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2017-05-08

105 years of Agudath's existance

At the peak of its power, in the Second Polish Republic, at least 40% of Polish Jews voted for Agudath. It had its representatives among the deputies and senators, it had its magazines, its schooling, the majority in the Jewish self-governments and communities in Warsaw and Łódź. The orthodox-conservative Agudath, or the Association of Israel (Agudas Yisroel), could have been certainly considered as one of the most important Jewish organizations in the Second Polish Republic. In May, there will be the 105th anniversary of its formal establishment.

At a conference in Katowice, held from 27 to 29 May 1912, it was decided to establish a global organization combining three main conservative trends: German neo-orthodoxy, Hungarian orthodoxy, and the orthodox communities of the former Polish Commonwealth. The choice of place was probably not accidental. It was the area where three European countries with the largest orthodox communities shared their borders, so it was the best place for a meeting of "the true believers" from Western Europe, especially from Germany, with their counterparts from Central and Eastern Europe.

Ilustracja

Election poster of the All-Jewish National Election Block – Coalition formed by Agudath for the Sejm and Senate elections in 1928.   

Agudath was a conservative formation, declaring fidelity to the principles of Halakhah, which was regarded as the basis for the life of the Jewish community. It was deliberately not shaped like a modern political party, although it used modern methods of activity: elections, political alliances, the press, education. According to the intentions of its creators, it was to represent the whole "people faithful to Torah," convinced that all problems of the modern world can and should be resolved in keeping with Torah and the tradition. It had no formal leader. The highest rank was occupied by the Council of Torah Sages, a body with an unspecified number of members, convened among the most distinguished Talmudists. The socio-political "position of the Torah," expressed to the whole world, as well as to other Jews, was to be shaped according to the indications laid out by the Great Assembly, second in the hierarchy of importance. It was summoned only two times before the Holocaust, and its participants were representatives of national divisions, elected in proportion to the number of members. And only further down the line was the World Central Committee elected by the Grand Assembly and the Executive Committee. Agudath's local organizations were poorly developed, becoming active in the face of specific goals, such as elections. Its program was to be just orthodox Judaism.

However, under the influence of the contemporary times, quite rapidly a diversified Agudath movement was formed, which included: the initiated in May 1922 proletarian organization Poalej Agudas Yisroel (Workers' Union of Israel); founded in 1919 youth organization Ceirej Agudas Yisroel (Israeli Youth Association), and a women cultural and educational organization Bnojs Agudas Yisroel (Israel Girls' Association) established in Lodz in 1925. Institutional links such as the network of reformed cheders were established. These were started by Warsaw cheder Jesodej ha-Torah (Foundations of Torah), which from 1929 was controlled by the Chorew educational organization; Keren ha-Tora Fund (Torah Fund) established in 1923; a network of girls' schools Bejs Jakow (Jakub's House), initiated by Sara Szenirer (1883-1935) in Krakow in 1917. The material monument to Agudath's achievements in the field of education became the established in 1930 of Yeshiva of the Sages of Lublin, located in an impressive, still existing building, which resulted from the initiative and energy of Agudath activist, deputy to the parliament (Sejm) of the Second Polish Republic, rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933).

Ilustracja

Izaak Meir Lewin (1893–1971), from 1930 formally the chair of the Polish Agudath. In the Jewish state he served, inter alia, as the minister of social welfare in the first four governments.   

Despite the frequent appearance of "Polish themes", Agudath invariably declared its universal character. Agudath members were quite active, for instance in Latvia, where in its chamber of deputies they were represented by Mordechaj Dubin (1889-1956), who died after years of imprisonment in a Soviet camp in Tula. In Slovakia, rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl (1903-1957) who belonged to the movement, with the help of a secret so-called Working Group, thanks to the bribes handed over to the collaborators and the Germans, managed to delay by two years the extermination of the local Jews (1942-1944).

Thanks to its universalism, the movement has survived until our days, although in Poland the last Agudath associations were dissolved, as were the other Jewish Zionist parties, in 1950. The post-war Agudath, which has never been legalized, was not included in the Central Committee of Jews in Poland.  The areas of its weakening strength (due to departures) were mainly the Jewish Religious Communities.

The official song of the Yahadut HaTorah coalition for Knesset elections in 2015. The letter gimel served then as the party’s election symbol.

Agudath is one of those parties whose members continued their political activity after leaving Europe, among other places in Israel. The contemporary Israeli Agudath is dominated by the Hasidic communities. In the elections to 120-seat Knesset, it gains two to five seats; at present it has four deputies. Its significance, however, is greater through participation in alliances and coalitions. Since 1992, it has been part of the alliance under the name United Judaism of the Torah (Yahadut Hatorah), whose second segment is the Banner of the Torah (Degel Hatorah), created by Lithuanian orthodox, separatists from Agudath. In the first decades of Israeli independence, the leading figure of the movement was the already mentioned rabbi Izaak Meir Lewin. Upon his death, he was succeeded by Jehuda Meir Abramowicz (1914-2007), descending from Konstantynów Łódzki.  One of the current leaders of Agudath is Yaakov Litzman (born  1948), Israel's minister of health.

An interview with Joseph Friedensohn, devoted largely to the role of Yiddish language and the role of Agudath in Israel (in Yiddish, English subtitles).

In the United States, Agudath has been active since the 1930s. It was founded thanks to the efforts of rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1962), born in Obeliai, Lithuania. For many years, its significant figure was the General Secretary, publisher of the journal "Dos Yidishe Wort" Józef Friedensohn (1922-2013), born in Lodz, son of pre-war Bejs Jakow activist Eliezer Gershon Friedensohn. Today, among its spiritual leaders is the well-respected Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (born  1931), who is now the head of the Nowominska dynasty, deriving from Minsk Mazowiecki. Agudath in America is expanding, with numerous offices and affiliated organizations in the United States and Canada alongside the Headquarters in Manhattan. It focuses on religious and social activities (schools, social welfare homes, summer camps for youth) and lobbying for legal solutions that are in line with the spirit of orthodox Judaism. It also documents the legacy of movement within the framework of the Orthodox Jewish Archives program.

Our vocabulary entry prepared by Professor Jerzy Tomaszewski is devoted to Agudath fascinating and unique history.

Adam Dylewski

Bibliography

  • Aguda, [in:] Polski Słownik Judaistyczny (Polish Judaic Dictionary), ed. Z. Borzymińska, R. Żebrowski, Warszawa 2003, pages 49–51.
  • Aguddat Israel, [in:] Kratkaja jewriejskaja encikłopiedija, vol. 1, Jerusalim 1995, kol. 45–47. 
  • Association to Preserve the Historical Legacy Website, Association to Preserve the Historical Legacy [online] http://dosyiddishevort.org [access: 05.05.2017].
  • Tomaszewski J., Żbikowski A., Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon (Jews in Poland. History and culture. Lexicon), Warszawa 2001.