Jews attend Agudah conventions for many reasons – to hear words of Torah and hadracha from gedolim and rabbonim, to participate in the idea-incubators that are the convention roundtable discussions and other sessions, to see old friends from distant places, to enjoy a special atmosphere and an even more special Shabbos.
But they don’t come to get some rest.
With as packed a schedule as an Agudah convention offers, it is hard for participants to not take advantage of all one can handle, and then some. At Agudath Israel of America’s recent 87th national convention, which took place for the first time at the East Brunswick, New Jersey Hilton, that was most evident. After a compelling and uplifting Moztoei Shabbos plenary session that went until near midnight, for example, convention guests enjoyed Melaveh Malka and then hours of z’miros with Abish Brodt. Shacharis Sunday morning was at 7:00, Daf Yomi at 8:00, the Yarchei Kallah drosho by Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dovid Schustal at 9:30 (and a shiur for women from noted mechaneches Mrs. Shira Smiles at 9:15).
Then it was time for the convention’s Sunday morning closing plenary session. The crowd must have been tired, but from its numbers and enthusiasm, it didn’t seem so.
The Sunday session focused on two especially urgent concerns.
The first of the two sessions, “Sheep and Wolves: The Uneasy Jewish Presence in an Increasingly Hostile World” took a hard look at Klal Yisroel’s perilous position bein ho’amim through the lens of frightening current events, here and around the world. The presenters were Mr. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Moishe Zvi Reicher, Professor, University of Pennsylvania Law School and former Agudath Israel World Organization (AIWO) Director of International Affairs.
Mr. Hoenlein began by quoting Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky on the Haggada’s statement that “in each and every generation there are those who arise to destroy us.”
“Is there no generation lacking such attacks on Jews?” Rav Yaakov asked. He answered that the next line in the Haggada explains: “Go out and see what Lavan the Arami wanted to do to Yaakov…” While Yaakov Ovinu was raising his family in relative peace, the Rosh HaYeshiva explained, “Lavan was plotting to “uproot him entirely.” So it is, said Mr. Hoenlein, throughout Jewish history, even in the best of times “we always have to be aware that there are those who are plotting.”
And today, he continued, the plotters are not hidden at all. Every Jew, he said, has to recognize the nature of the threat from Iran – and how Israel as a state is but a “stand in” for the Jewish people as a whole. What is more, Mr. Hoenlein continued, “globalization” is “not only about economics” but about communication, too, and so hatred has an unprecedented new vehicle for its spread. The enemies of Jews today, he said, are focused on “three D’s” – “Deligitimize, Demonize and Destroy.”
Mr. Hoenlein went on to catalogue a number of examples of that focus, contending in the end that, despite the terrible threats we face as a people, “if we use the threats of our enemies to unite, it will be a bracha.”
Professor Reicher’s overview of current events at the United Nations paralleled Mr. Hoenlein’s of the geopolitical scene. The former AIWO representative to the UN noted the “bitter irony” of how the human rights movement, which was catalyzed by the Holocaust, has been “turned against the victims of the Holocaust in an ugly manner.”
Not only do human rights groups view Israel with an intensely jaundiced eye, Professor Reicher explained, the body within the UN dedicated to human rights, the Human Rights Council (HRC), has passed more resolutions condemning her than about all other countries in the world combined.
Professor Reicher went on to speak of the infamous “Goldstone Report,” which, he noted, emerged from a mission granted by a HRC resolution that was predicated on Israel’s guilt regarding human rights violations and “aggression” – and which, of course, “found” its assumption to be true. Professor Reicher recounted the ludicrously flawed “evidence” on which the report reached its conclusions.
He also addressed the hatred for Israel that has emerged from established institutions and educated classes. Self defense, he explained, is a basic human instinct and is enshrined by the UN Charter as an “inherent right.” Yet responding to 12,000 missiles aimed at Israel by Hamas in Gaza is somehow regarded as aggression, not self defense. And 30 lawyers could, in a letter to a British newspaper, dismiss the missile attacks as “insufficient cause” for the Israeli incursion into Gaza to put an end to them.
Yitzchok Fuchs, Vice President, Goldman Sachs chaired the “Sheep and Wolves” session.
The second half of the Sunday morning session at the convention addressed the devastating impact of substance abuse and other kinds of addiction on individuals, families and the Orthodox community. Entitled, “We are Not Immune: Facing Up to the Reality of Substance Abuse and Compulsive Behaviors,” it featured Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski MD, the founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center and an internationally renowned expert in treating addictions; and Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rav, Agudath Israel of Madison.
