The voice of Torah Judaism resonated with a newfound commitment to personal responsibility as the 95th convention of Agudath Israel of America energized and inspired the many individuals who flocked to the Crowne Plaza Stamford to attend the landmark event.
The unique diversity of those who came to the convention bore testament to the gathering’s theme of Together We Will. Attendees hailed from a wide variety of backgrounds and represented all age groups, a true representation of Klal Yisroel whose differences comprise a beautiful tapestry when woven together by shared goals and common dreams. In addition to the nearly 1,000 registered convention guests at the Crowne Plaza, countless others made their way to Stamford, with dozens booking rooms at nearby hotels and hundreds of visitors coming to enjoy the weekday sessions which were also shared by tens of thousands of viewers on the Agudah’s dedicated live stream.
Speaker after speaker echoed the importance of stepping up to better the lives of Acheinu Bnei Yisroel by joining in the vital work of the Agudah whose roster of accomplishments continues to grow with every passing year. Casting the spotlight on the convention’s theme of Together We Will, the Thursday night keynote session began with uplifting words from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah of Philadelphia, who said that the name “Agudah” is an expression of unity, one that has members of every segment of Klal Yisroel joining together in a shared quest under the aegis of the Agudah. Convention co-chairman Rabbi Dovid Schnell, president emeritus of Agudath Israel of Illinois, hailed his home state’s historic allocation of $100 million to non-public school students. The next speaker, Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of the Agudah’s board of trustees, recognized the Agudah’s many divisions for their accomplishments, exhorting listeners to follow the directive of long time Agudah leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z’l, who encouraged others to dream big when it came to tzarchei tzibur and to turn those dreams into reality. Rabbi Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshiva, Mirrer Yeshiva, Brooklyn, referenced the incredible achdus that defined Bnei Yisroel when they stood at Har Sinai, noting that when we act as one, our potential for accomplishment is limitless. Taking the concept of Together We Will one step further, Rabbi Brudny urged fathers and mothers to take a greater role in their children’s chinuch, guiding them to share responsibility equally with the schools in order to instill their children with proper values. The final speaker of the evening, Dayan Yonasan Abraham, Dayan, London Beis Din, praised the Agudah for its successful efforts which inspire others to take action, a feat that has earned the admiration of Jewish communities throughout the world. Dayan Abraham also stressed the importance of focusing on the goals and values that we share as a means of strengthening our achdus which will ultimately bring the eternal redemption.
An uplifting Shabbos gave way to an impassioned Motzoei Shabbos with over 1,000 people packing the hotel ballroom for the eagerly anticipated keynote address, one of the highlights of year for members of Agudath Israel of America. The evening began with remarks from convention chairman Rivie Schwebel highlighting the accomplishments of Agudath Israel’s Yeshiva Services division and Chayim Aruchim, which has grown dramatically with every passing year and currently receives 650 calls monthly from those facing end of life issues. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudas Yisroel, warned listeners to be vigilant against those who seek to corrupt Torah values by warping halacha to accommodate secular influences. Speaking forcefully about upholding k’vod shomayim at all costs, Rabbi Perlow called on parents and grandparents to imbue their children with the beauty of yiddishkeit while keeping the Ribono Shel Olam as the main focus in their own lives. Rabbi Perlow concluded his address by calling on listeners to join the Agudah in its decades-old mission of upholding Torah ideals. Agudah CEO Shia Markowitz expounded on the importance of not taking the Agudah and its efforts for granted, asking listeners to do everything in their power to participate in the work of the Agudah, whether it is writing letters to elected officials, volunteering professional services or making financial contributions. Reb Shia noted that in addition to creating new initiatives, the Agudah continues to fight some of the same battles waged decades ago including combating anti-Semitism and regulations that threaten the institutions of bris mila, shechita and our yeshiva system. After a short audio visual presentation showing how togetherness has been the catalyst for positive change in the past and present and will continue to do so in the future, the evening continued with Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, Rosh HaYeshiva, Meor Yitzchok, Monsey, who contrasted Klal Yisroel’s willing acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim with today’s world. Rabbi Wachsman observed that we are at a critical juncture, facing numerous challenges and we need a vibrant Agudah to guide us through our current nisyonos, allowing us to be mikadesh shem shomayim and bringing about miraculous results. The Motzoei Shabbos keynote session concluded with remarks from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel who told listeners that it is their support, both financial and moral, that empowers the Agudah in all that it does. Rabbi Zwiebel noted that praise for the Agudah has been coming from the outside world in recent months, with many publicly hailing the Agudah for its professionalism and its successful track record as it continues to advocate for the Jewish community.
The final keynote session closed out the convention on Sunday morning, addressing the difficult problem of addiction which has, unfortunately, become a serious issue within Klal Yisroel. Rabbi Dr. David Fox, Rabbi, Dayan and forensic and clinical psychologist, tackled the issue of behavioral addictions, noting that most addictions of this nature typically have their roots in childhood, often cropping up many years later. Dr. Fox suggested preventative methods for finding healthier avenues of gratification including taking breaks from our hectic schedules to minimize stress, spending less time with electronic gadgets to promote healthier relationships, promoting positive interactions, embracing our yiddishkeit and learning to deal with conflict. Rabbi Yosef Viener, Rav, Congregation Shaar Shomayim, Wesley Hills, took on the classification of addictive behavior, noting that while extreme cases may require emotional or medical intervention, most are nothing more than the age old inevitable struggles with our yetzer hara. Rabbi Viener cautioned against misuse of the term addiction, which implies that a person cannot help their destructive behavior and, drawing on the words of Pirkei Avos, explained that the ability to overcome personal nisyonos has been embedded in our DNA by Avraham Avinu who withstood ten significant challenges in his own lifetime. The last speaker of the convention, Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, Menahel Ohr Naava, Ateres Naava, Bnot Chaya Academy for Girls, spoke passionately about various forms of addiction plaguing Klal Yisroel, stressing the importance of not giving alcohol to children, an action that can set the stage for a lifetime of problems. Underscoring the importance of establishing healthy creative and recreational outlets for our children to prevent them from succumbing to dangerous behaviors when they face challenges in their lives, Rabbi Wallerstein also emphasized the importance of providing meaningful employment opportunities to those who have successfully completed rehab as a way to help them steer their lives in a positive direction.
The dynamic message of Together We Will reverberated through the Crowne Plaza as guests said their goodbyes, returning home with a renewed commitment to seek out opportunities to become more invested in their own lives, in communal efforts and in Agudath Israel of America.
Photo Credits: Menachem Adelman and Moshe Gershbaum; Panorama by Shua Klein.