By Judith Dinowitz
Last Shabbos, in a special program in Far Rockaway and Lawrence, three Agudath Israel leaders spoke to the gathered community about Agudath Israel and what it means to Klal Yisrael. The event attracted many young ba’alei batim in their 20’s and 30’s as well as more seasoned community members, creating an atmosphere of excitement and unity and a feeling of connection with Agudath Israel and the Gedolei Yisrael who stand at its helm.
The three Agudath Israel executive staff members who visited the Far Rockaway/Lawrence community—Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president; Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs; and Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, national director of government affairs—spoke at nine different shuls in the area over the course of Shabbos. On leil Shabbos, the three speakers joined together for an oneg Shabbos at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Shlomo Reich.
Pleas for funding and requests for membership never entered into the equation. “The purpose wasn’t to raise funds,” said Yoily Edelstein, a member of the event’s steering committee. “It was designed to put out word about the organization and to let people know why they need a strong Agudath Israel.” The introductions to the three Agudath Israel speakers were often passionate and supportive, an added endorsement for the organization. Said Rabbi Zwiebel, “The introductions by the rabbanim were as valuable as our own derashos, if not more so.”
The goal of reaching out to the Far Rockaway and Lawrence communities, and especially to the younger generation, was achieved successfully, if the oneg Shabbos event was any indication. As Mr. Reich, an alumnus of Camp Agudah, explained, “This past Friday night, my wife and I had the pleasure of hosting an oneg Shabbos farbreng with the Agudah’s executive leadership, together with close to 100 friends, neighbors, and members of our shul. It was an evening filled with joyous song and shared divrei Torah, with special Shabbos treats, and with—above all—a very prevalent spirit of ruach and achdus. We were an ‘Agudah achas’ in the very sense of the word.”
At the oneg, Rabbi Shafran was asked how the individual Jew’s life would be different if Agudath Israel didn’t exist. Using himself as an example, Rabbi Shafran noted that he writes articles and puts forth ideas that make people think and, perhaps, inspire action. He added that small bits and pieces of every Jew’s life were influenced by Agudath Israel. For example, had Mr. Reich not gone to Camp Agudah as a child, he would not have been shaped by those experiences. Agudath Israel has set up much of the groundwork that created today’s Orthodox reality, such as spearheading many of the laws that make it possible for Jews to keep Shabbos in the workplace.
The theme of many of the speeches that weekend was da’as Torah, and how Agudath Israel functions as an organized body to carry out the instructions of the Gedolei Yisrael and to relate how things should be done according to da’as Torah. Simcha David, a member of the event’s steering committee, said, “We endeavored to bring the name of Agudath Israel to the larger community by having them come for Shabbos, and I think we succeeded. Rabbi Zwiebel spoke about the Agudah and elaborated on the concept of activism, particularly differentiating between shtadlanus through the prism of Torah and shtadlanus without the prism of Torah. Agudath Israel is about shtadlanus through the prism of Torah.”
“Throughout the weekend, and even today, people questioned why I didn’t mention more about what we do as an organization,” Rabbi Kalish said. “My general comment was the same. It’s as much about who we are, what we represent, as what we do. No one else can say they were established by the Chofetz Chaim and other Gedolei Hador of his generation.” Rabbi Kalish also thanked the members of the event’s steering committee, particularly Rabbi Yonah Feinstein, Agudath Israel’s director of special projects, who spent hours planning the event.
Dr. Ernest Isaacson, a staunch supporter of Agudath Israel, said that it was a privilege to host Rabbi Shafran, who was his rebbe in high school, for Shabbos. “We were happy to reconnect with Rabbi Shafran on a personal level and to help him publicize Agudath Israel’s message.”
Eric Stern, a New York City employment lawyer, who has been doing pro bono work for Agudath Israel for nearly a decade, said it was an honor to host Rabbi Kalish for the Shabbos seudah. He said that Rabbi Kalish and other leaders in Agudath Israel influenced his decision to start doing pro bono work for the organization.
Mr. Stern stressed that the Shabbos program demonstrated that Agudath Israel is a vibrant organization, staffed by talented individuals, who give selflessly to the Jewish community. “The take-away from this weekend is that Agudath Israel, under the auspices of da’as Torah (the Moetzes Gedolei Yisroel) is here for you. The Agudah is run by top-level professionals who are moser nefesh every day by dedicating their lives to the betterment of Klal Yisrael.” Mr. Stern joins other Agudath Israel lay-leaders in the plea to get involved. “If you can lend your talents and efforts, Agudath Israel is always looking for people.”
Rabbi Zwiebel reflected on the spirit of unity that had permeated the weekend. “The Shabbos in Far Rockaway and Lawrence gave us an opportunity to convey to approximately 1,000 people the essential message of Agudas Yisroel—the importance of Yidden joining together to form a powerful and effective ko’ach ha’rabbim under the leadership of Gedolei Yisrael. And it gave those 1,000 people an opportunity to spend meaningful time with some of the soldiers on the front lines of today’s battles for the Torah community, and to learn more about how they too can enlist in the cause. It was a wonderful experience.” v