Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Agudah

Now that every Jewish blogger and his cousin is piling on the Agudah (here,12/08-12/12) because they were so dense and so full of themselves at their last convention, and have their fingers, if not their hand, in the Kolko affair, I thought it would be a good idea to say some nice things about the Agudah. Like, how wonderful they were and such.

When one talks about the post-World War II Agudah, one can not speak of it in isolation of the American yeshivoth that supported the Agudah. Not every rosh yeshiva was active in the Agudah but many were, and those that weren’t were not opposed; they just weren’t active. The yeshivoth, especially the elementary schools, sent their students to Pirchei, the youth movement of the Agudah, and its camp, sensibly enough called Camp Agudah.

Torah Vodaath, Chaim Berlin, Mir …all the famous strict Orthodox yeshivoth were inextricably tied to the Agudah and vice versa. So, to accuse the Agudah as being a retard organization is also to criticize the entire way of life to which it was tied. Let me mention some of the practices that are part of a large complex that went to make up charedi life. 1). Bais Yakov schools and the camps associated with these girl schools were run by married women , whose husbands came from these famous yeshivoth, and who frequently belonged to the women's branch of the Agudah in their youth. 2).The endless shiduchim between bais yakov girls and yeshiva guys created families whose children went on to go to Agudah style camps and the many yeshivoth and girl schools that were close to the Agudah. 3). The friendships that came from knowing people in the different yeshivoth created a pattern of being tied into a charedi world that was only reinforced by the social experiences in camp and the experiences of hanging out in the Agudah shuls and the like.Similarly for women. If you grew up in that world ,you didn’t know everyone, but if you were at all social you knew ‘’almost everyone’’ 4.) The Agudah, together with the yeshivoth, provided an ideology and a hashkafah (outlook) about the Jewish world. When bloggers say the Agudah's leadership ought to issue a rabbinical ruling saying it should disappear they don’t realize that it’s not a question of the particular organization, but of an outlook that is to the left of Satmar and to the right of Mizrachi. An entire generation of people was raised on a political outlook that is less pro-Zionist than the outlook of the religious Zionists. If the Agudah were to disappear, there would be another organization just like it to fulfill this political ideological function. 5.) It provided, together with the yeshivoth, a way of identifying with European Jewry both chassidish and litvish. If it weren’t for the double punch of the Agudah and these great yeshivoth, American kids would never have dreamt of carrying on the way of life destroyed in Europe by the Holocaust. It was a thread of continuity that was very important for everyone until today. The Agudah is one of the institutions that was and is constitutive of charedi life.

I want to close with an extended analogy. If we are old enough, we know firsthand there comes a time when parents need a child’s care. Many times elderly parents become angry and difficult to deal with. Barring certain extreme circumstances, when parents were good enough and cared for the child, there is an absolute obligation on the part of the child to care for the parents. There is no obligation to care for the parents in the exact way the parents want to be cared for, because sometimes the parents are totally unreasonable as to what they believe they need. But there is an absolute obligation to guarantee the parents are not in need and are properly attended to when they can no longer take care of themselves. We have this obligation because we have a debt of gratitude, which we must repay. They enabled us to become functioning adults, and we must now recognize the good they did for us, even when they are mean and impossible. Since the demands of filial gratitude can only be discharged through love, then even when it’s impossible for one reason or another to love an aging parent, we have to pretend to be the kind of person who can fulfill the duty, in the hope that acting as if we love, will help us, in due course, really love as we should. Sometimes by wearing a mask, we grow to become the mask

