The thousands of Orthodox Jews who attended part or all of Agudath Israel of America's recent 79th National Convention in Somerset, New Jersey heard addresses from a number of illustrious rabbinic figures. But one short speech that particularly riveted listeners was delivered by a young lawyer from Texas who took his listeners firmly to task.
Kenneth Broodo of Dallas is an observant Jew today, though he wasn't a mere few years ago. He was addressing a convention symposium on "Creating Torah Communities Across the USA," and related how he had come to reconnect to his Jewish heritage. It was largely the story of a "community kollel" - a group of Orthodox families who have moved from one or another of our country's larger Jewish communities to a city where traditional Jewish observance is not widespread, where they open a study-hall, offer adult education classes and spend their days learning and teaching Torah. There is a large handful of such "kollelim" across the country. Mr. Broodo stumbled across the one in Dallas.
With an endearing lilt of a Texas accent, Mr. Broodo related how one of the kollel's rabbis invited him to ask any questions he might have. They included big ones like how God could allow the Holocaust to happen and smaller ones like what in the world had possessed the kollel members to uproot themselves and their families from their insular and nurturing communities in Brooklyn or Lakewood, NJ and move to Texas.
"He told me," Mr. Broodo said, "that no questions were foolish questions." And so the lawyer continued to ask, sitting at the rabbi's dining room table week after week for three years.
When Mr. Broodo decided to undertake some Jewish observance, his rabbinical guide suggested Shabbat, telling him at first just "to make kiddush before going to the movies on Friday night, and havdalah when I got home on Saturday night."
Along with a group of other Dallas Jews and accompanied by one of the kollel's rabbis, he took a trip to visit the New York Orthodox community. He wanted, he told his listeners, "to visit the planet these rabbis had come from." He met several respected rabbis and was deeply impressed with the Jewish life he saw flourishing there.
During the trip, he related, he was a guest at an Orthodox businessman's home for Shabbat, and had an embarrassing experience. Sitting at the Sabbath table with his host family and other guests, he asked his friend a question and only then realized that he had inadvertently interrupted his host's blessing on the challah. After the bread was cut and distributed, Mr. Broodo stood up, went over to his host and apologized for interrupting his bracha.
"He grabbed my hands," Mr. Broodo recalled before the large crowd, his voice betraying deep emotion, "looked me in the eye and said, 'Now you listen to me. You're the bracha'."
He also recalled the lesson he learned from a prominent Brooklyn yeshiva dean to whom he had been introduced. The Rosh Yeshiva told his visitor that "Torah is the soul of the Jewish people. It's not a step in itself but rather the source of all the steps we take as Jews."
"When we returned to Dallas," Mr. Broodo recalled, "there was one more Sabbath-observant Jew in Texas."
There was much more he related. How his local community subsequently started a shul in his living room. How the shul has since grown from 20 families to 125. How he had only recently celebrated his first "siyum" - or completion of the study of a tractate of the Talmud.
That, though, was when he got tough. Citing statistics about intermarriage in the American Jewish community, and apologizing in advance for his "chutzpah," he asked his listeners if, as they await the Messiah's arrival and their own return to Eretz Yisrael, whether they are "planning on taking the rest of us [American Jews]" along. And then he reminded the crowd about the apathy that tragically characterized so much of the Jewish community during the Holocaust.
Referring to the continued drifting away from Judaism of the vast majority of American Jews, he asked "What will history say about us?"
And then getting more personal still, he then issued his listeners a direct challenge: "When your children are given an opportunity to join a community kollel in Topeka, Kansas, what will you tell them?"
"Most Jews in America are living without Torah," he continued. "What will become of them? You can't expect them to love something that they don't know anything about!"
Mr. Broodo might have wondered whether he had overstepped the bounds of propriety, crossed any lines, by being so direct, so demanding of his audience.
But when he concluded his remarks and the applause exploded like a thunderclap and continued for what seemed like minutes, and the entire crowd rose to its feet in honor of the young Texan lawyer, and when he saw the tears in the eyes of so many, he likely realized that his words had found their mark, and had been absorbed by hundreds of Jewish hearts.