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Agudath Israel of America (Hebrew: אגודת ישראל באמריקה) (sometimes called Agudah) is an Orthodox Jewish organization in the United States loosely affiliated with the international World Agudath Israel. Agudah aims to meet the needs of the Orthodox Jewish community, advocates for its religious and civil rights, and services its constituents through charitable, educational, and social service projects across North America.
Agudah serves as a leadership and policy umbrella organization for Haredi Jews in the United States representing the vast majority of members of the yeshiva world, sometimes known by the old label of misnagdim, as well as a number of Hasidic groups. However, not all Hasidic groups are affiliated with Agudath Israel. For example, the Hasidic group Satmar, which is vehemently anti-Zionist, dislikes Agudah's relatively moderate stance towards the State of Israel.
Agudah has ideological connections with both the Agudat Israel party and with Degel HaTorah (Flag of the Torah), two Israeli Haredi political parties that have representation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament). In Israel, Degel and Agudah are in a political coalition called United Torah Judaism (UTJ).
The original Agudath Israel movement was established in Europe in 1912 by some of the most famous Orthodox rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim), Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, the Radziner Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Elazar Leiner, the Gerrer Rebbe (Imrei Emes), and the Chortkover Rebbe. It grew during the 1920s and 1930s to be the political, communal, and cultural voice of those Orthodox Jews who were not part of Zionism's Orthodox Jewish Mizrachi party.
Rabbi Eliezer Silver, an Eastern European-trained rabbi, established the first office of Agudath Israel in America during the 1930s, organizing its first conference in 1939. After the Holocaust, some prominent rabbis who made their home in America established a moetzes ("[supreme] council"), and the movement began to grow rapidly with the rise of the yeshiva-based and Hasidic Orthodox communities.
Mike Tress led the expansion of the movement during the early 1940s as its chief lay leader until his death in 1967. His cousin Rabbi Moshe Sherer then took the reins as president and the organization flourished further in size and accomplishments. After his passing in May 1998, he was succeeded by Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, as Executive Vice President. In 2008 Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, having served Agudah as general counsel and director of government affairs, took over as Executive Vice-President.
In August 2012, Agudath Israel organized and operated the National Celebration of the 12th Siyum HaShas in MetLife Stadium, the largest gathering for Orthodox Jewry in the history of the United States.
Agudah's policies and leadership are directed by its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah: Council of Torah Sages, composed primarily of Rosh Yeshivas (the chief spiritual and scholarly authority in a yeshiva) and Hasidic Rebbes (who head Hasidic dynasties and organizations). The Moetzes sets all major policies and guides the organization according to its precepts of Daas Torah (Hebrew: דעת תורה), generally translated as Torah knowledge/direction. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who is also the Novominsker rebbe and a member of the Moetzes, was appointed as the Rosh Agudat Yisrael ("Head of Agudath Israel").
The organization has a lay staff, many of whom are also ordained rabbis.
The executive staff includes Reb Shia Markowitz as CEO, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel as the Executive Vice President, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin as the Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Rabbi Labish Becker as the Executive Director.
The Agudah takes positions on many political, religious, and social issues, primarily guided by its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. It uses these stances to advise its members, advocate for its constituency in the halls of government, and to file amicus briefs on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. See below, under "Activities".
In 1956, for example, the moetzes issued a written ruling forbidding Orthodox rabbis to join with any Reform or Conservative rabbis in rabbinical communal professional organizations that then united the various branches of America's Jews, such as the Synagogue Council of America. This position was not endorsed by the Modern Orthodox. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University had initially aligned himself with Agudah, but later established his independent views on these matters and a host of other issues, such as attitudes towards college education and attitudes towards the secular-led Israeli governments. Rabbi Soloveitchik felt it important to nurture the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). However, at times, some of the more traditionalist rabbis at Yeshiva University aligned themselves with Agudah's positions.
In 2015, Agudah denounced moves to ordain women, and went even further, declaring Yeshivat Maharat, Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.
While Agudath does not consider itself as Zionist, it is generally supportive of the State of Israel insofar as it supports participation in its politics and the development of religious life, as well as the security of its population. Agudah takes stances on issues affecting the Haredi sector in Israel; in contradistinction to the more stridently anti-Zionist Haredi communal organizations.
With the growth of Orthodox Judaism throughout the country, Agudah also has active branches in 27 states, including Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, Florida, California, and New Jersey, where they lobby the judicial and legislative branches of these state, and local governments, on any issue it deems important morally or religiously or important to its constituency (for example, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, school vouchers/school choice). Agudath Israel's National Director of State Relations is Rabbi A. D. Motzen, who manages the state government efforts, under Zwiebel.
Agudath Israel's federal activities are coordinated by Rabbi Abba Cohen, the Director and Counsel of the organization's Washington Office. Agudah was the first Orthodox Jewish group to open a Washington Office, in 1988, and maintains ongoing relations with the White House and executive agencies, as well as with the U.S. Congress, on numerous domestic and foreign issues.
Agudah also files amicus briefs in cases at all levels of the judiciary, often signing on as one of many organization signatories to a brief authored by Nat Lewin or the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.
With its head office in Manhattan, and the bulk of its members living in the New York-New Jersey area, the Agudah ensures that it monitors and intercedes on behalf of causes important to it in the politics of New York City, its five boroughs, and in the state government of New York State.
Official spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran denied claims by The Jewish Week that Aguda "is opposed to both the mandated reporting and finger printing, and background check legislation" then under consideration, and cited a memorandum from 2 years prior expressing strong support for the legislation.
The difference is: Aguda's 2006 support was for legislation that passed in 2007 permitting but not mandating fingerprinting/background checking.
Agudah maintains a network of summer youth camps attended by several thousand children (including Camp Agudah, Camp Bnos, Camp Chayl Miriam, and Camp Bnoseinu in the Catskills in New York, as well as camps in the Midwest and Toronto, Canada).
"JEP" (Jewish Education Program) is best known for its release hour work, and was identified by Harav Yaakov Perlow as "the JEP operation of Zeirei Agudath Israel" in a 1977 interview, in which he spoke about "to take off a seder from yeshiva and go out and speak at a release hour at a public school."
Agudah also has a number of social service branches that cater to the elderly, poor, or disabled. It has a job training program called COPE, a job placement division, and a housing program. The Agudah is also responsible for the founding of many other national institutions and projects, including the Beis Yaakov girls' school system, the National Siyum Mishnayos, the national Daf Yomi Commission, and others. In addition, there are hundreds of local "Agudah" synagogues scattered in communities throughout the country.
Agudah advocates its positions in several ways:
Agudath Israel does not have its own website, since its official policy is for its members not to use the Web for uses other than work-related. However, Agudah allows the use of e-mail, and uses it to disseminate information to its members. The Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative, a division of Agudath Israel of America, has a website listing its services, and also many general services of Agudath Israel of America. The website is located at [ourlli.org].
... Tress, the legendary Agudah leader who would transform Zeirei Agudath Israel ...