That Time I Crashed the Agudah Convention

By Ari Mandel (The Times of Israel)
September 9, 2015

It was late 2012, and I’d had some recent success forcing the Orthodox Jewish community to acknowledge that child molestation is a bad thing, and that it might indeed occur behind the Iron Mechitza, but the job was — and remains — far from done, and I was looking for ways to keep up the momentum.

One of my biggest frustrations was with Agudath Israel, who shamelessly profess to be forward-thinking and progressive, while under their breath advising parents and teachers not to report allegations of abuse to the authorities.

The annual Agudah convention was coming up and I wanted to force them to defend their detestable position, but I didn’t think I could get a crowd out to Middle-of-Nowhere, New Jersey on a Saturday night for a protest, which meant the media spotlight wouldn’t be there either, so I decided to try a different tactic. Some of my favorite activists of all time are The Yes Men, and while I wasn’t going to be quite as confrontational as they are, I would take a page out of their book and crash the Agudah convention.

I deputized a handful of trustworthy friends and we went into full guerrilla mode. We got ahold of that year’s convention stationary and wrote up the most Jewy-sounding Kol Koreh (rabbinical proclamation) ever, laced with Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic phrases, references to sages and holy books, and a rock-solid halachic ruling, calling for any suspicions of abuse to be reported to the authorities immediately. We argued and agonized over every syllable, and then printed up several thousand copies.

As I drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike that Saturday evening, the five us all dressed as Orthodox-looking as we possibly could, I drilled my team on the rules of engagement and tactics for the evening. Move with a purpose. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Act and look matter-of-fact. Try to avoid any sort of interactions. If asked, say you were instructed to pass around our weapons of mass instruction, but you’re just a convention volunteer — you know nothing. If anyone grows suspicious or you’re outed — leave. Call me immediately, and I’ll scoop you up in the car from a predetermined rally point.

We arrived at the hotel and I circled it several times, making note of the various entrances and exits, which areas were busier and which were quieter, what was the quickest way out of the parking lot and onto the highway, and so on. One worrying thing we noticed was that the garage, along with the rest of the hotel, was being patrolled by Shomrim, in addition to the hotel security staff. Shomrim are essentially ultra-Orthodox volunteer patrolmen, but they’ve been known to dabble in vigilantism from time to time… My close-cropped haircut and white shirt/black pants/yarmulke ensemble would fool the non-Jewish hotel rent-a-cops, and probably the Shomrim too, but some of our motley crew were a little less inconspicuous.

“Here’s the plan, boys and girls,” I said, as I parked on the third floor of the five-story garage, “we’re splitting into three teams. Two of you are going to the top of the garage and working your way down, two of you are going to the bottom and working your way up, and I’m going inside. I want every car to have a paper. In the door handle, under the windshield wiper, wherever. Leave no car behind. Three, two, one, go!” Everybody grabbed a stack, and we split up.

I was careful not to make any eye-contact as I made my way through the hotel and towards the main ballroom. I looked the part, speak the lingo and fit right in, but that didn’t stop my heart from pounding in my ears. Having been in the news quite a bit recently, I was worried about being recognized and outed.

As I walked through the lobby leading into the ballroom, which was functioning as a rogues gallery of the offensively ridiculous and the ridiculously offensive, from Ami Magazine (offensive) to kosher phones and Internet filters (ridiculous), I could hear the fire and brimstone speech coming from the ballroom. I was passing the Yated table, scoffing silently at the term “Torah Judaism,” (whatever that means) when suddenly I almost walked into Yankel Horowitz. He’s a friend, but I made a hasty about-face and decided to stop playing amateur anthropologist, and finish what I come here to do, before I get myself busted, and ruin the mission.

