The New York Hilton ballroom was packed Sunday night, May 9 with Orthodox Jews of diverse stripes, local and federal government officials, rabbonim and roshei yeshivos, as Agudath Israel of America held its 88th annual dinner. Two issues dominated the evening: the perception that the United States government is unduly pressuring Israel and the deeply disturbing prosecutions of Sholom Rubashkin.
After greetings were extended by Agudath Israel executive director Rabbi Labish Becker, a kapitel of Tehillim was recited by the crowd, led by Rabbi Yosef Frankel, the Vyelopoler Rebbe, member of the Nesius of Agudas Yisroel.
The evening’s chairman, Howard Tzvi Friedman, a president emeritus of AIPAC and a respected member of the Baltimore Jewish community, then introduced Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Rosh Agudas Yisroel, the Novominsker Rebbe.
After welcoming the guests in Yiddish, he spoke in English, to ensure, he said, that the important issues he intended to address would be comprehended by all.
The first of those issues was how “the great majority of Jews in America… is deeply concerned with our government’s attitudes and positions” regarding security issues affecting Israel. “Despite the reassurances,” he continued, referring to the Obama administration’s insistence that there has been no change in the U.S-Israel relationship, “there is a definite sense… that this administration has, to a certain degree, shifted gears, and is not responding adequately to the mortal threats that our people face, from Iran and from the other wolves who are out to decimate the Land of Israel and Jews everywhere.”
Our eyes, the Rebbe declared, are trained on our Father in heaven, Who will not abandon His people. “But we hope,” he continued, “that the President understands that the hard line he seems to be taking is detrimental and dangerous, not only to the safety of the Holy Land but has become a tool in the hands of those who pursue terrorism and violence, who seek to destroy peace and the wellbeing of the entire civilized world.”
Moving to other things, Rabbi Perlow noted that the observant community faces challenges “from within and without.” Outside of our universe, he explained, in Israel there exists a powerful secular force that cannot abide the renaissance of Torah in our day” and seek to undermine the religious community in the Holy Land.
Economic pressures, the Rebbe continued, are creating great stress both in Eretz Yisroel and here in America. And they take a toll not only on individuals but on mosdos haTorah, he said. “Our mosdos,” he declared, “cannot be allowed to suffer, Rabbaim and moros to not be paid for months on end.
“The chinuch of our children… must receive the priority in our thinking it deserves.”
Acknowledging the powerful response of the community in helping the needy individuals among us, the Rebbe exhorted his listeners to realize that our mosdos “cannot be on the back burner.”
The Rebbe also focused on the threat from within inherent in attempts to dishonor our mesorah, fueled by things like “feminism and the trappings of modernity”; and on the free-for-all of the internet and blogs that declare “open season on the norms of kedushah and mesorah and derech eretz…”
From there, Rabbi Perlow extolled the community for its coming together and efforts on behalf of embattled former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
Rabbi Perlow’s final words of the evening concerned the need to “transmit the perspective of Yiddishkeit” to the younger generation, in particular the proper understanding of “the recent and tragic past” of our people, the years of the Second World War; and to inspire our young with the message that “netzach Yisroel lo yishaker” – “the eternity of Yisroel cannot be undermined.”
In that connection, the Rebbe singled out Project Witness, one of the evening’s honorees, calling the project, which makes available a wealth of serious and thought-provoking educational material about the Holocaust to students and the public alike , “a major contribution” to the effort.
The next address of the evening was delivered by Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel. His sights were first trained on the Rubashkin case.
Making clear from the start that it is imperative to take steps to ensure that the law of the land is respected by members of the Orthodox community – and noting Agudath Israel’s “numerous concrete steps” of late, specifically a series of dina d’malchusa dina symposia in the New York areas and across the country, “to bring about improvements in this area” – the Agudath Israel leader asserted that “distancing ourselves from criminal activity does not mean distancing ourselves from the plight of a precious member of Klal Yisroel… who has been pursued by the government in this particular case with a zealousness that borders on vindictiveness, with a harshness that borders on viciousness.”
After cataloguing some of the outrages in the Rubashkin saga – which would be covered in even more detail by Mr. Cook later in the program – Rabbi Zwiebel noted how no less than seven former Attorneys General of the United States, representing a broad spectrum of political views, “wrote a letter to the judge expressing their horror at the prospect that Sholom Rubashkin would be sentenced to life in prison.”
