Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Agudah Convention, an Insider's View

Guest Contributor

Dr. Jerry Lob addressing the Agudah convention (YWN)
Those who read this blog regularly know that I have my issues with the Agudah. But they will also know that I still consider Agudath Israel of America to be an asset to the Jewish people. My issues are usually in the form of disagreeing with the opinions of their rabbinic leadership on various issues - mostly based on our differing Hashkafos. And they will know that I nevertheless have great respect for them as rabbinic leaders. Disagreement does not equal disrespect.  

It is with this in mind that I offered a self described ‘active card carrying member of Agudah who attended their recent annual convention to report on what he saw. This should not be seen as any endorsement of what they said, nor should it be seen as disagreement with it. It should only be seen as an insider’s honest perspective. He submitted the following guest post yesterday which I present in full. Needless to say, if there is any disagreement or criticism offered in the commentary, it should be done in a respectful manner. I will not tolerate any mean spirited comments. His words follow.

I am a regular reader of Rabbi Maryles’s blog, and although we do not always agree, I do appreciate his insights and very thoughtful essays.

Full disclosure, although for various reasons I am remaining anonymous, Rabbi Maryles knows who I am. I am what one would describe as a card carrying active member of Agudath Israel, and I attended the convention held this past weekend in Stamford CT.

As two of the topics discussed at length by the convention were topics that have garnered much discussion on this blog recently, namely kids going OTD and Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Maryles was gracious to allow me to share some thoughts heard at the convention

When the convention program was first released to the public, and it was revealed that there would be a major session on kids going off the Derech (OTD), Rabbi Maryles lamented the fact that a personality such as Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz was not part of that panel. While I have no idea if he was invited or not and was not present at the conclave, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the Agudah CEO, in his keynote address  did reference Rabbi Horowitz and said that it was from that very podium of the convention some years back, where Rabbi Horowitz first mentioned the problem of "kids at risk".

The actual speakers at the session were Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok (Jerry) Lob, a psychologist from Chicago, Rabbi Mordechai Becher a senior lecturer for gateways and Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, Rav of the Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin Shul in Flatbush., formerly a Rav in Minneapolos, MN.

 All three speakers at the session stressed in one form or another importance of giving time and attention to kids as one of the main ways to prevent kids from going OTD. Surprisingly there was very little talk of kids going off for emotional or intellectual reasons.

Rabbi Lob told a poignant story about Rabbi Zev Cohen who on his way to shul one Shabbos crossed a street to stop into a park where kids were hanging out. None of the boys were wearing yarmulkes and many of the girls were dressed in a manner that a person like Rabbi Cohen would not want to see. Nevertheless he walked over to a boy without a yarmulke smoking a cigarette, told him Good Shabbos, it’s great to see you and gave him a hug all while the kid still had a cigarette in his hand. He then gave the same greeting (sans the hug) to many of the girls as well. Dr. Lob said that one of the kids was his client and lamented to him that if only every Rabbi would show the love of Rabbi Cohen he would have turned out differently.

Dr. Lob also shared his own experience as a fifth grader where he had a Rebbi that was so cruel to him, he actually wished this rebbe would die. In a similar vein, Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, in another session over Shabbos, recounted how he was beaten in the third grade, Both Rabbis Lob and Wallerstein felt that it was actions like those that turn kids OTD, and how fortunate we are that both of them were able to rise above it and become the accomplished people that they are.

Rabbi Mordechai Becher from Gateways stresse three important points. 1) to allow kids to ask questions 2) to not put down others 3) to teach basic emunah from an early age.

It was a much inspiring program and can be seen on video here

In the keynote session on Motzei Shabbos the Sadigura Rebbe from Israel Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Friedman ( who grew up in the US and speaks perfect English) touched on the same theme. He related how he was once sent to test a class of 13 and 14 year olds on maseches kiddushin. Before he asked them the questions he had prepared he asked a few basic ones. 

He asked one boy why do you wear tefillin and the boy said because my father bought them for me. Another boy said he keeps Shabbos because that's how they do it in his house.  He realized how so many boys are not aware of the basic elements of yiddishkeit and felt that is a reason why they go OTD.The rebbe related how the Sefer HaChinuch, written about 800 years ago, writes in his introduction that he is teaching taamei hamitzvoth so children should not go astray

There was also discussion on open orthodoxy. The Novominsker Rebbe in his address (delivered via video, as he was in Israel for the wedding of a grandchild) referred to the “apikursus of that new malignancy called open orthodoxy".

There was even a special session devoted to it Friday night with Rav Aaron Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore and Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola of Greater Washington in Silver Springs. Rav Feldman explained some of the rationale behind the recent psak of the Moetzes which does not recognize OO rabbis as a need to draw a line in light of the many questionable rulings and thoughts that have emanated from this movement.  Rav Lopinasky related that seven shuls in the Greater Washington area already have OO rabbis.

Someone asked Rav Feldman why if there are perhaps 100 students at YCT, why should we even care. After all there are probably 100 kids born in Lakewood each week. The Rosh Yeshiva answered that those in the Brooklyn, Lakewood, Monsey corridor are often unaware of what goes on out of town, but  that many shuls are looking to hire YCT graduates, as they subsidize their salary for the first year and it is becoming a real threat.

He gave an example by using their approach to Akeidas Yitzchok which he says has become a favorite Rosh Hashonoh drasha with many expressing the sentiment that Avrohom went to far. In an article in Hamodia he quotes Sara Hurwitz (first Rabbah) as saying 'Avraham's willingness to sacrifice Yitzchok went too far... and is unrecognizable from the Avrohom we encountered up to this point". 

Said  Rav Feldman “Consider that based on this test Hashem called him a "yirei elokim (fearer of God) and promised great things for his descendants, how can we even begin to question Avrohom’s actions in the Akeida, which plays such  a central role in Yidishkeit, It is one of the reasons we blow Shofar on Rosh Hashonoh, and  indeed Avrohom’s willingness to sacrifice his son plays such a central role in our Tefillos on Yomin Noraim especially the bracha of Zichronos on Mussaf  of Rosh Hashonoh which is primarily based on the akeida.

As the session was on Shabbos, there is of course no video of it, but suffice to say it certainly garnered much reaction.