Shlomo Werdiger: A Statesman, a Leading Askan, a Chassid
To understand Shlomo Werdiger, you must understand his roots, his family, and his connections to Ger and to the Agudah.
Born in Brooklyn to Holocaust survivors, Shlomo Elimelech Werdiger absorbed the world from the deep perspective of his parents’ personal history.
“It’s ironic,” he told a group of lawmakers in 2013 during his first trip to Washington as chairman of the Agudah. “Everybody asks, ‘Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Why are we having this dinner in the White House?’
“Because we want to make sure that what happened over 70 years ago never ever happens again. At that time, when 400 Rabbanim came to Washington and our parents and our grandparents were getting slaughtered in Europe, they wouldn’t even open the door for us. As Rabbi Sherer famously said, ‘We didn’t have the keys to the White House.’ We’re here to make sure this never, ever happens again.”
Seated in his office at his Midwood home on a recent Sunday evening, Mr. Werdiger recounted some of his early exposure to Gedolim, to askanus, and to the impact and imprint left by these experiences on him to this very day.
Today the chairman of Agudath Israel of America’s Board of Trustees, he relates a very telling anecdote about meeting a Gadol as a bachur that remains his guide when he approaches Gedolim nowadays for direction.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s first explore his background and gradual development into one of the foremost askanim of our community.
His father, Reb Nechemia, z”l, was Sosnovitz-born and -bred, living in the same house as the Radomsker Rebbe, zt”l, in Poland.
“The zeide was a big talmid chacham, the bubbe was the business person,” says Mr. Werdiger. “They had a very successful business. The downstairs was stores, the second floor was where my grandparents lived and the third floor was where the Radomsker Rebbe lived. He was a big baal achsania. Many people told me — like [Rabbi] Chaskel Besser, who was a big Radomsker Chassid — that they used to come and eat by the zeide.”
“When my father was a bachur, my zeide used to take him along wherever the Imrei Emes of Gur, zy”a, went to rest up a little, whether to Marienbad or Kreinitz or wherever it was. My zeide rented the house next door and he set up my father and my uncle with melamdim, and that’s where they spent the summer. My father told me that many times he held the havdalah lecht for the Imrei Emes, zy”a. My father was even once at a Seder by the Imrei Emes. We have deep Gerrer roots.”
One interesting detail about Reb Nechemia Werdiger, who was niftar five years ago: in one of the few prewar pictures of the Imrei Emes, the Rebbe is seen walking with his son, the Beis Yisrael, zy”a, and a little boy walks alongside them, wearing a kashketl.
“That little boy is my father.”
Reb Nechemia — one of six siblings — was one of just two who survived the war. He was in the concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and was liberated from Buchenwald together with his younger brother, Nosson. The two went separate ways after the war but remained very close all their years despite their geographic separation.
Reb Nosson moved to Australia, where he married Nechama Serebryanski, the daughter of the local Chabad shaliach — “Chabad royalty,” Mr. Werdiger notes. The younger Mr. Werdiger started a successful textile and real estate firm, which encompassed most of the Melbourne business district’s properties by the time he passed away two years ago.
Reb Nechemia immigrated to the United States, settling in Boro Park, where he married Liba Tisser, a fellow Holocaust survivor from Sanok, Galicia. The two were escorted to the chuppah by the Bluzhever Rebbe, Harav Yisrael Spira, zt”l, who basically adopted them.
“All the years, the Bluzhever Rebbe was like my zeide,” Mr. Werdiger says. “On my father’s chasunah invitation, his name is printed as the side of the chassan. When I was growing up, I was always in Bluzhev. The Bluzhever Rebbe taught me my bar mitzvah pshetl.”
“Like a lot of the broken Poilishe Yidden,” Mr. Werdiger recalls, “my father was very closed; many of them didn’t talk much. Not about life before the war, and not during the war. But when they opened up a Gerrer shtiebel in Boro Park, my father felt such a strong connection from his youth that he left Bluzhev and went to Ger. I never went to chassidishe yeshivos. I went to Torah Vodaath and I learned by Rav Pam, zt”l, but when they opened the Gerrer shtiebel I started davening there.”
