February 4, 2022
Rabbi Avi Schnall carries on his grandfather’s legacy at Agudath Israel of New Jersey
From the yeshivos of Flatbush and the rolling hills of Oorah’s The Zone to boardrooms and courtrooms across the country, Rabbi Avi Schnall’s experiences share a common thread: he is a person who truly understands the value, meaning, and potent power that lies within each of us. His work brings to light the ability of the individual to effect change in government and institutions, in the people around us, and in contemporary Jewish life.
Growing up in Flatbush, Rabbi Avi Schnall attended Yeshiva Torah Temimah. Later, he attended the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia before learning under Rav Dovid Soloveitchik in Eretz Yisrael and in then Lakewood’s very own BMG.
The person who likely had the greatest impact on his life was Rabbi Schnall’s grandfather Mr. Loychee Gluck a”h.
“My grandparents were survivors,” Rabbi Schnall relates. “They went through the Holocaust and emerged with a sense of purpose, with the knowledge that they were spared for a reason—to rebuild the world after destruction, to create a community of shuls, yeshivos, and homes.”
Indeed, Mr. Gluck took on leadership roles in numerous capacities, building the infrastructure for frum American life as we know it today.
“As a member of the board of trustees at Agudath Israel and the chairman of the board of trustees at Maimonides hospital, among other positions, my grandfather was a well-known askan who effected real change for the klal,” Rabbi Schnall shares. “I was lucky to enjoy a close relationship with him. When I was a little boy, my grandfather took me to the Agudah convention every year, where we would sit on Rabbi Moshe Sherer’s table. It was there that I formed a bond with the great man, and it was there that my appreciation for askanus took shape. Incidentally, when I was hired by the Agudah many years later, the leaders had no idea I was related to the legendary Mr. Loychee Gluck.”
In his capacity at Agudath Israel, Mr. Gluck worked tirelessly to build Boro Park as a postwar Jewish community. He oversaw the SBCO project (Southern Brooklyn Community Organization), a groundbreaking program which offered low-income Boro Park housing and was the predecessor of Lakewood Commons and other affordable housing projects that cater to frum families.
As board chairman at Maimonides, Mr. Gluck was a visionary who understood the importance of having frum liaisons in hospitals. He built hospital shuls, created kosher pantries, and advocated for frum patients. Later, he joined Bikur Cholim of Boro Park, where he ran a blood drive spearheaded by Maimonides and helped countless Jewish patients. His chessed, vision, and leadership opened Rabbi Schnall’s eyes to the world of the askan.
Bringing others closer
Rabbi Schnall’s tenure as head counselor of The Zone at Oorah for five years was his first foray into a leadership role.
“One of the amazing things about Oorah is that they give people opportunities. After our first summer there, my friends and I got a call from Oorah’s CEO, Rabbi Mintz. He said, ‘I booked a hotel and a caterer. I want you to make a Shabbaton for our members.’ That’s Oorah; that’s Rabbi Mintz. He forced us to take responsibility and make things happen. He gave us opportunities of real achrayus; he pushed us and held us to our commitments. Of course, he offered guidance, assistance, and coaching. But at the end of the day, we had to own our responsibilities. If we failed, the blame was ours; if we succeeded, the credit went to us. The experience forced me to grow and to recognize my own abilities.”
Oorah is still a big part of the Schnalls’ lives. “We return for Yamim Tovim and summer Shabbosim, and my wife is involved in the girls’ camp,” Rabbi Schnall says.
Many of the lessons he learned at Oorah have served Rabbi Schnall well in his role at the Agudah. “Kiruv and advocacy have similarities,” he explains. “When we speak to people in government, they often know little or nothing about Yiddishkeit. Just like at Oorah, we try to show them what it’s all about in a real and meaningful way. Another common denominator between outreach and advocacy is that both require patience and faith; neither offers instant payoff or gratification. In kiruv, you can invest in a person and wait years before seeing results. Sometimes we plant seeds and never get to watch them grow. In advocacy, too, we can spend months working on programs or bills that don’t pan out, don’t get passed, or take years to go into effect. But if you’re there for right reasons and you understand the importance of the work you are doing, you keep on going.”
Learning on the job
“Nine years ago, the Agudah took a big chance on me,” Rabbi Schnall shares. “At Oorah, I got to know Ralph Zucker, who is the chairman of the board of Agudath Israel of New Jersey. When he heard that I was looking for a full-time job, he asked me to come in for an interview.”
Rabbi Schnall’s had no background in politics and government when he applied.
“At the interview, I told the board that I knew nothing about government other than the facts that Chris Christie was New Jersey’s governor and Menashe Miller, whom I had gotten to know at Oorah, was an official in Lakewood. I was very upfront about my lack of experience, and my superiors never had false expectations of me. They said, ‘No one knows anything about the job until they start working. It will be a learning curve, but we’ll help you out.’