Before the speakers addressed the crowd, though, excerpts of a video “L’Chaim?”, produced by the Yehuda Mond Foundation, poignantly introduced the topic with a first person account of a descent into alcohol abuse and the wrenching story of a young man – in whose name and memory his parents and family created the foundation that produced the video, whose alcohol use led him to his death, R”l. The audience was visibly and deeply moved, and cd’s of the video, left on the seats, quickly disappeared into pockets and bags.
Rabbi Reisman was first to speak and spoke about the role of the rov – a “general practitioner” – he said in matters like addictions. It is important, he contended, that rabbonim recognize the medical nature of addictions and consult with those who have extensive clinical experience with the various factors that pertain to addiction, and the treatments available for them.
Utilizing a Midrash that characterizes Dovid HaMelech as contending that chochma resides in the head and Shlomo HaMelech as saying it is located in the heart, Rabbi Reisman explained the roles of the intellect and emotions in life, and in psychological imbalances like addiction. He asserted that a true addict cannot be reasoned with, and cannot, in fact, really be “cured” in a definitive, final way. The only solution, such as it is, to addiction, Rabbi Reisman said, is “and entire reset of his mehalech hachaim, of the way he thinks.”
Rabbi Reisman also noted the oddity of it being Dovid HaMelech who saw chochma in the head, as he was the “heart” of Klal Yisroel and, on the contrary, Shlomo HaMelech – the wisest of all men – finding chochma in the heart. The solution to that puzzle, said Rabbi Reisman, lies in the times in which Dovid lived – times of turmoil, when the king went “from crisis to crisis.” That is a lesson to us, the speaker said, that at times of crisis it is the essence of wisdom to assess things intellectually and make the rational choices we must. And being confronted with addiction is such a time.
Rabbi Reisman went on to decry the drinking of schnapps, particularly by young men, and characterized it as “not a Yiddishe zach.” He also had words for internet users, cautioning them to immediately “click off” pop-up ads and the like that seek to take the user to articles or sites he should not be seeing – to treat the offerings no differently from nonkosher food one is offered; made the case for ensuring that our children have a connection to a rov or rebbe to whom they can turn for life advice; and asserted that “it would be a healthy thing” for yeshivos to offer their talmidim – “especially the masmidim” – outlets for physical exercise, something he contended is important for not only their physical but mental wellbeing.
The morning’s final speaker was Dr. Twerski, who began his remarks by addressing smoking, which he said has been halachically prohibited by most Gedolim. He had strong words for those who smoke despite being in positions of influence over young people.
Then he moved on to drinking, and referenced an idea from the Sfas Emes, who asked how Noach, who was “a righteous man” and surely knew his tolerance of alcohol, could have misjudged and become drunk after leaving the teiva. Said the Sfas Emes, Noach knew only the pre-Flood world, but the world had changed. “We were raised in an old world,” said Dr. Twerski. The world we live in, he said “changes too, every second, every hour.” The environment in which children are growing up today “would have unimaginable years ago.” The ubiquity of the internet and hand-held devices that can bring terrible ideas and images in an instant, he noted sadly, presents a danger to us all. Dr. Twerski said he had seen cases of internet addiction in “the most choshuveh mishpachos.”
“Gambling, alcohol, drug addiction – these are all things in which a person can lose control,” the speaker noted. “And an addict doesn’t think logically.” Which is why addicts cannot be reasoned with – or even treated, Rabbi Twerski asserted, by any mental health professional. Only a specialist in addiction, he said, can undertake the task of guiding an addict to reform.
And that process, he said, does not end with the end of the addict’s indulgence of his addiction. That is, rather, on the beginning. “We have a term for an alcoholic who has stopped drinking: a ‘dry drunk.”
Only a “major personality overhaul” can have truly long-term good effects. That reflects what the Rambam says about a baal teshuva, said Dr. Twerski, that the person who truly repents has changed essentially, that he is, in the Rambam’s words, “no longer the same person.”
Dr. Twerski endorsed the idea of “12 step programs,” saying “they work” and denying that they need to have a Christian component. Each of the steps they entail, he said, “in in Chazal.”
The speaker also stressed the need to know not only “what to do but what not to do,” noting that “rachmonus can be destructive” in the context of dealing with an addict.
Dr. Twerski also bemoaned the lack of a facility for the treatment of addicts in the frum community, and spoke strongly against drinking to intoxication – and, in particular, offering young people alcohol – on Purim.
Dr. Yosef Rosenshein, founder of P’Tach, chaired the session.
The Sunday morning session might have been expected to leave the audience depressed, but, while the two topics addressed certainly raised alarms, the “talk” in the halls afterward was upbeat. People seemed to understand that the first step of dealing with problems is better understanding them. And that, in fact, is one of the main reasons for attending an Agudah convention.
(YWN Desk – NYC)