It was by any stretch of the imagination an unconventional convention.
But with everything that has transpired over the past nine months, there was no question that at this particular moment, the annual Agudah convention could not be allowed to become yet another casualty of the pandemic at a time when Klal Yisroel finds itself struggling to cope with an overwhelming challenge that threatens to undermine its most essential foundations.
Drawing inspiration from words written by the Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow zt’l, Rosh Agudas Yisroel, just days before his passing, the theme for the 98th convention of Agudath Israel of America was The Time is Now – Davka Achshav. Taking up the Novominsker’s final charge to strengthen ourselves in unity, in tefilah, in performance of mitzvos and in limud Torah in the face of unprecedented danger, the convention mirrored its usual Thursday night and Motzoei Shabbos formats, offering a solid schedule of sessions and programming addressing timely issues, albeit virtually. All fifteen sessions and both keynote addresses were well attended, with some 60,000 households tuning in on Thursday evening via livestream and teleconference to hear from the more than 50 prominent gedolim, rabbanim, roshei yeshiva and speakers featured at this year’s convention, and 85,000 on Motzoei Shabbos.
Thoughts of the Siyum HaShas, which had 90,000 people joining together as one at MetLife Stadium just eleven months ago, colored many of the convention speeches, as did the images of the Novominsker Rebbe and Rav Dovid Feinstein zt’l that framed speakers at the convention podium. The program resonated with positive messages, offering listeners tools to cope with contemporary issues while also inspiring them to take the lessons of the pandemic to heart, both in their relationships with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and with those in their personal lives. Although circumstances of COVID made it impossible for Agudists to physically come together and gain chizuk from attending a gathering of hundreds of other like-minded individuals, the convention bridged distances of thousands of miles, delivering worlds of Torah and inspiration to sustain participants in the uncertain and potentially difficult weeks and months ahead.
The opportunity to be in close proximity to members of Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah is always a powerful element of the convention and video segments in both keynote addresses featured dvarim hayotzim min halev from these revered gedolim. A highlight of the main session on Motzoei Shabbos was an emotional video tribute to the Novominsker Rebbe who often used the convention to shed light on issues that were often hidden in the shadows, tasking listeners to meet them head on. Rav Elya Brudny, Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshivas Mir and Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, noted that the Novominsker spoke passionately about achrayus, challenging Klal Yisroel to expand their horizons when it comes to the problems of acheinu Beis Yisroel.
“The person that davens with you in shul, the person in Eretz Yisroel who you never met and you never heard of, they’re both equally related to you, they’re both chalakim of Klal Yisroel,” said Rabbi Brudny, describing the Novominsker’s chavivus for every individual, adding, “He wasn’t a baal chesed. He was an institution of chesed.”
During the Thursday night keynote, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh HaYeshiva, Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, emphasized the importance of taking our davening and our learning to the next level while placing extra effort on being mikadesh shem shomayim b’rabim during these turbulent times. Rabbi Ahron Dovid Goldberg, Rosh HaYeshiva, Telshe Yeshiva Cleveland and Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, urged viewers to listen well to the many inherent messages of the pandemic.
“The same way we have to be moser nefesh to keep the yeshivas, l’lamdam Torah, we have to be moser nefesh not make a chillul Hashem and until then we have to be ru’ig that we’re totally in the hands of the Ribono Shel Olam – He’s the one that’s in control,” said Rabbi Goldberg.
That theme was echoed by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudah, whose heartfelt explanation of two distinct meanings of the words “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tomid” addressed COVID-related fears as well as the sensitive issues of compliance. Rabbi Zwiebel observed that in addition to reminding us that even in our darkest hours we are never alone, Dovid Hamelech’s timeless words are also a clear mandate that must guide us as we strive to fulfill our collective mission of being a shining example of positive behavior and action, particularly now, when the eyes of world are laser-focused on our community.
“We can’t be quiet when we see things that lead to chillul Hashem,” said Rabbi Zwiebel adding, “Rabosai, davka achshav, let’s concentrate and do the things that show kiddush Hashem not the opposite, chas v’shalom. Let’s remember our mandate is ‘Yisroel asher b’cha espa’ar’ – we want to bring glory to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s name. Hakadosh Baruch Hu takes so much pride in us.”
As in previous years, there were dedicated women’s sessions addressing timely topics and a dedicated track for mental health professionals which, this year, drew 250 participants, as well as the ever-popular “Asking for a Friend” question and answer session. Keeping to its tradition of having its finger on the pulse of Klal Yisroel, the convention also explored the subjects of chinuch during COVID and beyond, interpersonal and familial relationships and the challenges of technology, while also offering inspiration on maintaining strong Torah values in the workplace, the importance of being part of a kehillah, bringing Shabbos to life and valuable firsthand perspectives gained during the darkest hours of the pandemic.
Conducting the convention virtually was a poignant reminder that while our current existence is a far cry from normal, the pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to see reality as never before. In that vein, Rabbi Aharon Feldman Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel and Chaver Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, noted on Motzoei Shabbos that we are defined as a nation – a Jewish nation – only by virtue of the Torah and that we must understand that false ideologies, such as Zionism and Reform Judaism, rob us of our national identity.
The keynote sessions also included remarks by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits Rosh Kollel of the Jerusalem Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva, Aish HaTorah, Yerushalayim; Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva of Staten Island; Rabbi Lipa Geldwerth, Rav of Kol Torah; Rabbi Todros Miller, Menahel, Gateshead Seminary; and Rabbi Meyer Yedid, Rosh HaYeshiva, Yeshiva Darchei Erez. The Agudah was also represented during the keynote sessions by Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, Rabbi Moshe Matz, executive director of Agudath Israel of Florida, and Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs of Agudath Israel of Illinois.
Rabbi Matz summarized the timely lessons of the pandemic that have only become apparent davka achsav, seen as they are through the prism of COVID.
“Our reality has always been and continues to be clear,” said Rabbi Matz. “The Ribono Shel Olam runs the world and we must stop to notice. For so many wearing a mask is nothing new. The only thing that has changed is where we wear it. Many have walked around for so long with a mask over their eyes and not seen the yad Hashem in everything and now we uncovered our eyes for a perfect view. If anything, the year 2020 has given us all 20/20 vision.”