PARSIPPANY, N.J. — Agudath Israel's 75th national convention was much like many of the Jewish organizational gatherings in the United States this year — the discussions centered on religious pluralism issues.
Held Thanksgiving weekend at the Parsippany Hilton, the ultra-religious Jewish movement's convention — whose theme was "From Learning Torah to Living It: As People…As a People" — saw its members reach out to non-Orthodox Jews while simultaneously criticizing their leadership's handling of pluralism.
The opening day drew an estimated 3,500 men and women, officials said.
While spending considerable time examining how Orthodox Jews should live morally and ethically, speakers at last Thursday night's plenary session also stressed the need to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, also known as the Novom-insker rebbe, said that while importing American-style pluralism to Israel — in the form of the push to recognize non-Orthodox conversions — threatens the practice of halachah in the Jewish state, Orthodoxy's stand toward nonobservant Jews has been widely misunderstood and falsely reported in the American press.
"It is an absolute falsehood that Orthodox Judaism and its standard-bearers seek to delegitimize other Jews. Every Jew, whatever his or her persuasion, deserves the love, the respect and the concern he or she is entitled to as a human being and as a member of our holy people," Perlow said. "No Jew is a `second-class' Jew, in Israel or anywhere."
Many of these same themes re-emerged in a Friday morning forum, "Glass Ceilings and Distorted Lenses: Anti-Orthodoxy in the `Goldeneh Medinah.'" The forum dealt with the treatment of Orthodox Jews by the non-Orthodox and the media, and also how they're treated in the workplace and by the judicial system.
With the exception of the widespread coverage of Siyum Hashas — the celebration of the completion of a seven-year cycle in Talmud study held Sept. 28 at Madison Square Garden in New York City (an event coordinated by Agudath Israel) — the American media is not known for its positive coverage of Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, editor of the ultra-religious newspaper Yated Ne'eman.
Rabbi Hillel David, the session's rabbinic adviser, went a step further, calling the material in many of the American newspapers, including the Anglo-Jewish weeklies, lashon hara, or malicious gossip. In these publications, the printed word "is not holy. It is dirt."
Giving a more positive outlook of American society's treatment of Orthodox Jews was Thomas Schick, executive vice president of community affairs at American Express and an observant Jew. In his view, bias against observant Jews, while it certainly exists, is not directly correlated to one's level of observance. "I think we are really exaggerating the degree of anti-Orthodoxy in the workplace," said Schick. "I reject the notion that there is a glass ceiling."
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel's general counsel and director of government affairs, characterized the types of legal discrimination faced by observant Jews. In the past, the biggest problem in the workplace for all Jews was anti-Semitism. But groups like the Anti-Defamation League have fought discrimination and, "by and large, those efforts have been successful."
The second type of discrimination in the workplace concerns the accommodation of Jewish religious practices, such as leaving early for Shabbat, observing Jewish holidays and dressing differently from others. In this area, "the law is a mixed bag in terms of how it protects us," Zwiebel said.
While federal law obligates employers to make reasonable accommodations to an employee's religious needs, employers also cannot be subjected to "undue hardship," the definition of which is subject to wide interpretation.
At the Saturday night session, which attracted close to 4,000 attendees, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Agudath Israel's president attacked the Reform and Conservative, leadership for misleading their followers into believing that Orthodoxy considers them to be less than full Jews.
Sherer announced a $2 million campaign to "counteract" these efforts with a rebuttal of the "lies being spread about Orthodoxy."