(Article originally written By Baruch Sherbet for the Jewish Voice, cut and edited for convenience of our blog readers, adding some quotes i remember). In an emotionally stirring event that served as the unquestionable highlight of this year’s 90th Convention of Agudath Israel of America, a crowd of approximately one thousand members and supporters filled the main ballroom of the Hilton East Brunswick in New Jersey this past Motzei Shabbos for a Centennial Banquet, where they heard gedolei Yisroel recount the glorious history of Torah Jewry’s central organization from its founding in Katowice in Poland in 1912 to its thriving present in the United States and worldwide.
The banquet’s narrator, veteran Agudath Israel Board Member Yechiel Benzion Fishoff, set the stage for the evening by entrancing the audience with his vivid depictions of the organization’s crucial work for authentic Judaism over the past century. “With all of the secular philosophies – socialism, Communism, the haskalah movement – that were taking yidden in Europe away from frumkeit at that time,” Mr. Fishoff stated, “Agudath Israel literally gave the neshomo back to Klal Yisroel.”
Mr. Fishoff pointed out that the organization grew from just one office in New York to an active national movement with a current roster of offices in 26 states. “Agudath Israel can be compared to Avrohom Avinu,” he said, “about whom the posuk says ‘bah bayamim’ – he came with his days, which means he gained new strength and vigor in his advanced age.”
Rav Yosef Harari Raful, Rosh Yeshivat Ateret Torah, began his comments by noting that Agudath Israel plays such a crucial role in the ongoing struggle to protect the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel from the onslaughts against its religious rights by the secular Israeli government. Agudath Israel "historically fought against the Israeli government to uphold chinuch, Shabbat, kashrut – but today’s struggle is different; the secular Zionists – and the world – have no real values at all," Chacham Raful said adding emotionally, “What would we have today in Eretz Yisroel without Agudath Israel?”
In another interlude between the evening’s inspirational speeches, the crowd was treated to a powerful video entitled “The Heritage of Katowice,” which utilized archival footage, rare documents and photos, and contemporary narration to trace the arc of Agudath Israel’s history and outline its myriad accomplishments. Images of the aforementioned Mike Tress and Rabbi Sherer flashed on the large screens, accompanied by the dramatic sounds of their voices rallying Jews from all over to display their fidelity to gedolei Yisroel and the organization that carries out the sages’ dictates.
Evoking JFK, Rabbi Menachem Lubinsky plead: "Ask not what Agudah can do for you, ask what you can do for the Agudah."
Despite the lateness of the hour, the packed crowd listened attentively as Nathan Lewin, a leading attorney whose career has been highlighted by successful legal advocacy for the religious rights of American Jewry, described in dramatic detail his many years of professional activity. In particular, Mr. Lewin devoted part of his presentation to stressing the importance of fighting for wider governmental acceptance of Shabbos observance by Orthodox Jews. “After beginning to work as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall,” he recounted with some humor, “I finally had to tell him that – not only could I not work late on Fridays and on Saturdays because of my keeping of Shabbos, I needed to take off many days from work due to the upcoming fall season of Yomim Tovim. Justice Marshall replied to me, ‘Don’t worry, I know all about the rules of Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos. You see, I was a Shabbos goy when I lived years ago in the Jewish section of Baltimore.’“ Noting that Justice Marshall was a member of the Supreme Court when the famed Orthodox lawyer argued in front of it for the legal right of an Orthodox United States Air Force chaplain to wear his yarmulke on the job, Mr. Lewin regaled the audience at the Centennial Banquet with his memories of how someone involved with the case designed a military-style green camouflage yarmulke that would hopefully be permitted for a Jewish military chaplain to wear. The crowd laughed uproariously as Mr. Lewin – holding up the actual camouflage yarmulke for all to see – told of the time Justice William Brennan, another sitting Supreme Court member at the time, put on the religious head covering while in his office and forgot to remove it at the end of the workday. When Brennan’s wife finally asked him at home why he was wearing the yarmulke, the Justice answered, “It just felt so comfortable I forgot to take it off!”
Rabbi Aharon Dovid Dunner, Dayan of Hisachdus Hakehillos in London, delivered an address filled with passion and purpose. “In 1951, I was in Camp Agudah in England,” he said, “and I asked a guest speaker, ‘Who was the first Agudist?” and he replied, ‘Moshe Rabbeinu.’ The message is that every Jew should be involved with Agudath Israel so that we can defend our religious rights.”
Rabbi Dunner strongly emphasized that the organization’s founding sages – the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes – based their entire lives on speaking and behaving in accordance with absolute truth. “Agudath Israel was founded on the truth – on emes,” he intoned. In keeping with that concept, Rabbi Dunner concluded the evening by urging Torah-loyal Jews to maintain their religious integrity at all times as a means of ensuring that governments would respect our beliefs and our heartfelt desire to maintain total mitzvah observance.
Not meaning to harm anyone, but something our politicians should take in count, Harav Dunner explained that a Politician is Sheker (lies), since the word Politika is not mentioned in Tenach (Bible); An Askan, however, he said, is Emes (truth).