“If they can speak out,” intoned Rabbi Zwiebel, “can’t we? Shouldn’t we? Mustn’t we?”
The Agudah executive vice president lamented that “One gets the sense that things are changing, in a dangerous direction. Even here in this benevolent malchus shel chesed, dark clouds are beginning to hover on the horizon.” And he extended that observation to U.S.-Israel relations.
“When our governmental leaders,” he observed, “at the highest levels, make an international incident out of a mid-level bureaucratic approval of plans to proceed with building housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an almost exclusively Charedi stronghold, there’s something troubling afoot.”
And with that Rabbi Zwiebel introduced Mr. Cook, who, he said, along with the expert law team of Nat and Aliza Lewin, have done so much for Mr. Rubashkin. Mr. Cook, said Rabbi Zwiebel, has “displayed remarkable sensitivity to the special nature of this case and the needs of a Chassidic Jew caught up in a merciless criminal prosecution.”
Taking the podium and surveying the large crowd, Mr. Cook, a partner in the prominent Iowa firm Grefe and Sidney and a past Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, said it was “an honor to experience firsthand the strength and determination of the Orthodox community.” Then, after describing Mr. Rubashkin, his family and his good works in the community of Postville, the Iowa attorney presented a timeline of the case from its inception two years ago. And he made a powerful case for the contention that, repeatedly and incomprehensibly, Mr. Rubashkin seems to have been treated with undue harshness.
>From the unprecedented 600-federal-agents and Black Hawk helicopter raid on Agriprocessors in 2008 (despite Mr. Rubashkin’s declared willingness beforehand to work with authorities – a plea that was ignored) to the nature of the crime of which he was convicted – essentially receiving (and repaying) loans for which he did not qualify to an indefensible denial of bail while awaiting sentencing (despite his willingness to remain in effect under monitored house arrest) – at seemingly every turn, said Mr. Cook, Mr. Rubashkin has faced indignities and outrages that are unheard of in cases of first time white-collar offenders. The Iowa attorney also noted the unprecedented fact of the former Attorneys General letter expressing dismay at the treatment of Mr. Rubashkin.
Mr. Cook was clearly not merely outlining a case, as before a jury. His personal strong feelings about Mr. Rubashkin and the way he has been treated were clearly evident on his face and in his words. And when he completed his address, the crowd rose as one to its feet, and remained in a prolonged standing ovation in appreciation of the visitor’s efforts on behalf of one of their brothers.
For mobile devices only, click HERE for Part 1.
For mobile devices only, click HERE for Part 2.
Greetings were extended to the gathering by New York Senator Charles E. Schumer and Congressman Anthony Weiner.
The dinner also saw the bestowal of a number of awards on worthy members of the community.
Askonim who received major awards at the dinner were: Jacob (Yaty) Weinreb, a community pillar, who received The Rabbi Moshe Sherer Memorial Award for lifelong devotion to Klal Yisroel; Rabbi Chaim Aaron Weinberg, menahel of Yeshivat Ateret Torah, who was presented with the Hagaon Rav Aharon Kotler Memorial Award for distinguished service to Torah; and Eric Stern, Esq., an attorney at Sack & Sack, who received the Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim Memorial Award for distinguished service to Agudath Israel. The Reb Elimelech Tress Memorial Award for the preservation of the legacy of the She’aris Hapleitah was presented to “Project Witness,” the organization under the leadership of Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein dedicated to Holocaust education and awareness.
Avodas Hakodesh honorees, introduced by Agudath Israel executive vice president for finance and administration Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, were: Rabbi Daniel Baumann, Yitzchok Eckstein, Yisroel Golding and Shimon Katz. Baruch Rabinowitz received the Wolf Friedman Young Leadership Award.
A special video in tribute to the late and beloved Agudath Israel askan Reb Chaskel Besser was also presented at the dinner, bringing smiles and tears to many.
Considering the painful issues that were foci of the speakers at the Agudah dinner, it could hardly be expected that guests would leave in a happy state. But, as one attendee put it, “It is reassuring to know that our Torah leadership is engaged with the important issues of the day, but providing their perspectives and guidance.” It was a sentiment clearly shared by many at the gathering.