In the same way, people who grew up in the charedi way of life, and benefited from the culture, the yeshivoth, and, yes, the Agudah as well, have a debt of gratitude to these institutions even if they’ve fallen on hard times, even if they have become impossible. The Agudah wants us to believe that despite the corruption that seems to have grown around the Kolko affair, they are innocent, pure and their preachers worthy of telling us how to think. Many of us believe the Kolko affair shows that, when it comes to questions of courage and morality, some of the rabbis in the charedi world are more than a bit challenged. Nevertheless, it is the duty of people who have benefited from the Agudah, who have grown up in its shadow, to help it now that it is no longer exactly fit to take care of itself. And we have this obligation, even though part of us says that the Rabbi Wachsmans and Rabbi Solomons of the world are in no position to presume to preach to all of Judiasm. Charedim have a duty, I feel, to act as if the Agudah is the Agudah of old, and to treat it with the respect and love that it deserved in previous generations. At the same time, one cannot allow unreasonable demands to prevail. No rational person is going to allow Rabbi Solomon to decide how to handle predator cases, and no sane person should be reassured when he says, “Leave it to us.” It is obvious at least to the blogging community that charedi rabbis are generally ill suited to investigate other rabbis. I feel it is incumbent upon the charedi and in particular the Agudah baalibatim (laity) to take hold of the situation, put the proper controls into effect, stop the Agudah from joining the Catholic church and lobbying against the necessary legislation, and do whatever it takes to guarantee that the problem of predators attacking children is solved. And while they’re at it, they should take steps to solve the problem of strict Orthodox rabbis who hit on innocent women. These issues are too important to leave to the American gedolim, who actually are, at this point, shamed, paralyzed, and ineffective. Once this goal is accomplished the baalibatim should thank the gedolim for their guidance.

It is true that many lay people left the predator issues to be dealt with by the rabbis. The reason was they trusted the rabbis. The lay people believed the rabbis were of great integrity. Most every Jew believes his rabbi is a man of integrity and trustworthy. It might be true that Daas Torah has something to do with the trust, but it certainly was not totally responsible. Charedim are very close to their rabbis, idealize them naturally, and believe the rabbis seek their good.


At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Aguda has become much more irrelevant. The only people I know who attend the convention (other than bloggers) are elderly folk who go for old times sake ("my father was so active in the Agudah, how could I not go"). It's been at least two decades if not three that the Aguda, as an organization, was functioning to unify american strict orthodox. You may be right that they are aging parents, but in many people's minds, the organization is basically already buried, and the convention functions as a yahrtzeit.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I don’t quite agree. The Kolko affair is in some ways an indictment of a network of connections and buddy system going back many years. I don’t feel comfortable or competent going through the exercise name by name but if you know your way about, work it out for yourself. With respect to YTT ask how are these people connected, where did they go to school, etc. You would be surprised to see how everyone is geknipt und gebinden one way or other. I am surprised there is so little investigative reporting. The ties that bind people exists today.

I once read the Nodeh Beyehudah was connected by marriage and blood to over half of the rabbis of towns in Poland. Today is not so different.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That part is of course true, but what does that have to do with the Agudah qua organization?

At 12:56 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

1.The Agudah is being attacked as a co-conspirator and bloggers are calling for massive resignations .I disagree. My solution is for rich respected Agudah askanim to step in, force the administration to appoint a blue ribbon panel of non rabbinical outsiders and do what needs to be done. Then we can all go back to normal. Individual rabbis will not step in. The Agudah provides the ideological cover to bring about change. 2. MO people believe the Kolko affair and the way it was handled by the Agudah is proof that daas torah views are all mistaken. I feel that it’s more of a corruption –network problem, and the Agudah/Monsey connections are central. 3. Many bloggers feel the daas torah view is the cause of the parent’s silence. I believe it is more of a bullying/threatening thug problem. One ought to look at the role of shiduchim as leverage. That is why we need RICH baalabatim to clean this up, preferably Agudah members.4. People who are attacking the Agudah are attacking the whole way of life that has come out of the matrix of the yeshiva-Agudah connections I described. The hysteria, the ranting is drawing people who have other issues to pile on. There are many people out there with all sorts of complaints, many valid that are using this tragedy to vent. Rage inevitably leads to more rage.5. I am not interested in brawling or lashon hara, so in general terms I conjecture UOJ is ALSO settling scores that go back to the 40’s in Williamsburg, and involve old Torah Vodaath issues. I sense there is more here than meets the eye, all the more reason to settle the predator issue.

Because of all this and more I wanted to give the issue a different perspective, hence my post. How many people actually go to conventions is immaterial. In some sense the entire community are UTJ supporters. The convention is admittedly a social event that allows for rabbinical networking.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AJ, what is your first-hand knowledge of any of your topics of discussion in this piece?

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was EJ! (is there an AJ?)

At 1:40 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

I really like the aging parent analogy. My parents are currently dealing with another aging parent who needs a lot of help, so the analogy really hits home.

