A profile of Agudath Israel's executive vice president - Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is a man who needs no introduction - he's already received hundreds of them during his tenure as Agudath Israel's executive vice president. But while the public figure named Rabbi Zwiebel is a familiar one, the same can't be said for the private man until nowBY Yisroel BesserPHOTOS Meir Haltovsky
T h e M a n B e h i n d the Podium
ibi C h a i mDovid Zwiebel gets plenty of press time. His voice, insights, and opi nions are included, on a fairly regular basis, i n most Orthodox periodicals. We're all familiar w i t h his picture, and many of us have heard h i m speak. I n short, he's the k i n d of person the profile writer, always on the lookout for fresh personalities to feature, would avoid. Everyone knows h i m , right? Wrong.
I t was late Motzaei Shabbos, after the keynote session of the Agudath Israel convention had come to a close. Thousands of people had descended on the hotel for the event, and most had gone t h e i r respective ways, back to B r o o k l y n , Monsey, or Lakewood. Only the convention guests remained for a late-night Melaveh M a l k a h , and the crowd seemed very small and i n t i m a t e after the massive gathering. While people ate and chatted, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel who'd just delivered a masterful speech walked in. Everyone rose to their feet, i n an i m p r o m p t u display of appreciation, and started clapping. How did Rabbi Zwiebel react? The ovation, gathering steam as he stood there, trapped h i m like a deer caught in the headlights. Ablush slowly spread across his face, climbing to the roots of his hair. He looked perfectly miserable, and he was. Agudath Israel's executive vice president is a shy person. Public as his position may be, he's never grown comfortable w i t h the limelight. Further evidence that you don't really know the man: Last summer, this magazine asked various public figures for their choices for summer reading which books they w o u l d recommend to the readers, and why. The replies were fairly predictable: biographies and Jewish history, the occasional hashkafic work. Rabbi Zwiebel suggested a book by Shel Silverstein called The Giving Tree. I thought it was a joke, but there were no smiley-faces i n the e-mail. I therefore followed up w i t h a phone call. He earnestly discussed the value of the book, which sells for about eight dollars, sof tcover binding w i t h full-color illustrations. He also shared various quotes from the book, so laden w i t h depth and meaning that no explanation was necessary. "lam too big to climb and play" said the boy. "Iwant to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?" "I'm sorry "said the tree, "but I have no money, I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy." And this: "Cut down my trunk and make a boat," said the tree. "Then you can sail away... and be happy." And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy... The m a n who sometimes comes across as somewhat professorial has a deeply creative and original side, not always visible i n the black-and-white, politically correct world of Orthodox d i plomacy and bureaucracy. It was this person whom I wanted to get to know. A n d it was this person who welcomed me to his office at the Agudah headquarters, leading me to a cozy sitting area and joking about the quality of the coffee.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel gets his share of standing ovations, but he's never grown comfortable with the limelight
Reb Chaim Dovid with his father, Reb Yaakov Zwiebel and his son Sender (1992). "Mashiach should come and your office should burn down and you'll have to stay home"
Reb Chaim Dovid is a product of a generation in which grandparents were rare. His mother's father, a Kossover einekel with the illustrious name of Reb Mendel Hager, survived the war in Europe, only to be gunned down in Jerusalem in 1948. Other than that, there were no other grandparents. " I n my class at Chofetz Chaim, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there were maybe three children who had grandparents," he comments. Reb Yankev Zwiebel, his father, had been a successful banker in Danzig, Germany today Gdansk, Poland. When the Nazis ascended to power, the climate changed. One day he was so badly beaten by a Nazi that he
carried scars from the beating for the rest of his life. He was determined to leave but since he knew the challenges of finding an ehrliche girl in America, he was equally determined to marry before he went. In 1939, he found his bashert, Menucha Hager. Soon after the wedding, he took advantage of an immigration law that allowed entrance to the United States to anyone with $5,000 in cash. The hitch was that the law only allowed him to immigrate, without his spouse. His new wife had an appointment at the American consulate in Warsaw on September 9,1939. As it turned out, the date came eight days after Warsaw had been bombed, and the consulate was closed. She therefore embarked on a journey of her own, via Hungary and Greece, eventually arriving in America on Erev Yom Kippur 1940. The newly reunited Zwiebels tried to build a new life. Reb Yankev worked in the hosiery business, later becoming a wholesale lulav vendor. The family davened in the warm confines of the Sassover shtiebel, a community of shattered people united by shared experiences and dreams of a better tomorrow, as well as devoted to raising a new generation in a new world. "Yisro's daughter referred to Moshe Rabbeinu as the 'ish Mitzrihitzilanu! Chazal say it's a reference to the Mitzri that Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, an act that caused him to run. The Mitzri had been the catalyst in saving them. I always think about that, how the Nazi who beat my father really saved him. In fact, both my parents were the lone survivors of their families." Little Chaim Dovid was a ben yachid born after two girls. Did he have any childhood heroes? "Other than Mickey Mantle?" He pauses. "Don't worry, that changed when I got older and smarter," he deadpans. A longer pause. "Because I became a Mets fan. "On a serious level, my sisters were certainly a big part of my life: they were brilliant and gifted." A fleeting look crosses his face, pensiveness, a touch of pain. "My older sisters were special. Sarah was
The Man Behind the Podiumthe brilliant one, and Gladys had this exceptional gift with people. