Leader of Agudath Israel, Moshe Sherer, dies at 76

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America and an ardent defender of Orthodox interests, has died at 76.

He passed away Sunday at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan after suffering a relapse of the leukemia he thought he had beaten.

Sherer was in Israel in February, leading a delegation of fervently religious Jews to meet with government leaders to convince them that the Orthodox way was the only viable course to support in the war over religious pluralism, when he learned that the cancer had returned.

It was to be his last overseas trip.

On returning to New York, Sherer went straight from the airport to the hospital, said Rabbi Haskel Besser, a member of the Agudah presidium and a friend of Sherer's for more than 50 years.

Sherer had been president of the influential group, which represents the interests of the fervently religious community, both its Chassidic and its non-Chassidic branches, for some 30 years.

But he had been attracted to politics and worked to represent the concerns of the fervently religious community to lawmakers for two decades before that.

When he was in his 20s and studying in a Baltimore yeshiva, he would often visit Washington, D.C., attempting to meet with members of Congress and staffers at the White House.

In those days he was almost turned away by the White House, recalled Vice President Al Gore as he received Agudah's humanitarian award at the group's 76th anniversary dinner, held in Manhattan on Sunday, the very night that Sherer died.

Over the years, respect for Sherer grew — both within and outside Orthodox circles. More recently, the rabbi was welcomed with his choice of kosher meals when he came to the White House, according to Gore, who said of Sherer's death: "A giant has passed from our midst."

Besser recalled that Sherer "always had a flair for politics, trying to explain to the non-Jewish world the view of Orthodox Jews, and he succeeded.

"Both Jews and non-Jews had great respect for him," he said.

Dignitaries at his funeral, held in the fervently religious Boro Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday, where he had lived, included New York City's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and the state's governor, George Pataki.

Lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum — from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) — issued statements of sorrow.

"He did great things in terms of showing non-Jews what Torah means, the beauty and integrity of it," Blima Ziemba, a yeshiva high school teacher, said as she left her Brooklyn home to attend Sherer's funeral.

Ziemba, who heard Sherer speak at the Agudah's national conventions, said, "People were really in awe of what Torah means based on his behavior."

Sherer became a leader of the Agudah in 1941, at a time when the organization was regarded, in the group's own words, as "a sickly weed" by some in the Jewish establishment.

He took a small group of like-minded Orthodox Jews and built the Agudah into a political powerhouse.

In some ways, Sherer seemed an unlikely choice to lead the Agudah, whose culture and policies reflect total reverence for the world of European Jewry that was destroyed by Hitler.

While many of Agudah's constituents dress in Chassidic garb, wear beards in the Orthodox fashion and learn to speak Yiddish before English, Sherer did not fit that mold.

Though he shared the same values, Sherer, unlike much of his leadership, was American-born and clean-shaven.

He was, say those who knew him, a man with a deep appreciation for the American way of doing things, who believed that the community he represented needed to keep a foot in the grandeur of its European days but also deserved to have its religious values and practices protected by American law.

Under Sherer, the Agudah, from its offices in New York and Washington, lobbied to safeguard the rights of Orthodox Jews — in the workplace, in its dietary practices and in school.

He helped establish principles enshrined in federal and state law that permit children in private schools to receive government benefits and services equal to their public school counterparts.

He also worked with the leaders of other religious faiths, like New York's Catholic archbishop, John Cardinal O'Connor, to convince the city not to accept advertising on billboards in subway stations and at bus stops that were deemed morally offensive.

Sherer's earliest work on behalf of the Jewish community — the efforts that first provoked the larger non-Orthodox Jewish establishment's opprobrium – was the grassroots, and largely illegal, transport of food to starving Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in 1941.

Through his efforts, affidavits were also provided to help European Jews immigrate to the United States.

After the Holocaust, Sherer and his staff aided the Jews in Europe's displaced persons camps by providing food and religious articles, and helped facilitate their immigration to American shores.

Sherer continued his work with oppressed Jewish communities later, aiding those behind the Iron Curtain and in places such as Syria and Iran.

He was deeply involved with reclaiming Jewish cemeteries now owned by governments and private hands in Eastern Europe, and in retrieving Jewish assets held by the Swiss and others after the war.

The issue closest to his heart, perhaps, was that of Jewish education.

Under his leadership, the Agudah promoted and organized the daily study of a page of Talmud, in which tens of thousands of Orthodox men now participate.

Some 70,000 people came together under the Agudah's aegis at Madison Square Garden and other venues last September to honor the completion of a cycle of the Talmud readings.

Sherer was unfailingly genteel and courtly, except when he had stinging things to say about non-Orthodox Judaism and its leaders.

Non-Orthodox Jews, he believed, were wandering down an incorrect and dangerous path.

He initiated a $2 million campaign last winter, called Am Echad, or One People, to declare that there can be no "multiple Judaisms," but that only the Orthodox way is the correct path.

It has been a campaign to "counteract" the "lies being spread about Orthodoxy" by the Reform and Conservative movements, he said at the Agudah's convention in November 1997.

Although several Reform and Conservative leaders declined comment on Sherer's passing, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, said: "I think he was a very skilled leader who was very committed to the Agudah and its program. We had large differences of opinion in our approach to halachah and to Jewish life in general, but I think he was a very forceful and articulate leader."

Sherer is survived by his wife, three adult children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.