Rav Aharon Kotler was an Agudist. His involvement was not peripheral or incidental, limited to participating at high profile events where he would speak and then return to his primary klal and chinuch responsibilities. He was active in the Agudah and this activity had strong roots in pre-Holocaust Europe. When he arrived here in 1941, his initial focus was on hatzala activity which, to an extent, entailed involvement in the Agudah. With the passage of time, his commitment to Agudah intensified.
It is a challenge to write about the American Agudah, or, for that matter, American Orthodox Jewry in the years prior to Rav Aharon’s leadership which brought about major transformations in the profile of Orthodox life in North America. From the perspective of today’s vibrant Orthodoxy, what existed then may seem to have been mislabeled as Agudah and, indeed, mislabeled as Orthodoxy. The American Agudah in the 1920s and 1930s was far different from what the Agudah looked like in Europe before the Churban and American Orthodoxy was a far cry from what it is today. In an important essay, Rav Shimon Schwab described a similar challenge in writing about Orthodox life in Germany. He commented that although it is not acceptable to depart from the truth, a certain discretion is required.
For all of the first half of the last century and, in fact, into the 1960s, a substantial number of American Jews who identified themselves as Orthodox were only nominally or marginally Orthodox, meaning that although they would not accept any other denominational identity, in practice they departed significantly from halachic norms. There were more than a few Orthodox synagogue presidents, including in Borough Park, who went to shul on Shabbos morning and then went to work. In a seminal essay published in the early 1960s in the American Jewish Year Book, the noted sociologist Charles S. Liebman who was a colleague of mine at Yeshiva University described the phenomenon of nominal Orthodoxy.
For much of the 1930s, the Agudah was headquartered at the Jewish Center, then and now a Modern Orthodox synagogue on West 86th Street in Manhattan. Rabbi Leo Jung, its Rabbi for decades and a man of substantial intellect and talent, was a key Agudah leader. Another important figure was Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, also Modern Orthodox. For years he served as the nominal president of the American Agudah.
The key rabbinic leader was Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati who was also the dominant figure in Agudas Harabbanim, at the time the major Orthodox rabbinical organization. His relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler was complicated and, at times, strained. They clashed over Vaad Hatzala, both during the Holocaust and later when the organization was reconstituted and its focus shifted from rescue to rebuilding religious Jewish life. As Rabbi Aaron Rothkoff recounts in “The Silver Era,” Rabbi Silver’s role in American Orthodoxy was greatly diminished as a consequence of Rav Aharon’s leadership and personality. He remained a presence, but not an influence.
After the untimely passing in the early1950s of Rav Reuven Grozovsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Elyon, Rav Aharon was the unequaled leader of both the yeshiva world and the Agudah, serving as the head of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and the hashkafic force in its emergence as the influential organization that it has become. This remarkable achievement came about because of his involvement and it came about at a time when American Orthodoxy overall was weak and the charedi sectors were small. Much of what then constituted charedi life remained apart from the Agudah. This was obviously true of Lubavitch and Satmar, as well as the cluster of chassidic groups within the Satmar sphere of influence. Klausenberg, Bobov and Skwere also were apart from the Agudah, as was the Breuer kehilla in Washington Heights and other pockets of American Orthodoxy.
There were chassidic rebbes of spiritual stature who were actively involved in Agudah, including the Rebbes of Novominsk, Kapishnitz and Boyan, but in reality they had small followings. Among the Roshei Yeshiva who identified with Agudah, there were some who not long before had identified with Mizrachi. Rav Aharon changed that. The Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah came to symbolize the movement, attaining a status that endures to this day. It is of note that in Israel where for decades there have been great Torah leaders of unsurpassed eminence, the Moetzes does not have the role that it enjoys here.
For all of the force of his personality and super-human efforts, Rav Aharon could not have single-handedly molded the Agudah into a vital instrumentality for Klal Yisroel. He needed help and that came from the persons who led the organization on a daily basis. There was Michael Tress whose mesiras nefesh and hatzala activity, notably after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, remain an inspiring chapter in the history of Agudath Israel and of our people.
Most critically, there was Rabbi Moshe Sherer, with whom Rav Aharon had a close and warm relationship. Skilled in the art of leadership and blessed with keen insight into what was occurring in Orthodox life, Rabbi Sherer visualized an Agudah that would be true to its name, meaning that it would be a unified and unifying body, an Agudah that would be under the halachic and hashkafic guidance of Gedolei Torah. At the same time, daily organizational affairs would be the responsibility of the top staff and perhaps some lay leaders. He brilliantly saw the opportunity and seized the moment.
From today’s perspective, this may appear to be a minor achievement. It needs to be remembered that throughout the 1950s – and, in fact, at least into the 1960s – the Agudah was operating on a shoestring. Payroll was often late and more than once Rabbi Sherer said that he would have to leave, relenting at the behest of Gedolei Torah. There was no government funding, few affluent active members and much of the fundraising that occurred at the conventions was on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai.
In contrast to the orderliness that Rabbi Sherer eventually imposed, back in the 1950s Agudah conventions and meetings could be rough and tumble, with lively debates that involved rabbinic leaders and laymen. These were memorable occasions. At the conventions, I ate privately with Rav Aharon, at his request. Other Roshei Yeshiva and distinguished persons would come in and that would usually engender much light conversation, frequently about events that occurred before the European Churban. During the Shabbos meals there would be much singing and dancing. Rav Mendel Zaks believed that the clapping of hands and dancing were inappropriate on Shabbos. Rav Aharon argued that the Chofetz Chaim permitted such behavior; he was not at all persuaded by the circumstance that Rabbi Zaks was the Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law.
In those years, Rabbi Silver would speak before Mussaf, invariably at length. He would use the opportunity to needle Rav Aharon, as when after Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer died and Rav Aharon became Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, Rabbi Silver announced, “We have outstanding Roshei Yeshiva in Israel and we have outstanding Roshei in the United States. Now we have a new type of Rosh Yeshiva, a transatlantic Rosh Yeshiva.
One year Rabbi Silver began to speak at 11:45. There was an audible groan from the audience, prompting Rabbi Silver to say, “Ich vet redden nor biz chatzos.” (I will speak only until noon.) Nearly an hour later, he was still going strong when someone in the shul had the temerity to call out and remind Rabbi Silver of his commitment to complete speaking by noon. He quickly responded, “Cincinnati time.”
There are many other wonderful memories of those years. Nearly forty years ago and shortly after I became president on a voluntary basis of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, I decided to no longer be involved in the national Agudah. Long gone are the conventions, meetings and other trappings of organizational life. I miss none of that. I do remember with much fondness the early years of my klal activity, of the z’chus to be with Rav Aharon and of the fun we had when we were young and full of spirit.