Ger was Reb Nechemia’s first home. After his petirah, dozens of letters were found among his belongings from his correspondence with the Pnei Menachem of Ger, zy”a. And this legacy continues.
“Ger is a very big part of my life,” he says. “I bring my kids to Ger. We go for Yamim Tovim. I still ask [the Rebbe] nearly everything in my life.”
Mr. Werdiger’s connection to Ger began as a young bachur, when his father sent him — his only son — to Eretz Yisrael to learn under the wings of the Beis Yisrael.
“My whole connection to Ger came about through an awesome story,” he says. “Imagine today I tell my son, ‘You’re going to Eretz Yisrael, to the Mir.’ So he knows where he’s going. He farhers himself here for the Mir and sets up a dorm room months in advance.
“My father decided, ‘You finished Torah Vodaath, you’re going to learn in Eretz Yisrael. Where? Where the Beis Yisrael will send you.’
“Imagine you tell a bachur today, ‘You’re going to Eretz Yisrael to learn!’ without knowing to which yeshivah. I had kibbud av; I took my suitcases and flew off. Somebody came to pick me up in Eretz Yisrael, and he took me straight from the airport to Ralbach [Street], to the beis medrash of the Beis Yisrael.
“I’ll never forget the scene. I walked in the first time to the Beis Yisrael. I said to him, ‘My name is—’ and the Rebbe says, ‘You will tell me what’s your name? I knew your grandfather for whom you’re named!’
“The Rebbe says, ‘What do you want?’ I tell him my father sent me to ask the Rebbe where I should go to learn. He gives a big smile — I’ll never forget it. He called in the gabbai and says, ‘Call up Reb Baruch Shimon and tell him I am sending him someone to farher.’ This was a year after the petirah of the Tchebiner Rav, zt”l; the Rosh Yeshivah then was Harav Baruch Shimon Schneerson.
“I said, ‘OK.’ At least I now know I am in staying Yerushalayim and I’m in Tchebin. Then the Rebbe gave me a brachah I should learn well and he sends me out. Somebody took me by car to Tchebin, dumped me with the suitcases. I went upstairs to Reb Baruch Shimon; he farhered me and he took me into the yeshivah. I davened Maariv, they gave me something to eat and they took me downstairs. They gave me a dorm room.
“So I went downstairs. I unpacked. I’m going to sleep and all of a sudden somebody’s shaking me. I take a look at my watch. I see it’s 4:30 in the morning. I see a Gerrer man with long peyos standing there and he says, ‘Wake up.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? Wake up?’ I washed negel vasser and he says, ‘You must come with me.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am your fartugs chavrusa.’ I said, ‘You’re my what?’ He says, ‘The Rebbe sent me. I am your early-morning chavrusa. Wake up.’
“He was a chashuve yungerman, who later was mechaber sefarim. His name was Reb Itche Meir Knoplovitch, z”l. The Beis Yisrael, the second he sent me to Tchebin, arranged for somebody to learn with me. Reb Itche Meir ended up being my early morning chavrusa for two years.
“That was my [first experience with] Ger,” Mr. Werdiger said.
Whether it was his Gerrer ancestry or that the Rebbe recognized his potential, the Beis Yisrael allowed Shlomo to develop a very strong connection with him. For example, the new American boy was called in for early morning tea with milk — “tei mitt milich” — every single week for almost two years, a rare privilege. He would also frequently accompany the Beis Yisrael on his early morning walks through the darkened streets of the Holy City.
“I was the same modern bachur that I am now,” he says, “yet I had a close connection and unbelievable stories with the Beis Yisrael. I wrote down many of them because today’s Rebbe, shlita, with whom I am very close, told me I should write them down.
These encounters enriched his experience then and trained him well for his yet uncharted future. One of the most important lessons he gleaned was subservience to Gedolim.
“When I sit in on meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel, I know that the main thing is that you have to listen, and even when you say something, you have to be subservient to their opinion,” Mr. Werdiger says.
“It’s something the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer and, ybl”c, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel always told me,” he adds. “There are many times that I walk into meetings where Gedolim are present — I could speak for 10 minutes, make an impassioned plea about something that I think is the right thing, and half the time I’ll walk out and not get my way.”
