Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Agudah Watching

The Agudath Israel of America's annual Convention this past Thanksgiving weekend has provided much grist for the mill [here, here and here, for example]. Blogwise, I have held my fire on it, but that does not mean that I have not been following it with great interest. [For the uninitiated, the Agudath Israel is an "umbrella group" advocating the interests of the more insular Jewish factions in America.].

The main reason I did not attend the Convention myself is that the extended Thanksgiving weekend has become a time for my family to travel and visit our relatives and friends. The combination of geography and our family priorities do not facilitate my personal attendance.

But because I was not there personally, I must digest and assimilate second-hand information, and I want to tap diverse sources for that info, including but not limited to blogs, personal accounts of friends, clients and acquaintances who were there, and, of course, the newsrags. In the latter regard, the 2 December 2009 copy of Hamodia, and the 4 December 2009 copy of Yated Ne'eman, which take a circuitous route through many hands before coming into mine, reached me a bit earlier than what has been the norm for the past few months. Sure enough, each covered the Convention.

As discussed in several postings this past summer [15 July 2001, 31 July 2009, 13 August 2009, and, more to the point, 2 August 2009], the Agudath Israel is a troubled organization now in a state of flux. Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, having recently been elevated to the position of Agudath Israel's Executive Vice President, now needs to kick butt and make some people uncomfortable. This he purported to do at the Convention, if only by the mere passing mention of the problems of domestic violence and sexual abuse in his plenary speech. This is a milestone for Agudath Israel; formerly, those issues were swept under the rug and their seriousness if not existence within the religious Jewish community denied.

The 2 December 2009 Hamodia's treatment of the Convention is interesting. Firstly, there is an editorial on page D37 entitled "Crisis in our Community: Under the Rug? Denial? Or Confrontation and Solution." This editorial reveals that, upon advice of the ranking rabbinical sages, Hamodia will "begin to address these topics, albeit in a sensitive and appropriate way." This, of course, is a tacit admission that Hamodia has heretofore taken pains to not address domestic violence and sexual abuse. And into the editorial's disclosure that Hamodia's challenge is "to balance the need to educate about what to beware of against the danger of enlightening the youth about things they should never know" one can read that its coverage will seldom if at all be front-page.

Indeed, elsewhere in the 2 December 2009 edition, the Convention was extensively covered, but mostly on the financial improprieties issues. The rabbis invariably are less uncomfortable and embarrassed over monetary scandals than sexual ones.

As for Yated Ne'eman, its coverage of the Convention was not as extensive as that of Hamodia, neither in verbiage nor photographs. Yated's references to the sexual abuse and domestic violence was indirect at best, a situation into which I do not read too much because (A) Yated's comparatively short article had to cover other matters from the Convention; and (B) it was Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the Editor of Yated Ne'eman, who first broke ground by mentioning in a printed editorial the taboo subjects nobody wishes to discuss.

In my little Long Island community, we are one of a small group of families that comprise our congregation [I am uncomfortable using the word "Orthodox" to label Jews, but that is how our congregation is usually labeled.] For most of my life, I have never had the luxury of being able to squabble with my fellow Jews. Unfortunately, in many of the heavily populated religious Jewish communities, the residents frequently avail themselves of such pastimes, to the detriment of all involved. One of the more notorious of such shameful altercations involves one brother and his faction against another brother and his faction.

[We Jews are often accused by others of being clannish. Perhaps we are. When my family relocated and my sister and I enrolled in the local junior high school, we made it necessary to use two hands to count the Jewish students there. We all had to stick together. And, in the early 1970's, when my family was driving through the South towards Dallas, we needed some more rope to lash the luggage to the roof rack of the station wagon, so in a small Alabama town we stopped at a hardware merchant which happened to be the local "Jew Store" (seems that even the smallest of Southern towns often had at least one Jewish merchant). While we neither requested nor received any special discount, the proprietor and my father did spend more than a few minutes shmoozing, they let us all use the restroom facilities, and we received good advice as to places to go and to avoid along the remainder of our trek (this was before the Interstate Highway System was fully functional).].


There are various kulturkampfen within the big Agudath Israel kettle. Zwiebel needs to manage them (he certainly cannot halt them). So now, the question is whether Zwiebel is really trying to be a catalyst of change within Agudath Israel of America, or whether he is trying to put up a front by saying the right things, to delay the dirty work until the poor bastard who becomes the next Executive Veep gets stuck with the problem.

I would like to think that Zwiebel is genuinely trying to change the culture of the Agudath Israel so that it might better advocate for its constituency (of which I would like to think I am one). I cannot help but harbor a considerable amount of skepticism, though. One cannot ignore the fact that Zwiebel is an entrenched company man, and accordingly, there remains some question as to just how clean his broom can really be. But he is a highly intelligent and perceptive person, and he no doubt knows well that if he doesn't do some cleaning up, then the Agudath Israel of America may well cease to exist. This I really, really do not want to see happen.

And so, one may view the most recent Agudath Israel Convention as a turning point. Which direction -- upward or downward -- remains to be seen.

With that background, I now pose the following imponderable:

The Agudah [Hebrew grammatical and dialectical issues result in various spellings of the word] has been sullied by certain problems of many of its various constituents, namely, financial improprieties and tax scandals, sexual abuse scandals, and domestic violence. It is those fires that the Agudahniks have, of late, been scrambling to douse. The efforts so expended sap its strength to lobby the solons for favorable legislation, or, more commonly, against unfavorable legislation.

In this latter regard, the same-sex "marriage" measure that recently lost in Albany, and the one now going onto the table in Trenton, have been quite a consternation to the Agudath Israel. [For the record, I personally oppose quite vehemently giving legislative imprimatur to such abominations, but believe that two consenting adults should not have to abide the government insinuating itself into the bedroom.]. The Agudath Israel has been speaking to the various Assemblycritters in terms of public morality.

How can the Agudath Israel credibly make the public morality argument when they themselves have so long facilitated, through denial and sweeping beneath the rug, the immorality of sexual abuse and domestic violence in the religious Jewish community?

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