Agudath Israel of America () (sometimes referred to as Agudah or abbreviated AIA), is a Haredi Jewish communal organization in the United States loosely affiliated with the international World Agudath Israel.
Agudah serves as a leadership and policy umbrella organization for Haredi Jews in the United States, both those affiliating with the Hasidic and the non-Hasidic Mitnagdim/Lithuanian Jewish camps.
Agudah in the United States has been very successful in the difficult task of retaining its major Hasidic factions, with members from the Ger Hasidim in America working together within the organization and its non-Hasidic Lithuanian rosh yeshivas as partners. Agudah represents the vast majority members of the yeshiva world, sometimes known by the old label of misnagdim, as well as sectors of Hasidic Judaism; all are commonly known as Haredim or "ultra-Orthodox" Jews representing Torah Judaism in North America. Not all Hasidic Jewish groups are affiliated with Agudath Israel. For example, the Hasidic group Satmar 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 (Hebrew, "Flag of the Torah"), two Israeli Orthodox Jewish 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).
AIA is also a part of the World Agudath Israel organization, which convenes international conferences and religious conclaves.
The original Agudath Israel movement was established in Europe in 1912 by some of the most famous Orthodox rabbis of the time, including 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. See more information at World Agudath Israel.
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 made their home in America who 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 lead the expansion of the movement during the early 1900s until his death during the mid-1960s as its chief lay leader. His cousin Rabbi Moshe Sherer then took control. He was succeeded by Rabbi Shmuel Bloom after his death in the 90s, and in 2008 Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel has taken over as Executive Vice-President.
In 2007, it was among over 530 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $30 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Since 2002, the Carnegie Corporation has donated more than $115 million.
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 () generally translated as Torah knowledge/direction.
The organization has a lay staff, many of whom are also ordained rabbis, but not of a caliber comparable to the rosh yeshivas and rebbes. After the passing of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, its last significant "lay" leader, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow who is also the Novominsker rebbe and a member of the Moetzet, was appointed as the Rosh Agudat Yisrael ("Head of Agudath Israel"). The past Noviminsker Rebbe, Rabbi Nochum Perlow was considered a key figure in the Agudah. The present official head is now his son, also known as the Noviminsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow who works closely with his fellow leaders on the Moetzet.
The administrative staff includes Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel as the Executive Vice President, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin as the Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Rabbi Leibish Becker as the Executive Director.
There are AIA-affiliated synagogues across the United States and in Canada.
The AIA takes sides on many political, religious, and social issues, primarily guided by its Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah. It uses these stances to advise its members, to lobby politicians, and to file amicus briefs. 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 Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). However, at times, a few of the more traditionalist rabbis at Yeshiva University aligned themselves with Agudah's positions.
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.
With the growth of Orthodox Judaism throughout the country, AIA also has active branches in 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. Agudath Israel's National Director of Government Affairs is Rabbi Yehiel Mark Kalish who manages the state government effort 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.
Agudath Israel World Organization also has a representative at the United Nations.
AIA 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 COLPA.
AIA uses the lobbying firm BGR http://bgrdc.com/clients.html.
Agudah maintains a network of summer youth camps attended by several thousand children. It 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 funding 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, all of which are affiliated with AIA.
AIA advocates its position in several ways:
- Mails newsletters of AIA news, Coalition and Inside Track;
- E-Newsletter entitled Weekly Window
- Publishes a general-interest monthly magazine, The Jewish Observer (currently in hiatus);
- Promotes its views as a member (along with other Jewish organizations) of Am Echad ("One Nation");
- Maintains full-time offices in Washington, the west coast, the midwest, and the south;
- Activism by lobbying and submitting amicus briefs, as described above;
- Organizes prominent lay-person missions to government agencies;
- Appoints official spokesmen, such as Rabbi Avi Shafran, who respond to media articles and statements which concern the orthodox community; Rabbi Shafran also organizes AIA members to do the same;
- Conveys its positions in the Jewish media, particularly through privately-owned weekly Jewish newspapers in English called "HaModia", and "Yated Neeman" (distinct from the Israeli English-language newspaper carrying the same name), which convey news and views from the Agudah point of view.
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, its message, as relayed in the pages of its magazine, the Jewish Observer, is intermittently republished to the Web by a third party, the Shema Yisrael Torah Network. AIA does allow the use of e-mail, and uses it to disseminate information to its members.
- Agudat Israel (of Israel)
- Degel HaTorah
- Haredi Judaism
- Schisms among the Jews: Hasidim and Mitnagdim
- United Torah Judaism
- World Agudath Israel