“It’s a humbling experience,” he acknowledges, “but that’s how it is, emunas chachamim. You have to know that you’re not the boss. You are subservient to the opinion of the Gedolim and that’s the first lesson you have to know. That’s a lesson I learned in Eretz Yisrael many years ago.”
Another lesson learned by Mr. Werdiger from the Beis Yisrael, zy”a, was how to ask a Gadol a question.
After spending three Shabbosos in Yerushalayim when he first came there to learn, Mr. Werdiger made plans to spend the next Shabbos at the home of a childless uncle of his who lived in Ramat Gan, adjacent to Bnei Brak.
“I was going to go,” he says. “I was told that I have to gezegen zich from the Beis Yisrael. So I go in to the Beis Yisrael. The Rebbe looks at me and says, ‘Yes, Shlomo, what do you want?’ I said that I was going for Shabbos to my uncle in Bnei Brak. ‘You came to tell me or you came to ask?’ he says. I said that I came to ask. ‘If so, go back to yeshivah.’”
“I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do so I went outside. I spoke to the gabbai. I was almost in tears. What happened here? So the gabbai expained, ‘You need to go in and say that you are thinking of going. If the Beis Yisrael gives a brachah then you travel. But you don’t go in to a Gadol and lead him into giving the answer you want.”
“It was a lesson for life,” Mr. Werdiger says. “Now, when I deal with Gedolim, I know that I have to ask, not tell.”
The Man of Many Hats
Mr. Werdiger is a man who wears many hats.
He is the founder and CEO of licensed youth sports apparel manufacturer Outerstuff, and his company holds exclusive rights to outfit the top U.S. sports teams. That allows him to penetrate the pinnacle of American power, such as this month’s Olympic event in South Korea.
In the community, he is better known as an unstinting philanthropist and kiruv personality.
A story circulating last year had it that Mr. Werdiger was asked to dine several years ago with the then-South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Oh Joon.
Mr. Oh told Mr. Werdiger that his daughter had been working at Outerstuff for a while, and she often told him how impressed she was by the company’s ethics. How they stopped to daven Minchah every day, how they closed their doors for Shabbos every week, how every fundraiser was treated with dignity, how women such as she were treated with respect.
Mr. Oh said that the impression he got from his daughter changed his perspective on Jews, and led him to change his vote on Israel-related resolutions on three occasions, including once when he cast the pivotal ninth vote in favor of the Jewish State.
“Yes, it’s a true story,” Mr. Werdiger confirms. “That’s an unbelievably powerful story. It just comes to show you that you could never know. This didn’t cost me a penny. You can make an impact if you act like a mentch and you act morally.”
Mr. Werdiger says that when the story became known, “people in the Israeli government and people here said, ‘Sol, for millions of dollars you can’t influence the vote of a country.’”
The young Ms. Oh — a “terrific, terrific worker,” he emphasizes — eventually worked for him for many years until the family moved back to South Korea.
“We have a lot of stories like this,” Mr. Werdiger says. “Working in an environment like this, where you’re going to places where you can make an impact. But you have to be consistent. The key to all of this stuff is you have to be consistent. You can’t once look like this and once like that. Like, ‘I’m going to be like this here, and over there I’ll behave differently.’”
Another hat worn by Mr. Werdiger is in political askanus. He has in recent years emerged as a pivotal, if behind-the-scenes, activist working with a small group of influential people on behalf of Israel and the Orthodox community. He leverages acquaintances and elected officials from across the country — from Idaho, with its Jewish population of about 2,000 — to New York, the Jewish capital of America, to further the interests of that pair of causes.
How does askanus work?
“We don’t employ lobbyists and professional people, so you develop a relationship,” says Mr. Werdiger. “Listen, a lot of politicians are big ohavei Yisrael. We developed an unbelievable relationship with Orrin Hatch (R—Utah) over the years. There [are] a lot of people who are involved in askanus [who] help us. Take the Wolfson family. [The late] Zev Wolfson was one of the pioneers who developed relationships with politicians, and he realized many years ago what could be done [to help Jewish causes].
“Whether it’s anti-Semitism, which is starting again, [or something else,] you need connections. Most politicians have to run for election again, and they appreciate the fact that you’re helping them, and you build the connection. The ones that you feel could help along an agenda that’s beneficial to Klal Yisrael are the ones you try to cultivate. Whether it’s on education … or the Foreign Relations Committee.
