A 'Shtadlan' for our times
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 22, 1998
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers stood outside in sweltering heat for hours this past Monday to pay tribute to Rabbi Moshe Sherer. Among those in attendance were New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, both of whom expressed a desire to eulogize Sherer.
In an unprecedented gesture, Sen. Daniel Moynihan took the Senate floor, just as the funeral was commencing, to speak about a treasured friend of over 30 years.
Most American Jews were probably puzzled why The New York Times devoted two full stories to Sherer's passing - an indication of how profoundly removed from one another are the various segments of American Jewry. Yet Sherer played a pivotal role in the post-war resurgence of Orthodoxy in America and brought unprecedented respect to Torah Judaism in the halls of power.
Paying tribute to 'a giant,' Vice President Al Gore said, only hours after his passing, 'Many in the Orthodox community say, 'How far we have come.' They should say, 'How far he brought us!"'
When the 20-year-old Moshe Sherer came to work for Agudath Israel in 1943, Orthodox Jews were a 'sickly reed" in the eyes of mainstream Jewish groups. Even within the Orthodox world, Agudath Israel was barely on the map, despite the wartime rescue work of hundreds of volunteers in their teens and early 20s, led by Sherer's mentor Mike Tress, which resulted in saving several thousand European Jews, including many great Torah scholars.
Sherer's first assignment was to attend a meeting of Orthodox groups devoted to fostering Shabbat observance. The leader of the then dominant faction of American Orthodoxy told him, 'The Agudah is a bunch of nobodies. We won't work with nobodies like you."
Over the next 55 years - 35 as president of the organization - Sherer built Agudath Israel into the largest grass-roots Orthodox organization in America, with over 100,000 members, hundreds of employees, more than a dozen different divisions, and a full-time lobbying office in Washington. He became the premier spokesman for American Orthodoxy in the corridors of power and placed himself at the service of every Orthodox group that sought his help.
Armed with neither of the calling cards of modern American politics -money or votes - he nevertheless developed an unparalleled network of political contacts over the decades. His methods were those of the traditional Jewish shtadlan (government intercessor): subtlety, non-confrontation and absolute integrity.
He never endorsed a political candidate and worked closely with politicians from both major parties. Sherer delivered the invocation at Giulani's inauguration, but had Giuliani's opponent David Dinkins won, it is probable that Sherer would have given the invocation at his inauguration as well, so respected was he by both men.
During the 1988 presidential election, a leading Jewish activist was told by top figures in both the Dukakis and Bush campaigns that the only Jewish leader they trusted fully was Sherer.
Politicians valued his advice and friendship. Moynihan credited him with the best piece of political advice he ever received: During his first senatorial campaign in 1976, Sherer told him, 'Just be Pat Moynihan. Don't try to be Louie Lefkowitz."
The warm feelings engendered by the thousands of elegantly phrased, handwritten notes he sent to various officials over the years, thanking them for a favor or congratulating them on some achievement, lingered long after the specific reason for the note was forgotten. Sherer forged a series of crucial alliances that greatly increased the influence of Orthodox Jews.
FROM the early '60s, he worked closely with the Catholic Church to win greatly increased governmental benefits for parochial school students. His work on behalf of Soviet Jewry typified his non-confrontational approach.
In the mid-'80s, Max Kampelman brought a message from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Moynihan that he would consider reopening the gates to Jewish emigration in return for some goodwill gestures from America and American Jewry.
Moynihan was inclined to take up the feeler, but his suggestion that American Jewish groups cancel the forthcoming Solidarity Sunday for Soviet Jewry was strenuously opposed by almost all mainstream Jewish organizations.
Sherer, however, counselled Moynihan that he was doing the right thing and should carry on. Eventually the planned march was cancelled, and as a result 37 of the 40 leading refuseniks were released by the Soviets.
He was too astute to ever waste energy in ways that would ultimately prove detrimental to his cause. When a local Orthodox politician pushed a city-wide referendum on a New York City statute forbidding discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation, Sherer pointedly refused to get involved. He recognized that the referendum was a sure loser, and would only result in a rousing victory for gay activists and create new implacable enemies for Orthodox Jews.
At the same time, Agudath Israel won in court an exemption for religious schools from a municipal executive order banning discrimination in hiring.
Despite having twice battled back from the brink of death, Sherer continued to work 18-hour-days until the very last months of his life. In January, he ignored his doctors' orders that he stay home to lead 75 Orthodox lay leaders on a grueling three-day series of meeting with leading Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Only when the visit was complete did he collapse from what he learned was a relapse of leukemia.
The great triumph of his final year was the meticulously orchestrated Siyum HaShas last September, joining 70,000 Jews at Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum, and numerous sites around the world via satellite hookup in a celebration of the completion of the cycle of daily Talmud study. No event ever attracted more attention to study of Talmud or did more to emphasize its centrality to Jewish life.
For someone who had devoted his entire life to improving the image of the Orthodox Jew and Judaism, and did more to do so than anyone else, the vision carried around the world of tens of thousands of Jews exuberantly rejoicing over the Torah was the perfect final tribute.
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