Many years ago, in my early days in the rabbinate, in a community called Twin Rivers, New Jersey, we ran into some troubling adversity.
My chaver Rabbi Shalom Ziskind z”l and I, together with our wives, rotated as rabbi/rebbetzin in a kiruv outpost called Shalom Torah Centers, established by my brother-in-law Rabbi Yisroel Kellner. We were very much a startup in this development community of about 8,000 Jews, near Hightstown, who had come to escape the demands of traditional life in Brooklyn. The local main synagogue was Conservative, with a Reform temple in the area, as well.
As time continued and we began to grow, we had to find larger quarters outside of our storefront, especially for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Conservative rabbi took note of this and made some awful public statements about us to the public.
We were not quite sure how to respond to this, so we turned to the local seasoned Orthodox rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel in Lakewood, Rabbi Pesach Z. Levovitz z”l, for advice. He was quick in sharing his own approach when publicly criticized. “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they are talking about me – and spell my name right.”
We took his advice to heart. We said nothing in response to the Conservative rabbi. The fact that he resorted to condemning us meant that we touched a raw nerve. Indeed, his tirade served to put us on the map at that time.
The Agudah Convention, held last week in a hotel in Connecticut, drew its customary 1,500 people or so. Plus, untold thousands following the program online. Given all the luminaries on the program, it likely was a very stimulating program, despite its rather vanilla theme of “Speaking Up.” Truthfully, every year the topic is rather dull. I guess there’s just so much you can play up “Looking Forward As We Remember the Past.” It’s not easy to come up with something stimulating each year.
Yet with all the cynicism, the Agudah conventions are usually quite memorable. Years back, I would attend all or part of the program. (And yes, despite all the revisionism, they did serve turkey at the Thanksgiving night dinner in the presence of g’dolei Yisrael.) There was always a takeaway speech, sometimes positive and sometimes just for those who come to watch the hockey games for the fights.
The convention this past weekend was no exception. There were quite a number of inspirational talks, but the one moment that went viral was that of Rabbi Professor Aaron Twerski, who complained quite bitterly that as a chasidish Yid he no longer feels comfortable attending. For about the last ten years, in Rabbi Twerski’s estimate, the Agudah has declined to invite chasidic leaders and has attracted fewer and fewer chasidim. “If this trend continues, I am afraid that within three to five years the Agudah will become irrelevant,” he warned.
His point was that if the Agudah does not become more inclusive, it will have no function as an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewry.
I happen to not fully agree with Rabbi Twerski. First of all, the Novominsker and the Volipover are chasidic leaders. Maybe they are not classic Admorim, but how many Admorim were on the Moetzes in the American Agudah over the years? Moreover, if there is not a great participation of chasidim today, it’s because they make Yom Tov for themselves and always have. They always accomplish whatever they need for their growing crowd socially and politically without the use of any formal organizations or integrating with the community around them (except when they need the Agudah for a particular matter).
However, the merits of attracting chasidim to the Agudah, or not, is not my takeaway from Rabbi Twerski’s words. To me, the fact that his words have created a bruhaha speaks well of the Agudah. Even people who claim to be detractors of the Agudah love to talk about the Agudah. Because they know the Agudah is a significant force to be reckoned with. No one is going to get carried away by some milquetoast organization that doesn’t stand for much.
The Agudah represents a constituency that is emotionally involved in their cause. How to navigate the issues of the day via a Torah perspective, how to advance in Torah learning, how to grow spiritually, how to build on our chesed, how to strive for greater shalom bayis, women’s roles, and, yes, how to share in the plight of our brethren in Israel and throughout the world are issues that speak to the heart of the Jewish people.
Some bigger but less impactful Orthodox organizations have either dropped their annual conventions or have reduced them to becoming bi-annual events that attract a quarter of the crowd. Perhaps they have captured the brains, but not the heart of their people. No one will hang on their every word. No one will get upset or thrilled at what they have to say.
Maybe some are saying unflattering things about the Agudah convention, but at least they are talking about the convention. That’s major.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.