“We just hosted a congressman, Jim Risch, who’s from Idaho. There [are] no Yidden there, but he’s an ohev Yisrael. He’s a guy that we cultivated. We know him for years. I was with him in Washington. We see each other and we hug each other. He’s going to become the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You’re talking about a power. A real power.
“It takes time. You have to develop a relationship. You stay in touch with them and go to Washington every once in a while. There are some askanim who are very active in that. I work very closely with Gary Torgow [of Detroit]. Gary is a close, loyal friend of mine and we work very closely in askanus. We go to Washington. Quietly. No pomp. The whole thing is just trying to accomplish.”
But the twin “loves of my life,” as he refers to them, the hats that he wears the most proudly, are undoubtable.
He is a Gerrer Chassid, drawn to that noble dynasty by the Beis Yisrael’s warmth and leadership, and the connection has been deepened by extraordinarily close relationships with the succeeding Rebbes until the present Rebbe.
And he is an Agudist.
Can you tell us some of your interactions with Gedolim?
“A smart Yid once told me that when you go in to a Gadol for a brachah with a son or grandchild, don’t ask him for a brachah, ask for guidance in life.
“I have a picture with one of my sons when we went to Harav [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv, zt’l. When I went in, I asked him for a hadrachah in life. He gave a big smile and he said to Rav Yosef Efrati, ‘Efrati, take down that sefer.’ I didn’t know what it was. It was a Shulchan Aruch. He puts it on the table. He says, ‘You want hadrachah for life?’ He takes my son’s hand with my hand, puts it on the Shulchan Aruch and says, ‘This is your hadrachah in life. Don’t go to the right or the left. This is your hadrachah in life!’
“Another story: I had been learning in Tchebin for maybe two weeks. My mashgiach was [Harav] Mordechai Rimmer, zt”l, who was a mechutan with Rav Elyashiv, and my Rosh Yeshivah was Harav Avraham Genechovski, zt”l. It was a litvishe place, though there were some chassidishe bachurim learning there.
“All of a sudden, in the middle of morning seder, I see the gabbai of the Gerrer Rebbe walking in. I see he’s having a whole debate with Reb Mordechai Rimmer. The Mashgiach calls me over and says, ‘The Beis Yisrael is calling you.’ In the middle of seder …? I ran from Tchebin to the Beis Yisrael’s house — I couldn’t imagine what happened. I was thinking that, chalilah, something bad happened.
“I run into the Beis Yisrael as he was pacing back and forth. The Rebbe sits me down at the table and calls in one of the gabbaim and says, ‘Bring me a pen and a paper.’ He puts them down and tells me, ‘Write down the names of all your friends.’ I was trembling. I started writing down the names of my friends.
“The Beis Yisrael took the piece of paper; he folded it, put it in his chalatl. ‘I will look into it,’ he said, ‘but remember — bloiz gute chaveirim — only good friends.’ He then sent me back to yeshivah.
“I told this story over to [Harav] Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, zt”l. I ,must’ve heard from ten bar mitzvah boys [who] went there afterward; he told them over this story. A hadrachah? Good friends. This was my upbringing.”
A lesson in davening
Mr. Werdiger made his first foray into his current career on the advice of the current Rebbe’s father, the Lev Simcha, zy”a.
“I have strong hakaras hatov to the Lev Simcha,” he says. “When I went into business, I was a worker for somebody for many years and I had an opportunity to buy him out. I never forget how the Rebbe showed me everything. He showed me how to write a contract and gave me his brachah.
“When I first got married 45 years ago I [was in Israel. I went] to the Lev Simcha and said that, baruch Hashem, I was starting to do OK. I was successful, but my business was in imports and I was never home. In those days — it’s not like today — you pick up a plane and you go to China. It was a trip. I was away from home.
“[I started out i]n shmattes. I was in the apparel business. I used to make children’s coats. About 17 or 18 years ago, I was very lucky. Certainly, it was the Ribbono shel Olam [Who] helped me get involved in the sports business.
