Decisions, decisions. The need to choose from a broad array of incredible options was the feeling that accompanied me all day last Thursday, when I was privileged to attend the World Orthodox Israel Congress of Mizrachi held in The Heichal Shlomo Synagogue in Yerushalayim in honor of Israel’s 75th year of Independence. Representatives from six continents, 50 countries, 250 cities, and 1,000 organizations were present at the Congress, which was publicized as an event at which one could network, learn, and be inspired. And so, it was.
When I arrived at the Congress, there was a buzz of excitement in the air, as people registered for the event and walked through the “community shuk” where many partner organizations of World Mizrachi displayed their “wares.” Booths promoting many causes, including abuse prevention, online charitable fundraising, the Jewish approach to navigating healthcare, education, and caring for converts, supplied leaflets and information about their organizations. Throughout the day, there was an opportunity to meet old friends and make new acquaintances with the many who came from all over the world to attend the Congress.
Forums were held even before the opening session, focusing on topics such as Women’s Leadership, Education, Young Leadership, Shul Rabbis, and Lay Leaders. A meeting of Country Head Delegates also took place.
The Congress then opened with a plenary session that stated the goal of the Congress, which was to address the challenges and needs of the world’s Orthodox Jewish communities. The session featured speakers, many of whom focused on the timely topic of unity among us. Chief Rabbi David Lau shlita, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, talked about the time his father, HaRav Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, joined him at a meeting but remained uncharacteristically silent the entire time. Before the next meeting started, Rav David Lau asked his father if he would continue to be silent. Rav Yisrael Meir Lau answered that he believed it would be disrespectful if he would express an opinion that differs from that of his son. Rav David Lau explained that it is said that even a father and son can discuss differences in a beis midrash, as long as there is love between them. Similarly, we in Israel can debate the issues, as long as there is love between us. Rav David further explained that the words “Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael” teach us that first there needs to be peace between us.
Miriam Peretz, who lost two of her sons in Israeli battles, talked about how, when we left Mitzrayim, we were 12 Sh’vatim (Tribes), each with its own flag. Today, we also have different groups with differing opinions. It’s challenging today to live with differences of opinion while maintaining respect. She explained that we take three steps back when we say “Oseh shalom bimromav” to make room for someone else and listen to the other. Miriam emphasized that her sons did not only fight for Jews living in Israel, but rather for Jews who live all over the world. They looked after the Jewish home so that it will be ready for others when they choose to return home. They looked after our home without checking what kind of Jew is living there. We all need to learn to live together.
Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident and later Israeli politician, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons as a refusenik, stated that the KGB tried to convince him that everyone had forgotten about him. He needed to feel that all of am Yisrael was fighting for him. The stream of Judaism that his supporters identified with was irrelevant to him. He stressed that we cannot be divided. When we are divided, we lose power. The fact that we are brothers is more important than whether there is judicial reform. He stated that we need to fight anti-Semitism, even the kind that unfortunately emanates from within our own camp.
Rav Hershel Schachter, Rosh HaYeshivah at Yeshiva University, told a story about a conference attended by leaders from all over the world that took place outside The Warsaw Memorial Foundation of Jewish Culture. An attendee from Israel told of how every year he takes gap year students to Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. In the area dedicated to soldiers who fell in the War of Independence, they once came upon a gravestone on which was written the word “Almoni” (Anonymous). There was no information about the person buried there, not even his name. He had lost everyone in the Shoah. The only ones who knew anything about him were buried next to him. One year, the students announced that they had located the family of the soldier who was buried there. They were his family. And they continued to visit the soldier’s grave every year. We are brothers.
The schedule following the opening session was jam-packed with panels and presentations on a wide variety of topics including Kiruv K’rovim, Technology, Anti-Semitism, Shidduchim, Women’s Torah Learning, Philanthropy, Israel-Diaspora Relations, Judicial Reform, the Abraham Accords, and even Kosher Wine. Every session seemed so relevant and interesting. How could I choose between hearing HaRabbanit Yemima Mizrachi and others speak about Kiruv K’rovim or listening to a conversation between diaspora community leaders and Israeli political leaders about Israel-Diaspora relations? Deliberations. The session about Bringing Spirituality to Schools and Communities generated much interest and was “sold out.” I moved from one session to the next, barely taking the time to eat lunch. I hope to share some of the sessions with you in more detail down the road. I enjoyed every minute of a walking tour of Rechavia, led by HaRabbanit Shani Taragin, called, “From King David to King George,” during which she explained the history and settlement of the area.
The goal of the Congress was to form groups of people who will continue to work together on the issues that were addressed. For example, “Shagririm BaLev,” a unique shidduch initiative, has been quite successful in Israel. In under three years, the program has made almost 150 shidduchim. Four of them got engaged on Yom HaAtzmaut! At the Congress, Shagririm BaLev was expanded to become a worldwide platform.
Rabbi Leo Dee, who lost his wife and two daughters in a recent terror attack, introduced the evening mishmar program during which several rabbinic figures learned with participants of the Congress as well as with American yeshivah and seminary students. Again, I was faced with a choice: to listen to Rabbi Dee and the other rabbinical figures, or to go to the pro-judicial reform rally taking place at that time. Decisions. In the end, I chose to go to the rally. Out of more than 600,000 protesters, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into my son.
The Congress continued on Friday morning with more interesting and relevant topics, but I did not attend so I could prepare for my Shabbos guests. I’m happy that the recordings are now being posted on the Congress chat, so I can listen to the sessions I missed.
I’m already looking forward to the next Congress. No deliberations about that!
The Congress, fittingly held during the week of Yom HaAtzmaut, was filled with commemorations and celebrations.