I began leaving stacks of fake pronouncements on tables, chairs, counters, couches, and every other available surface. I had just finished distributing my stash when my phone went off. “Flick was busted in the garage! Come fast!” Goddamn Flick (all names have been changed. Extra credit if you recognize the origin of the pseudonyms). I knew his ponytail and big mouth would get us in trouble. Walking as fast as I could without raising suspicion, I typed into the group chat “ABORT MISSION. GET IN THE CAR. WE’RE LEAVING NOW.” I was glad to find the hallway empty, and I sprinted down it, skipped the elevator and took the stairs two at a time, as I raced to the third floor of the parking garage.

As I turned the car on, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d been programmed in the army to always park facing out — ready to roll. ”What happened?” I asked a clearly anxious Schwartz, “I don’t know,” she said. You know, Schwartz is nervous when she’s speaking English and not her usual beautifully poetic Yiddish. “A security guard got suspicious of Flick, and alerted the Shomrim on the radio.”

What a goddamn mess…

I could hear radios crackling and barking all over the garage as I waited for the stragglers to get back. “We need to go NOW!” I frantically typed into the phone. Just then my phone rang again, it was Flick. “I’m across the street where we arranged to meet. They’re looking for us. Get out!” I told him we were on our way, and not to move.

Orange-vested Chassidic dudes with walkie talkies were running around the garage and yelling to each other as the last of the gang jumped into the SUV and I took off. “Please be quiet till we get out of here, I need to concentrate,” I said. We arrived at the exit, but to my horror there were Shomrim members stopping and checking every car before they allowed to leave. I kept driving. There was no way we’d get past them. “How the hell am I going to get out of here?”

After what seemed like an eternity of going in circles and dodging Jewish police wannabes, I noticed an “Entrance Only” sign off in a corner of the garage. I gunned the engine, racing down the wrong way of the one-way lane, and sure enough, it was an unattended entrance! I shot through it, thankful that nobody happened to be coming through it at that moment, and found myself in a hotel employee parking lot. Thanks to the recon we had done earlier I knew exactly where to go, and ninety seconds later we had Flick and were on the New Jersey Turnpike headed north.

The car erupted in high fives, cheers, and excited debriefings. We had only been inside for about twenty minutes, but we managed to cover a majority of the cars, and spread papers across the two main convention areas of the hotel. We laughed and talked excitedly all the way back to Brooklyn, and then, being all hopped up on adrenaline and Red Bull, Flick and I decided to spend the rest of the night spreading the leftover flyers all over Brooklyn. We went to shuls, schools and kollels, leaving stacks of papers on tables, bimas, poster boards and anywhere else we could think of. Shomer Shabbos, Chaim Berlin, Mir, Munkatch, Amnon’s Pizza — no one was spared.

Eventually, I dropped him off at home and drove to Monsey, NY, where I did the same, with the help of a then deeply undercover chassidic friend of mine, Brunner. Viznitz, Satmar, Bais Medrash Elyon, Bais Shraga, and a dozen other locations where festooned with my fake Agudah rulings. Finally, I called it a night and drove home. I posted the paper online with the caption “seen at the Agudah convention” (the truth), sent it to my media contacts, and went to bed, looking forward to the firestorm I would wake up to.

I’m not going to lie, I would’ve loved for our little stunt to have made a bigger dent. It got around, it made some waves for a minute, Matzav.com even posted it as breaking news, but they got the word from on high pretty quickly and pulled the story. Agudah was smart enough not to comment on it publicly, but I did receive an email exchange from a secret tipster, in which Avi Shafran, Agudah flak and all around disingenuous spinster, expressed deep frustration to Dovid Zweibel, Agudah’s executive vice president, at the ability of the unknown “villainous saboteurs” to infiltrate the convention, and the chutzpah to spread false rulings.

There have been some small positive steps over the last few years, but the Orthodox community has a long way to go towards fixing the problems of child molestation and the culture of denial and cover-up. It took the Catholic Church decades, billions of dollars, countless members, and immeasurable damage to their reputation to finally begin to deal with their molestation problem. I hope the Orthodox community will be smarter — for their own sake.