At 2:03 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 1:23... I do not have first hand knowledge. I have a sense of empathy.If I would have first hand knowledge of everything I write about I would actually have to go out and do some serious research, collect specimens, etc. I am a blogger, not a naturalist. I use my imagination and I try to think my way through a situation.I used to do the same thing when I was interested in the Politburo in the fifties.

As I have said in my earlier post on the Agudah, I have read Der Yiddish Vort for many years, so I have a visual image of the players.I also read and chazered over every last word of

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

EJ I'm not disagreeing with any of the points. I'm trying to explain why I think none of this has happened, or is easy to make happen. There is no class of askanim influencing the aguda, they are identical with talmidim of various figures. The daas torah issue has little to do with trust - it's that at this point, people no longer understand that the laymen used to run the show, with minimal input from gedolim. Further, the gedolim in the past did do some agenda setting or at least vetoing and now there is even less lay influence - both the laity and the leadership take this for granted. One can yiftach b'doro k'shmuel b'doro all one likes, but the current leadership isn't the leadership of the past. Do you know any of them personally? There is also the strange situation that, in addition, nearly everyone nowadays identifies as yeshivaleit, and perceive Agudah as for baaleibatim. It's Lake Woebegon and there are no baaleibatim.
Between laity trained not to get involved and the Agudah genuinely not representing their interests, no one thinks of the Agudah as the organization that will take care of matters. (If they think anyone will take care of it, they think of individual figures, transcending the institution - not Rabbi X acting under the auspices of the Agudah, but Rabbi X as a person.)
The laity is not involved anymore and running the show, as they did in the past, because the laity actually believes that RMS is supposed to run the show, while simultaneously not believing the Aguda is for the likes of them.
What you are suggesting is what would have happened naturally in the past, but it's not been happening for these reasons.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dos yiddishe vort, it was called. I see you didn't chazer that.

At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

It is ironic but during the Lanner affair, many Agudists could be heard saying that such an affair could never happen in their offices, etc because of the issur yichud. The allegations so far as to Kolko challenge that statement.

More importantly, perhaps the Agudah will recognize that some cheshbon hanefesh is warranted as opposed to speakers who demean other Torah Jews and Gdolim who are not affiliated with Agudah. One need not play shell or guessing games or even ask Agudah what R Wachsman's intent was in his description of Gdolim who were viewed as such because their views were popular years ago or in his view that Talmud Torah begins and ends with the purchase of Gadol cards, as opposed to trying to understand the words of the Mishnah, Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim. R E Wachsman's comments were aimed at one Gadol only-namely RYBS.The notion that some sort of "official recognition" of either RIETS or MO is required ala Nixon going to China strikes me as only justifiable in a world that views itself as the center of the Torah universe, when there are many facts on the ground that plainly contradict that claim. if anything is true, recent pictures of RYSE and RHS prove that real Gdolim talk Torah to each other-regardless of their respective points of origin. Perhaps, when Agudah and its supporters learn that mutual appreciation , as opposed to approval, of other Torah Jews and Gdolim might aid Agudah in its goal and lead to a real Kiddush HaShem, as opposed to the Chillul HShem that remarks such as R Wachsman's caused.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous2:22…’Do you know any of them personally?’ Do I know Pres. Bush personally? No, but when he got into deep trouble in Iraq he appointed a commission to tell him to do the opposite of what he did. I know, in the sense of feeling it almost palpably Avi Shafran and Zwibel need a way to come down from the position they find themselves. Reading DOS Yiddish Vort,(my thanks to anonymous for his generous tuition) I see there are Agudah people like George Klein, George Weinberger, Dr. Diamond. I believe Jack Rajchenbach is president of Torah Umesorah and a name that comes to mind. If you press me, and it would be unkind, I will get out of my chair, open up my Schottenstein Talmud and have another 25 names. I read, and again I do not know firsthand the Novominsker Rebbe refused to get involved because it is a Flatbush issue and he lives in Borough Park. If true, how can anyone believe an individual rav will get involved? We are not talking of rallying some young, recent graduate of Lakewood, who perceives himself as one of the 10 most important people he knows. There are major, serious, rich people in the larger community, they are big donors to many mosdos, they see what’s is an evil wind blowing through the charedi world...and they should take hold and deal with this. It is not brain surgery to institute basic communal takonos. They must do for the rabbis what the rabbis cannot do for themselves, maizeh taam shyiya.

