and he quoted Rav Elyashiv that efforts to regulate metzitzah bipeh is “not simply a war on metzitzah bipeh but rather on milah itself.”

“Where are we?” lamented Rabbi Reich. “Where is our outrage?”

Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh hayeshiva, Darchei Torah, saluted all “who stepped up to help” after the recent storm devastated Far Rockaway and many other locations along the coast. Rabbi Bender expressed particular gratitude to Agudath Israel, which sent Rabbi Yehiel Kalish to assist in raising funds and directing recovery efforts after the storm. “Agudath Israel was the address,” he said, “for those who found themselves suddenly in need of assistance.”

Rabbi Bender recounted other examples of heartfelt concern, as when, in 1970, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt’l, was released by terrorists who had hijacked the plane he was on, and a large number of talmidim of different yeshivas went to the airport in New York to greet the rosh hayeshiva on his return. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, was present. He instructed a band that had been assembled to play joyful music when Rav Hutner would appear, to not do so because there were still Jews being held captive by the terrorists. While kavod haTorah mandated a gathering of hakaras hatov to greet Rav Hutner, to celebrate joyfully when other Jews were still in dire straits would constitute a lack of sharing their pain.

We too, exhorted Rabbi Bender, cannot allow ourselves joy over our blessings, or even rest, when we know that there are Jews suffering, whether because they were displaced or financially affected by a storm or whether they are children still waiting, as so many are, to be placed in yeshivos.

The evening’s final speaker, Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh hayeshiva, Kaminetz, Yerushalayim, began with words of hakaras hatov to Rabbi Bender’s grandfather, Rav Avrohom Bender, for having guided him from public high school in Pittsburgh to a path that led to his becoming a rosh yeshiva. Then, turning to the convention theme, Rabbi Scheiner observed that the word “responsible”–as in the truism that all Jews are responsible for one another–can have two meanings: being mandated to care for others in trouble, or having been the cause of another’s troubles. We are facing many communal problems, the rosh yeshiva stated. Many of our community’s children are estranged from Yiddishkeit, he said, or even on the streets, involved with drugs, and with worse.

The rosh yeshiva quoted his rebbe, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l, as saying that essential Jewish traits and middos tovos and yiras Shamayim cannot be taught; they must be “caught”–absorbed from a true Jewish home environment. If they are witnessed in the home, they will become part of a child. Rabbi Scheiner added it isn’t enough that a warm Torah atmosphere permeate the home. It must be a hot one–“just like adding warm water to a cold mikveh won’t do anything, and only adding hot water will have a result.”

Rabbi Scheiner went on to decry the “technological gadgets” and devices that have infected so many Jewish homes and pockets, calling them the “wages of the sitra achra,” or forces of evil. Returning to the theme of “responsibility,” he recalled the famous statement of Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt’l, that if a Jew makes the right decision in a small Eastern European town, it can affect a non-religious Jew in Paris–what we do in our own lives can have an impact on another Jew far away and in an entirely different environment. Such “ripple effects,” the rosh yeshiva explained, can take place naturally, as a Jew’s decisions can directly influence another Jew who witnesses them, and the second Jew in turn can act differently as a result on a trip abroad and influence yet another Jew who sees his conduct there. There can be spiritual ripples, too, created in ways that are beyond us, whereby our actions in and of themselves can have a positive effect on other Jews.

Rabbi Scheiner concluded with a berachah to all who had converged on the hotel ballroom to participate in the opening plenary session of the convention, that they merit, through their decisions and actions, having only “ripple effects” of good, of kedushah, on all of Klal Yisrael. v


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