“I hired tutors for the kids to learn with, but my wife and kids were complaining that I [was] never home. The next time I had an opportunity to go to Eretz Yisrael, my wife [said] I should go in to the Rebbe and tell him that everything is baruch Hashem OK, but the traveling is hard. It was one of the last periods that the Lev Simcha was well. I caught him precisely in a good moment and I went in and I told him.
“I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Shlomo, you should always remember: if you wanted business close to your city, you should have asked and davened for it. You have business, that’s it.’ He didn’t want to hear anything else.
“I came home and told my wife that the traveling [was] not stopping. But it’s an unbelievable thing. ‘You wanted business close to your city, you had to daven for it.’ I learned an important lesson from that.
You are very involved in many chessed projects.
“Baruch Hashem,” said Mr. Werdiger. “One project that is very dear and near to me and my wife is the organization we started, called Refuah V’Yeshuah. We put a lot of energy into Refuah V’Yeshuah.”
Was there anything specific that got you into this?
“No. Everybody asks me that, all the time, and I think we just have hakaras hatov that, baruch Hashem, we don’t have special-needs children. My wife and I both have a special feel for these special neshamos. We’ve also been doing fundraising breakfasts for Chush for 26 years at our house.
“For Refuah V’Yeshuah we built these little hotels — they’re called milonit.”
“Yes, respite homes. We built the first one in Bnei Brak — this is my only business that’s open 24/7. We now have one in Bnei Brak and one in Yerushalayim, and we’re building a much larger and new one in Bnei Brak. I got a big property of land from the municipality. We run a summer camp and events on Chol Hamoed Sukkos and Chol Hamoed Pesach. It’s an undertaking.
“We have maybe 800 volunteers. It’s open for children from everywhere, but the volunteers, at least the ones [who] are with the children, are all Gerrer Chassidim. The Rebbe is makpid that it should be yungeleit. We have bachurim from all yeshivos volunteering in the kitchen, helping. But the Rebbe is makpid that the one-on-one care should be yungeleit, so they should have an appreciation [for] what it means to have healthy children …
“It got so that they become so attached to these kids that many times the yungerman brings the kids to [his] own house for Shabbos. You have to go see it once. You can’t compare seeing to hearing. We have now Pesach Sedarim. These volunteers leave their own homes and make Sedarim with the kids in the home. There are mothers who say that never before did they have a Seder with the whole family. The same thing goes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Mothers were saying they never davened on Yom Kippur before their special needs children were being taken care of for them.
“It’s not me. Baruch Hashem, we merited that it’s called Camp Werdiger, but we only give the financial support. I always tell the volunteers that the real credit goes to them. They put in tremendous effort and work.
“Another very big thing that we do under the banner of Gur is, in the last four, five years we saw what’s doing in Eretz Yisrael, and I don’t have to tell you about the poverty, even among working parents. We have hundreds of needy families in Arad, Chatzor, Ashdod and more. So we started something called Keren Werdiger, in which we give out Yom Tov packages on both Sukkos and Pesach.
“But it’s more than that. We started something that’s even more interesting. There’s a program that some friends of mine called Malbushei Kavod. We set up huge warehouses all over Eretz Yisrael, so families can buy clothes. We have 2,500 families that participate in this, probably over 10,000 kids. We sell new clothing. They would never be able to afford to buy clothing; they barely have food. A dress, a suit, new shoes. But we do it in a dignified way. Let’s say a pair of shoes should cost 100 shekel; we sell it for 10 shekel.
“We send out catalogues to make it like they’re really buying stuff. You can choose your size.”
How did you get involved with the Agudah?
“The other love of my life, the other askanus, is really the Agudah, which takes also a tremendous amount of time and energy. I had a big connection with Reb Moshe Sherer, z”l, for many, many years. I grew up in Boro Park. I’m friendly with his son, Harav Shimshon, shlita, and the whole family.
“My connection with Rabbi Sherer honestly came about through Ger. When I used to go to Eretz Yisrael for Yamim Tovim, I used to go pick up Reb Moshe every morning to walk to Ger for davening. We would walk back, and we talked about askanus along the way.
“Whatever I understood and heard about the Agudah was what Reb Moshe Sherer instilled in me. He gave me a lot of different ideas of what we need to do.