“It wasn’t always easy, and I made a lot of embarrassing mistakes at the beginning. I’ll never forget the first time I gave testimony in Trenton. I spent a lot of time practicing my speech and having others review it. Because the delivery went well, I was overconfident the second time I was called to give testimony. I didn’t ask for help, and at the trial, I lacked the right words, and the message I was trying to convey didn’t come through clearly. That experience taught me never to rely solely on myself. No one knows everything; we always need assistance, and we can always improve.
“I was able to improve because I was willing to mess up and do better the next time around. Of course, we never want to make mistakes. But it is important that when we do, we use the slip-ups as stepping stones to help us get to where we want to be. With this attitude, anyone can make it. No one is perfect, but as long as we’re open to critique and advice, we can always get better and better.”
Agudath Israel: ambassadors of Orthodoxy
Agudath Israel’s work is diverse and varied. The organization was formed to protect religious freedoms, aid Jewish private schools, and advocate for Orthodox Jewry. One of the Agudah’s main goals is to secure funding for yeshivos and schools.
“We work to get government funds and ensure that the regulations allow yeshivos to use them,” explains Rabbi Schnall. “Later, we let schools know about the funding and educate them on how they can utilize it. It’s a big job and a big responsibility—everyone must know and follow the same rules; we have to ensure that every institution is compliant. Another concern is the implementation of the programs. Once we have advocated for the money, we need to help the schools use it properly. For example, when we secure funding for school security or Title 1, we then follow through with the schools, educating them on regulations and helping them utilize the full grant.
“There is also a lot of government activism in Agudath Israel; we’ve recently worked on changing legislation for Hatzolah, opening schools during Covid, and fighting for religious liberties in hospitals. With Toms River and Jackson becoming havens for frum Jews, we put a lot of effort into changing busing and shul zoning laws there.
“Agudath Israel is a smorgasbord of services; a huge gamut of issues come to our desk. In our unique role as liaisons and spokesmen, we can help people in innumerable ways. We assist a lot of individuals with issues such as religious discrimination in the workplace, passports, immigration, kashrus laws, and zoning. Wherever there is a void or need, Agudah tries to fill it. For instance, last year we opened Yahalom, a resource center for families of special needs children, as an offshoot of Agudath Israel of New Jersey. We have helped over two hundred Lakewood families so far, and several branches of Yahalom have since opened in locations in other American cities. Agudath Israel is not laser focused on one niche; we are flexible in taking on the needs of the communities we serve.”
At the heart of Jewish advocacy is the effort to demystify and humanize Orthodoxy to the world and create sympathy among outsiders for frum needs. Within the gaping schism between the frum Jewish lifestyle and identity and the way the rest of Americans live, mistrust, misconception, and animosity can easily grow. How can we fight the hatred that is often born of disparity or ignorance?
Anti-Semitism is, quite literally, as old as the galus; it exists, and it will continue to exist until Mashiach comes. Rabbi Schnall explains his approach to the issue. “There are times when the hatred is blatant, and we see how real and how frightening it is. However, making the problem seem worse than it is is a dangerous proposition. We have to recognize that we haven’t had it this good in hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years. Here in America, religious freedom and protection are built into our Constitution. If we consider everyone who steps a bit out of line an anti-Semite, we will be surrounded by anti-Semites.
“Some people are of the opinion that when someone expresses anti-Semitic sentiments, he or she should be tracked down and punished. A few months ago, there was a story in another state of a cashier who refused to help a chassid who was not wearing mask. In an act of obvious anti-Semitism, she then went on to service a non-Jewish customer who was also unmasked. When the story reached the public, there were individuals who made a big fuss and got the cashier fired. Taking these steps often harm us more than they help us; firing the cashier accomplishes little positive change and only breeds more hatred in her and in everyone who knows her. Situations like these are complex, and they must be dealt with carefully and with an eye on the bigger picture.
“The truth is that we walk a thin tightrope, balancing the need to stand up for ourselves—recognizing, calling out, and responding to anti-Semitism—with the importance of keeping a low profile and appreciating the good we have. At Agudath Israel, we constantly have conversations with gedolim about how to react in instances of anti-Semitism.
“Here in Lakewood, we are used to living among frum people. While there are many benefits to this lifestyle, we can forget that we are constantly being watched and evaluated by the uninitiated. We must be cognizant of the fact that people see us; we don’t own the town, and we’re making impressions with whatever we do. We stand out; the words we speak and the actions we take all make a difference. Going about our daily lives, we must try to see things from an outsider’s perspective and recognize the reality that we can be a person’s only exposure to frum people.”
What you can do
“Advocacy is a unique opportunity to get involved and make things happen, a chance that costs no money and often takes little time. When it comes to phone calls, emails, petitions, and rallies, each individual makes an impact. You don’t need any talent, money, or fame; all you need to do is show up and show you care,” says Rabbi Schnall.
Agudath Israel constantly sends out calls to action urging people to take part in their efforts to help the klal. Anyone—and everyone—can get involved to make a real difference in their own lives and in the lives of Jews all across America.
Find information about what you can do to help at https://agudah.org.