What am I saying that is so shocking or outdated?

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous conventioner said...


What makes you think that RW was referring to RYBS? He said 60-70 years ago.

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous othersideofthestory said...

This was posted on another blog.

I've been noticing a trend of many bloggers lately to criticize Agudah for its recent (idiotic) statement regarding the Kolko affair. While I agree that Rabbi Shafran should have employed a bit more diplomacy regarding the situation, I've been disturbed by the recent and violent antipathy towards the organization. This email is not only going to be sent to you, although I suspect that you might be the most receptive.

While it is valid to criticize a reaction from the Agudah, I'm somewhat surprised by the extent of the criticism. For example, in your post, you call for the resignation of the heads of the organization, and make no move to defend the Agudah from the posters that comment. One of the commenters remarked that this signals the spiralling end of the Agudah. Another commenter rallied for an end to all authority. The general tone of the comments has been either a rabid hatred of the Agudah, or a strange defense of the Agudah that somehow, wrongly, parlayed itself into a defense of Kolko.

You know why I defend the Agudah? Not because I grew up with its presence in my home. Not because I admire all rabbinic authority without proper introspection. But because the Agudah has done a tremendous amount of good for Jews (and non-Jews!) alike, especially within the NY area. You've got all the organizations that are off-shoots of the Agudah. COPE, and A Time, and a myriad of others that I cannot even mention here. But the reason I love the Agudah most of all is because it is a political force to be reckoned with. And perhaps you don't understand how important it is for Jews to have clout in the political arena. I do, and I'm suffering the consequence of living in an area without the Agudah's influence.

Without going into my personal details, I know of several organizations that are desperately trying to help families that have special needs. Things that NY takes for granted, such as Ohel, P'tach, HASC, Jewish Group Homes for the impaired, live in aides for the elderly, etc, are simply not available anywhere else, or not available in such magnitude. There is nearly NOTHING available for Midwesterners or those on the West Coast, and if there is, it's overpopulated and overwhelmed, and incredibly expensive. How is this possible? Partly because of the Agudah. Because the Agudah has fought legislature and obtained funding from the government to help people. And when there is no help, when communities have to go to the same well over and over again to help people in dire need, the wells dry up or become weary. Schools cannot stay open. Homes refuse entry. The elderly suffer in nursing homes.

Children - the same children that your readers say should come first before anything else - are suffering in unimaginable ways. And in NY, there is relief for these children. Because the Agudah has had a hand in fighting for legislature to be passed so that special needs can be addressed in the private schools, paid for by the government. And so that the elderly can have in-home nurses, instead of being placed in a nursing home. The Agudah has had its hand in all that. And more.

The Agudah has fought the courts so that they would be required to honor a ruling made by the local Bais Din, and won. In doing so, they have asked that the courts respect rulings by religious institutions. You may not agree with that, but in doing so, the Agudah has helped make the United States a friendly place for Jews to live.

When people are trying to fight the public school system elsewhere in the country, which has stolen the rightful services for special needs children and have placed it in the hands of lawyers and administrators to deny the right to proper education, they go to . . . the Agudah. They are trying to change legislature, and you need the Agudah, as a political body, to do it.

I'm not asking you to retract your criticisms of Rabbi Shafran. I'm asking you to retract your antipathy against the Agudah. You are lucky that you do not need it. The rest of us do. Please defend it.

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What am I saying that is so shocking or outdated?"

I don't think it's shocking, and I don't think it's wrong, and I don't think it should be outdated. But J Reichenbach for one is not a sole actor, he is not going to take matters into his own hands. I hope you are right that some will.
When I asked if you knew them personally, it was only because I'd backspaced through some comments about the leadership that were a little too specific. I don't think any of them are bad people, but I think some of the names you think of are hopelessly out of their depth, and at the same time, there has never been such certainty that they should be running things in their minds and in the minds of their followers. Still, I hope eventually something like what you propose will happen. I note that Pres Bush appears to be following only the recommendations of the commission that he always intended to follow.

