My father zt”l was a huge believer in establishment Judaism. He correctly felt that without the established organizations, we would not have been able reestablish ourselves as a vibrant community following the destruction of our people in Nazi Europe.
HIAS, the ADL, and the UJA were vital in helping refugee Jewish immigrants settle in the United States and rebuild their lives. My father, an immigrant from Europe himself, fully appreciated the role these organizations played in his life and gave considerably of his time and energy to promote these establishments and raise funds for them. Although nowadays some of these organizations have unfortunately given greater priority to those other than Jews, they were certainly vital during those critical times.
My father also recognized the importance of the National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America. He was not at heart an Agudist, for philosophical reasons. Yet he was chairman of Poale Agudath Israel of America, a more pro-Zionist version of the Agudah. He was also a great admirer of Rav Moshe Sherer zt”l and many of the Agudah’s G’dolei Yisrael.
I confess that I did not maintain the same respect for established Jewry, as I witnessed many of the organizations take a turn to the left. I also felt that some of the organizations were abandoning the grassroots and not willing to take a public stand on issues that required a bit of courage to do so. I have expressed that many times in my articles for the Queens Jewish Link.
Like many of you, I began to wonder, “What do organizations do for us? Do we really need them?” In the case of one organization, their leadership was very reluctant to respond to any email I sent, and they viewed my questioning of a policy as an attack.
It was back during Superstorm Sandy, in October of 2012, that I believe many established organizations began to wonder themselves what their purpose was. So much of what was done at the time to help save Jewish communities, individuals, shuls, and sifrei Torah was done by pop-up organizations headed by wonderful volunteers from across the state. It was a huge kiddush Hashem. The major organizations found themselves sidelined.
I have also been bitterly disappointed with organized Orthodoxy’s total silence with the recent Hamas War, the Ben & Jerry’s affair, and their muted response to the Reform encroachment at the Kotel site. The meek reaction to the perils of Open Orthodoxy has also been very costly. The Coalition for Jewish Values is very outspoken in all these areas, but we are not yet the “big boys” in the public arena as are the organizations. But we’re gaining a lot of attention in the media. The Agudah, to its credit, did make some effort in these matters, but in my opinion, not nearly enough.
With all this in mind, I invited Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudath Israel in New Jersey, to address our shul, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, via Zoom for our weekly session last Thursday night.
I think it’s fair to say that Rabbi Schnall hit a home run. It’s not as though our shul is a breeding ground for the Agudah. Our shul is openly Zionistic and the Agudah is not. The Agudah’s constituency is naturally the yeshivah and chasidic crowd, or for the lack of a better description, the “black hat” community.
Rabbi Schnall illustrated how, through established contacts over the years, the Agudah has been able to make headway for the grassroots needs. For example, it happened to come to the Agudah’s attention that years ago, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, had a relationship with a certain local politician regarding legislation pertaining to end of life. This politician now has become a state senator, and the Agudah called upon Rabbi Yudin to exert pressure upon the senator, which proved vital for providing bus transportation for tens of thousands of Jewish children attending yeshivos in New Jersey. This was among several examples he cited demonstrating that the organization receives its muscle from hishtadlus, the sweat and love invested by its leadership and by the response of the average Jew represented in great numbers.
Rabbi Avi’s enthusiasm and candor in responding to the pointed questions directed to him made a huge impression on the audience. One woman emailed me how the presentation turned her into a fan of the Agudah.
To me, what also scored big in my eyes was that I emailed Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, on Motza’ei Shabbos to tell him how impressive Rabbi Schnall was. Within 15 minutes, he responded. And he has done that before, even when I questioned the Agudah’s position on a matter. That is the sign of true Jewish leadership.
Yes, I wish the Agudah would tackle some of the issues more forcefully, but they are really an organization to admire. And in many cases, they are more outspoken on behalf of Israel than the traditional Zionist organizations are. No matter what the hashkafic/political divide may be… I say: Kol ha’kavod!
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.