“Recently somebody told me, ‘Shlomo, you are a newcomer to the Agudah.’ I showed him a picture from 1971, when I went to Washington with the delegation of Tzeirei Agudath Israel. I was always involved in Pirchei and Tzeirei and Agudah.
“Reb Yechiel Benzion Fishoff (former chairman of Agudah’s Board of Trustees), may he be gezunt, was my closest friend and really my role model in askanus. Until he got sick, probably a week never went by that I didn’t speak to Reb Yechiel Benzion. We used to spend hours talking. I used to spend every Yom Kippur in Ger with him, and we ate the seudah hamafsekes together. So he was really my inspiration in askanus. He was beloved by everyone. He is the epitome of what a real businessman should be.
“When I became chairman of the Board of Trustees, I felt that there is a tremendous need to bring the Agudah to the next level. Baruch Hashem, we have a wonderful staff — I can’t talk enough about Reb Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and Reb Shmuel Bloom, who were the executives when I first came into the organization. But I felt that it was time for a businessman to step in and have a bigger role.
“Today the needs of Klal Yisrael are much different than they were in Rabbi Sherer’s days. Those days it was the she’eiris hapleitah, the survivors who came to America. Today the needs are tremendous. Today one out of every 11 children in the school system in New York State is in a yeshivah! We have probably 150,000 kids today in the yeshivos in New York, and it’s only growing.
“The biggest burden today is tuition. No question about it.
“I had breakfast with Governor Cuomo and the cardinal [of New York]. We do work with the Catholics because we both have non-public schools. I’ll never forget [when] the cardinal, in front of the governor, turned to me and said, ‘Sol, I admire you guys. When we don’t have money we close a church and we close a school. You guys never, ever, ever close a yeshivah. You never close a girls’ school.’ He said, ‘How do you do it?’ I said, ‘How do we do it? It’s hard. We sacrifice. Education for us is that important.’
“Tuition aid today is something that we work very hard at. We just came back from Albany — we’re working on tuition tax credits, and now there’s a new tax-deferred 529 education savings plan. We were in Washington a couple of weeks ago. There’s tremendous advocacy needed. There are problems today in Klal Yisrael in general. We have a huge olam. The olam where Agudah is — we’re in eight states. We advocate in many states. Baruch Hashem, we’re very successful. Some of my best friends are big askanim in Cleveland. They’ll tell you the success today of Cleveland, one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in America, is only because of the Agudah, because of the vouchers that we got there. We got $4,600 per voucher. You could sit in yeshivah and get a voucher. My kids say they’re moving in like crazy into Cleveland because of the vouchers. We’re baruch Hashem also successful in Illinois and in Florida.
“It takes time. You have to go to Washington. You have to build these connections. You have to build these relationships. You have to go to the governor. There’s a picture I have with the governor in my house. Governor Cuomo came to my house to push through one of the packages of the mandated services that’s worth millions of dollars to yeshivos. He did it right here on my dining room table.
“We made an impassioned plea for the money and he said, ‘You’re right. There’s CAP money. It’s not charity. You deserve it.’”
CAP, or Comprehensive Attendance Policy funds, reimburses yeshivos for fulfilling state mandates such as taking attendance or ensuring students are vaccinated.
“You have to keep on working on the askanus. It’s important today also because in the political arena, you have to host politicians. You have to do fundraisers for them. It’s not something that people in the Agudah are going to do, so we [the askanim] need to do it.
“I am part of a group. We call ourselves OPG, Orthodox Political Group. We host on a monthly basis important senators and congressmen from all over the country. We do fundraisers for them. Ones [who] could influence people on education, and of course about Eretz Yisrael, safety of Eretz Yisrael, security of Eretz Yisrael. We’re very politically active. We host the mayor and the governor. Who they are, what they represent is irrelevant. People ask, ‘Shlomo, how could you host this guy? You know your views are diametrically opposite to his.’ It has nothing to do with it. It’s the office that he represents and what he could possibly do to help us if we need it. We have an address.
“Where did Satmar and Chabad and everybody come when they had the metzitzah b’peh issues? They came to the Agudah. We worked together; we advocated. Whether it’s that or tuition or special education, the Agudah is here to help the community. That special-ed deal signed in 2013 was a tremendous victory that we achieved. The parents of special ed students don’t have to sue the state anymore.”
What do you feel you accomplished with the Am Echad trip to Eretz Yisrael a few weeks ago?
“This is something that Reb Moshe Sherer started 20 years ago. In the meantime, what’s happening is that the Reform and the Conservative are going to Eretz Yisrael and they’re saying that they represent Klal Yisrael, but, baruch Hashem, we were very successful.
“Somebody told me that we made it to the agenda of one of the meetings the Reform are having; one of the topics under discussion was the Agudah trip to Israel. So we made an impact. There’s a big follow-up. We were written up in the secular press.
“The one question that everybody asked, from the prime minister, to the president, to the finance minister, to the justice minister, was, ‘Where have you been for the last 20 years?’ ”
Is there a plan to make this an annual thing?
“Yes. Not just annual, there’s a plan of possibly opening an office in Israel, to have a spokesperson there, to have a campaign there, to keep the message going, to keep a connection with the secular media. We had articles written about us in the Jerusalem Post, in Haaretz, and more, because that’s important.
“Listen, at the end of the day, even a chiloni Yid in Eretz Yisrael has a feel for Yiddishkeit that the Reform don’t have. I explained to one of the politicians in Eretz Yisrael who is a complete chiloni. I said, ‘Let me explain to you a problem. You’re traditional, but your children all marry Jewish people. The family, the lineage, the continuity of Am Yisrael is going to be in your family for generations. They may not be religious, but they’re going to be Jewish. You bring the Reform in — they’re intermarrying. If they’re going to start coming to Eretz Yisrael, you’re going to have to check out who your kids are marrying. They’re going to cause you to question certain things that you take for granted.’
“He says, ‘Wow. I didn’t think of that, Sol.’ I said, ‘That’s an absolutely serious problem. Eighty percent of them are intermarrying. Their children are no longer Jewish. You have to understand this has nothing to do with being Orthodox or non-Orthodox. This has to do with being Jewish.’
“When I went on the recent Am Echad trip I told the prime minister, ‘The Orthodox are not what you think they are.’ The mission message was that if you don’t take the Orthodox into account you’re not going to have anybody to talk to within the next 20 years in America, because we’re growing. We support Eretz Yisrael. Our children live there. We support. We visit. We’re investing. We’re building.
“I said, ‘Just to show you what the Orthodox are, Mr. Prime Minister, I just came yesterday from Korea. So you have an Orthodox Jewish boy who’s outfitting the [Olympic] team. We make all the stuff that they wear that says Team USA. Then you have an Orthodox daughter of the President of the United States,’ and I pulled out the Korean newspaper which I brought with me, and it [said] in the headlines of the Korean newspaper [that] Ivanka Trump had dinner last night with President Moon at the Blue House [and that t]he entire meal was kosher. I read him the paper. I said, ‘What more do you want? We’re not the Orthodox that you have stereotyped.’
“Baruch Hashem, I pride myself that my children and I make a big kiddush Hashem in this business …
“The message is that you can be frum, you can keep Shabbos, you can eat kosher, and you’re still in this [sports] business. In our work environment, there’s a minyan every day and we have kosher kitchens and we try to make a kiddush Hashem every day at work, in all the crazy places we go.”
What do you consider one of the highlights of your life?
“One of my biggest zechuyos was that I was one of the key shadchanim between the Gerrer Rebbe, shlita, and [Harav] Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l. The first time they came to America, a trip that I had a hand in, I had the merit of traveling along — thanks to the generosity of Shimmy Glick, because he supplied the means and the transportation. I have countless stories, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to see how the two of them interacted. Because of that I also developed a very close connection with Reb Aharon Leib.
“As a matter of fact, every time I went to Eretz Yisrael, the Gerrer Rebbe always asked, ‘Were you already in Bnei Brak?’ I used to walk in and Reb Aharon Leib always said, ‘Ah, my Gerrer Chassid is here.’ I had a very warm, special relationship with him.
“I happened to be in Eretz Yisrael for his levayah. I went that night to be menachem avel. I spent a lot of time with his sons and we reminisced about those trips.”
Can you tell an anecdote or two about those trips?
“First of all, the Gerrer Rebbe was mechabed Rav Shteinman unbelievably. I’ll tell you a funny story. Reb Aharon Leib hardly ate anything. Everybody knows, he didn’t eat. Reb Shimmy Glick always provided a doctor to travel with Reb Aharon Leib, even though in those days he was still in his 90s and healthy. So there was a French doctor on the flight. The Gerrer Rebbe started questioning the doctor about the eating habits of Rav Aharon Leib. Rav Aharon Leib said, ‘Gerrer Rebbe, you want to take away the income of the doctor?’”
Do you have a message for our readers?
“There’s a lot to do, baruch Hashem. That’s why I want to encourage, and we’re trying very hard in the Agudah, to try to bring in young askanim. I got my sons and sons-in-law involved — my oldest son, my youngest son. I’m trying to bring in young, fresh kochos.
“One of my sons runs a fund to send underprivileged children to camp. He raises close to $1 million [a year] and sends hundreds of kids to camp. It gives him nachas.
“My son and I are very involved in kiruv here in the neighborhood. You have to plant seeds. My oldest son is today an active and known askan in Lakewood. One of my sons-in-law was the driving force behind opening up a new shul in Flatbush that is today a true makom tefillah and Torah in our neighborhood. And my other son-in-law has a home that is always open for chessed and [is] a baal ha’achsania to Gedolim. You have to develop the relationships. Kids today don’t have the patience to see it through. So there’s a tremendous need for askanim. There are gemachim for anything you could ever think of. But we need to develop askanim from the next generation to worry about Klal Yisrael. Chas v’shalom, we shouldn’t need it, but you need these relationships [with public figures], so that’s very important. So that’s my next focus: the next generation.”
A person reading this interview hears your message, but who should he call to become an askan?
“If he’s interested in getting involved in the Agudah, then he should call me, and I’ll direct him in the right direction. We have young leadership. We have a young Board. We’re going to start putting more energy into it.
“The Agudah had a mesorah all the years from Reb Moshe Sherer and from the Moetzes that we shouldn’t make big advertisements. You should accomplish things and don’t, as they say, toot your own horn. But today that doesn’t work.
“Today, I have to say, regretfully, you have to toot your own horn. And so we started an ad campaign to let people know what we do, because the young generation doesn’t really understand what we do. Everybody else understands — the yeshivos understand what we do. The mosdos understand what we do. Skver understands what we do. Satmar understands what we do. Everybody understands what we do, because if they have a problem, that’s the address that they come to. We represent all frum Jews.”
You told me about Agudah’s efforts to have an open door in Washington and in the halls of government. Are you confident that we have that open door today?
“We definitely have an open door, but we have to behave ourselves, too. And that’s why it’s important who the askanim are. I, baruch Hashem, pride myself that the Agudah — not just me but the entire Board, going back to Reb Moshe Sherer and Reb Shmuel Bloom — that we never, ever had a scandal. We are very careful.
“The governor always says to me, and the mayors also, ‘You know why we love you? Because you’ve never, ever, ever asked for anything for yourselves. It’s always the community.’
“If [your issues] stay pure that way then you can be successful in askanus. If you start mixing in personal business, you’re going to get yourself into serious trouble.”
Your children have followed in your path.
“My kids, baruch Hashem, are in askanus too. They have even bigger aspirations than I. My wife and I instilled in them a love for helping others — she prefers to stay behind the scenes but she’s responsible for the chinuch of our children and everything that we do.
“One of my younger sons has 10-15 boys nearly every Shabbos stay with him that he’s being mekarev and working with them. My older son is an askan in Lakewood. He just helped me now — we’re opening up for the first time an Agudah office in Lakewood.
“My single biggest nachas is that we see that, baruch Hashem, something rubbed off. We see the next generation, our sons, our sons-in-law, all involved in chessed. Our daughters also help out by doing functions in their homes. That’s the biggest nachas any father or mother could have.
“I hope that somebody who reads this realizes that this is what we ‘take along with us.’ A couple of dollars more or a couple of dollars less doesn’t count. Regretfully, today more than ever before, that’s what the young kids look up to, some more than they look up to Gedolim. They look up to successful people, so it’s a responsibility for people who are successful and whom people look up to, to make sure that they are sending them the right message and that they serve as role models.”
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