At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't view the kolko affair as a failure of the Aguda per se notwithstanding whatever foolish remarks were made at the recent convention. It's much more a failing of the rabbinic establishment and the "system" in general. I'm not certain that the issue is best addressed by the aguda either but there doesn't appear to be any other institution capable or willing to address it, so it might come to that by default

At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judging by the attendance at the Midwest Agudah conventions, the Agudah seems more popular and relevant than ever before. (Maybe Chicago is behind the times) The convetion is attended by a large cross section of the Orthodox community including many under thirty. The topics are relevant to issues facing all segments of Orthodoxy (funding for day schools, kids at risk) as well as particularistic Agudah type issues.
The Agudah is particularly sensitive to bad press from incidents like the Kolko affair if for no other reason than it imunes kavod haTorah and Chachameha, an ideal which the Agudah holds high. They will (probably behind closed doors) consult among their gedolim to decide "where they erred" and what should be policy to avoid future errors. They know that in today's world cover ups and sweeping under the carpet won't fly. The Agudah may be proactive in its "askanus" and reactive here but i'm certain they won't be inactive.

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate your sensitivity and your respect for the Agudah but the issue here is not fixing some problems that are peripheral to the organization. Rather the issue is about the essence of the oraganization. Please bear with me while I tell two unrelated tales that explain where I'm coming from.

I live in a town where the local Agudah runs a motzaei shabbos father-son program. The program consists of learning followed by a guest storyteller. I am not affiliated with the Agudah but I used to take my son because I appreciated the value of this Agudah program.

The first year that I took my son there, The rabbi of the Agudah spoke on the last week. I clearly remember his parting words. "This is what the Agudas Yisroel is all about. You follow the gedolim even when you think they are wrong."

The following year one of the motzaei shabbos storytellers was a member of the Agudah who was a known pedophile and sexual predator. This man had abused several of my friends when I attended a local elementary school. I did not witness the abuse first hand, but when in 6th and 7th grade more than one friend independently told me that the same man committed unthinkable acts my tendency was, and still is, to believe them.

When the abuse became known to the school the man was dismissed from his position. On at least one occasion that I know of he succeded in getting another job which gave him access to children. He was placed in that position by a well-meaning respected rov in the community.

Here's the issue. The entire premise of the Agudah is that we always follow the rabbonim even when we think they're wrong. But to fight this problem we can't follow the rabbonim. We are left to choose. Do we stay true to the Agudah and abandon what we know to be common sense moral and ethical course or do we abandon the essential Agudah philosophy and follow what we know to be yashar ve tov.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

steve brizel...As much as I sympathize and in fact agree with many of the points you make, it is not the problem the Agudah rank and file are facing today. Their problem is exemplified in the last paragraph of anonymous 8:15. With respect for your sincere devotion to the ideals of Orthodoxy and Torah, I question whether now is exactly the time to play gotcha or to settle old scores.I would think thoughtful charedim have other more pressing issues about the Agudah and may not be prepared to be as open as you would like to your criticism.

anonymous 8:15...change will only come when the Agudah members feel PROUD enough of their organization and their way of life to stand up and fight to make it whole. It is very difficult to both have amunas chachawmim AND see the faults of these very same chachawmim.

The ability to hold two ideas like this together is not different from loving and respecting a parent who looked perfect and omniscient and now that one is older and wiser is seen as being more human, with some flaws and frailties. We know if the de-idealization happens very quickly it becomes traumatic. Growing up is the slow recognition who your parents really are, their strengths, their weaknesses. I discussed a much easier situation when I said over the Kohut understanding of wisdom in my post on narcissism. (10/22). For charedim, gedolim are like parents... and unlike therapists, there is no termination of the relationship.

My post was an attempt to solve your to keep the philosophy of the Agudah going despite its limitations in some instances.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

I am not interested in settling old scores, but I do believe that Evanston-I admire much , if not all of the work of Agudah as set forth by a previous poster BUT R E Wachsman's drasha did not serve to advance mutual appreciation between the Charedi and non Charedi worlds, which is a goal that we all need to work on.

Conventioner-IMo, it is a davar pashut uborur meod that R E Wachsman was talking about RYBS as opposed to any other Gadol who was a contemporary of RYBS. Just ask yourseflf-was the target a member of the Moetzes?!

At 9:05 PM, Anonymous S. G. said...

"American kids would never have dreamt of carrying on the way of life destroyed in Europe by the Holocaust."

THis is not only not true but completely innnacurate. It is only a fable created after the Holocauset. Remember the enlightment? I suggest you do some research on teh topic before your next posting on this issue.


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