The first full-time job I ever held was with Agudath Israel of America at 5 Beekman Street back in 1980, where I was employed at its Project COPE for four years. From 1984 to the present, I have been working in the Orthodox Union, first in its Synagogue Services Division and then Kashrus till this very day, albeit now in a limited capacity. My full-time occupation is as Rabbi in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. I know all of these three major Orthodox organizations quite well. Each one serves its constituency – and the Jewish people in general – admirably.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article titled “An Open Letter to Agudath Israel.” Some readers took it as a bash on the Agudah. It was not at all. I simply recalled the days back in Europe when rabbanim were very much a part of the Agudah’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) and implored them to restore that practice and not limit the roster to roshei yeshivah exclusively.
As stated, I have been employed by the Orthodox Union for decades. My remarks that follow can in no way be taken to be a public rebuke of the organization to which on a personal level I owe so much. Yet, as with the Agudah, to which I am also personally indebted, I feel it is only proper to call into question a current policy.
In truth, I have expressed these sentiments in an email to the leadership of the three above-mentioned organizations a few years ago but received no response. I feel now this matter is even more pressing.
A couple of weeks ago, a vote was held by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (The Presidents Conference) to elect a new chairperson. The nominee was Dianne F. Lob, former chairperson of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). HIAS, when originally established during the earlier part of the last century, was an indispensable organization helping Jews from oppressed countries throughout the globe immigrate to America.
In recent years, and under the leadership of Ms. Lob, it has become a left-wing partisan organization dedicated primarily to helping Muslim immigrants arrive at our shores. Jews are not high on their priority list. It has even issued letters of support to notorious anti-Semite, pro-Palestinian terror sympathizer Linda Sarsour. In addition, HIAS has become a frequent critic of President Trump, especially for his very strong pro-Israel stance. I suggest you read Dr. Joseph Frager’s very informative article on this topic in last week’s issue of the Queens Jewish Link. Suffice it to say that almost no Orthodox person should feel comfortable with such a leader at the helm of what once was one of the most influential Jewish organizations in the United States.
Unfortunately, her nomination passed, though not by a wide margin. Those who were outspoken against her nomination, such as Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), were publicly branded as racist, misogynist, etc. – the usual litany of charges leveled by the Left when all else fails.
This now leaves the Presidents Conference in a state of being even less relevant to the Jewish agenda than it has been in recent years. It will fade into total oblivion if President Trump is reelected.
It also drives home a very sobering point. Although as Torah Jews we love all Jews, and we need to be in touch with them, we must realize as time goes on that we have less and less in common with non-Orthodox organized Jewry.
It used to be, not all that long ago, that the main difference between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox was the level of mitzvah observance. Shabbos, kashrus, mikvah, and adherence to the daily routine mandated by the Torah is what separated us. But on matters such as Israel, intermarriage, social issues, and family values, we had a lot in common. Alas, that is all history. On all these matters, we are now poles apart. We must face the reality that this is the hard truth.
So why are we serving on the same organization together? Ostensibly, so that we can have some vote, some influence on the Jewish agenda. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly apparent that we have zero influence. The latest election of Ms. Lob makes that abundantly clear.
Although we know that the National Council of Young Israel and the ZOA voted against her nomination, we are not told how the OU voted. They claim that they are duty-bound by an upfront agreement that they will not reveal their vote regardless of the outcome. I have every reason to believe, however, that they voted against. I do know they were not happy with her nomination.
So here’s my request of the Orthodox Union: Please withdraw from the Presidents Conference. There is no use in remaining. Kavod we don’t get. Influence we don’t have. We are only enablers of a useless organization that stands for everything that we in the Torah community oppose.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l understood that clearly when he formed his secessionist Austritt community in Frankfurt, Germany, toward the latter half of the 19th century. He fought the battle to withdraw from the general organized Jewish k’hilah. Despite considerable opposition from community organizers and some rabbanim, he prevailed. That move likely saved much of German Torah Jewry from the ravages of Reform and assimilation.
Let’s not minimize the strength of the Orthodox community on its own. We are the only branch of Judaism that continues to grow – that is dynamic and influential beyond its numbers.
Think that we cannot have unity with the other Orthodox organizations? Well, it is no secret that we have a lot in common in hashkafah with the National Council of Young Israel. As for the Agudah, yes there are issues that separate us. But there is more that unites than divides. Witness the fact that during the current coronavirus crisis, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, appeared on an OU-hosted streamed event. He was gracious with a wonderful message.
If we can follow the principles of the sainted Rav Hirsch and form our own Orthodox Conference, we will be a lot better off for it in every important sphere of influence.
I have joined and become vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Values for just this reason. We have taken it upon ourselves to speak up for Torah-based values where others have not. In just a few short years since our founding, we have gained respect in Congress, the White House, and in the media. We now have over a thousand members and ardent supporters.
My appeal is really to the Agudah and the National Council, as well. But I believe the Orthodox Union can forge that unity into reality if it commits itself to that goal.
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Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.