Donald Trump’s presidential legacy includes an array of highlights, but the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as the 103rd justice on the United States Supreme Court will forever be a notable climax. The first decision where her influence weighed heavily was passed down late on the eve of Thanksgiving, giving many a welcome surprise this past Thursday morning in a ruling that has temporarily barred New York State from enforcing the restrictive 10- and 25-person attendance limits at houses of worship in red and orange zones, respectively.
The original case, brought in the Eastern District of New York courtroom, included the Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills as the sole representative for the State-labeled red zone district in Central Queens, and me signing the affidavit as the shul’s elected secretary. Late on October 7, just over 24 hours before Hoshana Rabbah services were to commence, a community leader involved in Agudath Israel of America workings inquired if any local synagogues were interested in joining the forthcoming lawsuit, hoping to ease house of worship red zone restrictions for the second days of Sukkos. After consultation with the shul president, Mr. Nachum Shmuel Hartman, I agreed to join. I did not take upon me these measures to make a political statement, nor to shun our governor; rather, I hoped to open our expansive beis midrash in the Yeshiva of Central Queens, where the shul has conducted services for half a century, to more than the allowed ten members. The space allows for many more to join in the davening in a socially distanced manner, and the shul felt constrained with the austere regulations of Executive Order 202.68.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the most challenging and uncertain time in my life. I could not bear to have any religious minority, especially our mostly Jewish community of Kew Gardens Hills, be subjected to having our rights restrained. I did not add my name to the suit because of our shul’s affiliation with Agudah’s highly regarded advocacy movement; more exactly, I could not allow the current situation to rest unopposed and desired for our community to be properly recognized.
The general counsel for Agudah, Rabbi Mordechai Biser, advised me of the required procedures and explained that renowned attorney Mr. Avi Schick, a partner at Troutman Pepper and a former deputy NYS attorney general, would arrange for the filing. Mere hours ahead of Yom Tov, Federal District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto refused to issue a temporary restraining order, claiming that if we dealt with closed shuls at the start of the pandemic, we can do it again. Pained by the crushing blow, the shul accepted the decision and stood by the legal team of Agudah as new options were drawn to protect our religious freedoms.
Oral arguments were then heard in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on November 3, together with an argument in the similar case of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. The following Monday, a 2-1 decision was handed down by the Second Circuit refusing to strike down the restrictions before the case was argued, with Judge Park dissenting. Exactly one week later, on November 16, Agudath Israel asked the Supreme Court for an emergency injunction against the Governor’s detrimental Order. It was five short weeks later, following in the steps of the Roman Catholic Diocese, that the Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills stood as the Queens representative on the injunction relief issued to Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, hoping for clarification on the Executive Order and its seemingly targeted approach on houses of worship, a measure not taken in any other US State.
The 5-4 split, with Justice Barrett in the majority, was a huge win for conservative voices. As many may recall, earlier in the pandemic, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was part of a justice divide that left in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting California and Nevada churches. The opinion delivered last week was unsigned and noted that especially harsh treatment was used against places of worship going further to note that the regulations “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” As a community, we should take pride in being part of a case that will protect religious practices from the wrath of the government where religion is not adhered to, per the Constitution.
Another of Trump’s nominees serving on the Supreme Court wrote an opinion of note. Justice Neil Gorsuch took aim at the Governor’s definition of essential. “It turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential, too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?” Put into practice, one may enter Hakerem Wine and engage Perel Schwartz, the longtime wine connoisseur, in conversation and purchase wine. Should you not then be able to enter a shul of similar square footage a couple of blocks away to pray Minchah? By the governor putting this practice into question, Gorsuch concluded that it “is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in his concurring opinion, added, “The New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake.”
Rabbi Moshe Sokoloff, mara d’asra of the Agudath Israel of KGH, related to his mispal’lim the concept of hakaras ha’tov. “It is ironic that on the day when the country chose to give thanks, we have to take a moment to express appreciation to Hashem for the great fortune on behalf of Agudah and all those who worked to make it a reality.”
Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, introduced Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, the next morning, highlighting that the decision portrayed what is truly important to an Orthodox Jew. Rabbi Zwiebel explained the reluctance to take the government to court altogether, but stipulated that the peaceful method did not involve taking to the streets in unruly demonstration. The rav went on to mention that with rabbinic guidance the Agudah went to court in a longshot of a case, as deference is often given to the government in health-related cases. The glaring inconsistency of the restrictions specifically targeting prayer rituals served as a need to have the justice system intervene.
Following the Supreme Court filing, national news media outlets sought to cover this unprecedented story. I had the privilege to spend 15 minutes with FOX News’ chief religion correspondent, Lauren Green, and her producer Jennifer Oliva. In the nationally televised interview, I addressed our willingness to respect the rules, but noted that each time we are subjected to adhere to the outrageous regulations and pray outdoors in the sweltering heat or bitter cold, we have our religion slowly pulled from underneath.
On Shabbos day, I was given an aliyah l’Torah in shul. Afterwards, some of those in attendance offered me the brachah of mazal tov. Similarly, others from the shul were given over messages of congratulations from passersby. While appreciated, these words of compliments belong to the community-at-large and to all the Jews of New York State. To this end, I extend a hearty mazal tov to the Agudath Israel of Madison and their rav, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, who was the Brooklyn representative on the suit.
In last week’s parshah, we learned about the births of Yaakov Avinu’s children, the future Sh’vatim, including their respective names. Following the birth to her fourth child, Leah Imeinu states, “Ha’paam odeh es Hashem–This time I will thank Hashem,” and she followed by calling her son Yehudah. Chazal in B’rachos 7b make an extraordinary observation on Leah’s appreciations: “From the creation of the world until Leah’s time, nobody ever thanked Hashem.”
Rav Yerucham Levovitz also discusses this query. When a person receives special assistance from Hashem, this requires an additional expression of thanks, over and above what is typical. Of course, Adam HaRishon and others thanked Hashem, and Leah had presumably done so before, as well. However, now, Leah recognized that she had merited an extra form of divine assistance, and she therefore gave a greater expression of thanks, by giving a name to her child that embodies the very concept of recognition – Yehudah.
We can delve a bit deeper into understanding gratitude and how to express these feelings to our Creator. Rav Hutner zt”l noted that the word hodaah has two meanings: gratitude to someone else, or admission and recognition. Rav Hutner explains that when we say “Modim anachnu lach she’atah hu...” in Sh’moneh Esrei, we mean that we admit and recognize that Hashem is the Almighty and continue to thank Hashem for the miracles that He performs daily. Genuine hodaah is not just proper politeness; rather, one must honestly recognize that the other person has filled his need. I was privileged to attend last year’s Agudah convention, where I heard Rabbi Yair Adler, rav of Bais Medrash Shoavei Mayim in Toronto explain the importance of saying the brachah of Modim in the chazan’s repetition while standing. Over the past year, I made a special effort to stand during this blessing only to hear of the decision, just as the next convention was to launch.
The ruling upholding religious freedoms stands firm, as does the notion that whenever we merit special assistance from Hashem, this should elicit an outpouring of thanks to Him, with the more exclusive the support, the more intense thanks is necessary.
I leave you with a wise word from Rav Shlomo Wolbe: How many times have we received added divine intervention and not given proper thanks? Did we ever recover from an illness? Did we receive a job we yearned for or get accepted into the educational institution of our choice? If so, did we make a special expression of thanks to Hashem?
Indeed, after the SCOTUS ruling, this past Shabbos, Parshas VaYeitzei, the tables of the shul were filled with socially-distant and masked congregants all praying with a sense of relief that they were in compliance of the Constitution.
By Shabsie Saphirstein
Secretary, Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills
Plaintiff, Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo