Words of Remembrance, Words of Encouragement: Motzoei Shabbos Keynote Session at Agudah Convention


rav-shmuel-kamenetzky[Photos below.] After a Shabbos filled with extraordinary ruach, convention guests staying at the Hilton-East Brunswick for Agudath Israel of America’s 87th National Convention were joined by hundreds of others who arrived at the venue for the Motzoei Shabbos keynote session.

The large crowd was there for several reasons: to receive guidance from einei ho’eido, to be brought up to date about Agudas Yisroel and its work – and, this year, to pay tribute to the memory of an illustrious Godol B’Yisroel, Philadelphia Rosh HaYeshiva and Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member Rav Elya Svei, zt”l, whose petira several months ago was a terrible blow to the Torah world.

The first address of the evening, however, was delivered by a special guest from Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Doniel Alter, the son of the Pnei Menachem, zt”l and one of the most sought after speakers on the international scene. Rabbi Alter delivered good wishes to the convention from the Gerer Rebbe. He then proceeded to weave from an assortment of divrei Chazal an intricate and insightful tapestry that came to display, among much else, the importance of not living for oneself but rather proclaiming the teachings of Torah to others far and wide, a mission that, he averred, is exemplified by Agudas Yisroel.

Rabbi Alter’s address was followed by that of the second of the evening’s keynote speakers, Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, Rov, Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin, who delivered a rousing speech about the importance of Agudas Yisroel, and the need to realize the
true specialness and beauty of Klal Yisroel. He exhorted his listeners to reject the cynicism and sarcasm that are common in some circles and not to be ashamed to affirm the rightful respect due to our Gedolim and rabbonim. He himself rejected, eloquently and strongly, the generalizations that are made about Jews, and frum Jews in particular, based on the actions of some individuals. “When good is done,” by a religious Jew, he exclaimed, “it is ‘just an individual'” who has done it, in the eyes of cynics. “But when bad is done” by one, he is immediately regarded as representing the entire community.

“Ve’amech kulom tzaddikim,” he quoted from the Novi Yeshayohu, and continued with memorable stories of Jewish tzidkus in our times.

Then the program focused on the evening’s tribute to Rabbi Svei, zt”l. A video of Maran Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlit”a, began that tribute. Rav Steinman spoke reverently of Rav Svei and offered his divrei brocho to the gathering.

Offering divrei hisorirus in memory of Rabbi Svei were the Philadelphia Rosh HaYeshiva and Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, who was Rabbi Svei’s partner for approximately half a century in the Philadelphia Yeshiva; and Rabbi Svei’s eldest son, Rabbi Yehuda Svei, shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva at the Philadelphia Yeshiva.

Quoting the Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Kamenetsky explained how truly living – not just being alive and breathing – means living for others, and how Reb Elya was a shining example of that, dedicating all of his formidable energy and mind to both teaching Torah and shouldering the burden of tzorchei tzibbur. “Every problem,” Rabbi Kaminetsky said, “was his problem.”

What is more, the Philadelphia Rosh HaYeshiva continued, Reb Elya was “a true talmid” of so many illustrious Gedolim of the past, from whom he imbibed so much chochma and mesora. “He was very close to his rabbaim,” Rabbi Kamenetsky noted, and absorbed so much from so many great people. Once, he recounted, Reb Elya was one of only a small handful of talmidim who, many decades ago, managed to trudge through a snowstorm to hear Rav Shlomo Heiman’s shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaath. Rabbi Heiman delivered the shiur with the same dedication and fire as always. When asked how he did so, despite the absence of the great majority of the class, he responded that he had been speaking to a large audience indeed: the future talmidim of the few young
men before him.

That mindset, said Rabbi Kamenetsky, was one that Reb Elya assumed for himself, and he was always cognizant of how important attentive dedication, even to an individual or very small group of talmidim, in fact is.

Rabbi Yehudah Svei then took the podium, and spoke movingly in Yiddish about his father. He explained how his father was always makpid, when speaking to large public groups, to speak in Yiddish. It was only appropriate, he said, that he himself should do so at an Agudah convention.

And he showed himself a true disciple of his father in another way as well, by presenting a rich assortment of divrei Torah and insights to his listeners. His main theme was mesorah, and its first entrustment, from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua. The concept of a mesorah – a concept that the English word “tradition” hardly does justice – lay at the root, he said, of his father’s essence. “All,” he
explained, “was through mesorah” to him. He also spoke of his father’s dedication to his own transferal of Torah to others, about how, even when he had to travel in order to help in tzorchei horabbim, he was makpid to not miss the shiur he taught.

Rabbi Yehudah Svei also addressed the concept of how Hashem provides parnassa to every living thing He created, and how that is true not only about physical sustenance but wisdom and strength as well. The more his father gave to the tzibbur, Rabbi Svei averred, the more Hashem gave him strength to do even more for the tzibbur.

The evening program continued with a video presentation of excerpts from various memorable addresses Reb Elya delivered over the years at Agudas Yisroel conventions and dinners. The excerpts well capture the straightforward mussar and principled stances regarding Agudas Yisroel ideas and ideals for which the Godol was known – and for which he remains, and will always remain, an inspiration.

The evening’s final speaker was Agudas Yisroel of America executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who took the opportunity to note the presence of Mrs. Hinda Tress, the widow of the legendary Agudah leader Elimelech “Mike” Tress, and of the great chizuk he had received from the Sherer family – Rabbi Moshe Sherer, he said, “was a rebbe and in many ways a father” to him – and especially from Rabbi Sherer, z”l’s son, Rabbi Shimshon Sherer. He also asked the crowd to join him in wishing Mrs. Sherer, Rabbi Moshe Sherer’s widow, who has been ailing, a heartfelt refuah shleima. He also acknowledged the presence and great help of his “predecessor and very best friend,” Rabbi Shmuel Bloom.

Rabbi Zwiebel’s remarks at first echoed those of Rabbi Leiff, as he, too, illustrated the greatness of Klal Yisroel in our day – and the need to not allow the “trees,” the problems that plague our community, to obscure the “forest” of its specialness and goodness. He extolled the “remarkable idealism” of the tzibbur,” the “beauty of Klal Yisroel.”

At the same time, though, he continued, that doesn’t mean ignoring flaws – the addressing of communal problems “we’ve been doing at this convention.” And he listed a number of daunting challenges that were topics of convention sessions over Thursday and erev Shabbos, or which would be the following morning. These included such matters as internet addiction, alcoholism, substance abuse and breaches in basic gidrei tznius.

Rabbi Zwiebel also noted the fact that the surrounding society seems bent on enshrining as “marriage” what the Torah calls “toeiva,” and wondered aloud if perhaps our own lack of proper attention to “perfect and whole weights” – to meticulous honesty in business dealings, whose lack the Torah also characterizes as “toeiva,” and which is in our immediate ability to control, might indirectly empower dark societal forces.

The Agudath Israel executive vice president also touched upon other troubling issues and noted how the Torah teaches us that while hidden things are “for Hashem our G-d,” the “revealed things are for us and our children” to address. It is incumbent on us, he said, to uproot whatever evil among us we can. “Yes,” he said, we as a community “are tzaddikim;” but “yes, we have problems.”

And they are problems, Rabbi Zwiebel insisted, that can be tackled and solved, “if we come together” as a tzibbur – the animating ideal of Agudas Yisroel.

The chairman of the evening’s session was Hashi Herzka, member of Agudas Yisroel’s Board of Trustees. He, the convention chairman, Aron Tessler, and Agudas Yisroel’s executive vice president for finance and administration, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, extended greetings to the gathering.  

For photos of the Motzoei Shabbos Keynote Session at Agudah Convention, see below:

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 {Matzav.com Newscenter/Photos by Menachem Adelman for Matzav.com}