Organizers of Agudath Israel’s 76th annual dinner Sunday night considered canceling it upon word, just hours before the event, that their leader of more than 30 years had died. But they decided that Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who succumbed to leukemia at 76, would have wanted the dinner to continue as planned. Hundreds of guests had flown into New York for the occasion — not the least of whom being Vice President Al Gore.
“To cancel the dinner would not have been what Rabbi Sherer would have wanted,” said Irving Bauman, the dinner chairman who had traveled from Los Angeles for the gathering of some 1,800 guests. The rabbi placed a “superhuman” value on celebrating the organization’s many achievements and recognizing its activists, said Bauman.
What resulted was a drastically scaled-down program. The evening’s award recipients agreed to forego their honors, and the program was limited to psalms in Rabbi Sherer’s memory and the Humanitarian Award for Gore, followed by the vice president’s address. Eulogies were offered by Rabbi Yakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe, and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky of Philadelphia.
Rabbi Sherer, who spent half a century with Agudah, had been stricken for some time with leukemia. Until a recent turn for the worse, however, he had shown resilience and fortitude, making his death somewhat unexpected, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the Orthodox umbrella organization.
Gore’s presence at the dinner was perhaps a testament to Rabbi Sherer’s transformation of Agudah from a small membership organization to a potent political force, as was Gore’s choice of the venue to reassure friends of Israel about the Clinton administration’s approach to the peace process at a time when critics claim undue pressure on the Jewish state.
“Let me assure you that our policy has not changed,” Gore said to applause. “The parties themselves must decide the status of the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. will not prejudge that decision.”
Gore’s remarks, coming on the heels of a visit here by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently were in response to an emphatic introduction by David Zwiebel, Agudah’s director of government affairs.
Zwiebel called on the administration to “allow the Israeli people themselves to decide what their bottom-line security needs are” and “speak out against those voices in the White House that misleadingly raise Palestinian aspirations of sovereignty,” a reference to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s call for recognition of a Palestinian state.
Zweibel said Gore had been apprised in advance of his introduction.
Also present at the dinner were numerous local officials — including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and several city and state legislators. But Gore was the only official to speak during the short program.
The vice president devoted a large portion of his 20-minute speech to extolling Rabbi Sherer’s legacy, clearly striking a chord with the audience by referring to the rabbi as Moshe Ben Batya Bluma.
“When Rabbi Sherer was only 20 years old, studying at rabbinical college in Baltimore, one day a week he would come down to Washington to talk to congressmen and to people at the White House,” said Gore. “This was at a time when such visits were not at all commonplace, as they are today.”
Rabbi Sherer’s political activism and championing of religious freedom issues “proved indispensable in defending and expanding those same rights to all Americans of all faiths,” Gore said.
“We were deeply honored to work with Rabbi Sherer and Agudath Israel on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We should do everything we can to remove barriers to religion,” he said.
Gore said the administration shared Agudah’s opposition to a constitutional “right to die” and supported access to remedial education in religious schools and kashrut-related legislation. He praised Agudah’s role in originating a worldwide daily Talmud study program, known as Daf Yomi. “As a former divinity student, I was especially moved by the growth of Daf Yomi,” said Gore.
“It demonstrates to the Orthodox Jewish community, the wider Jewish community and to the non-Jewish public … that you can affirm your spiritual needs and still remain active and productive.”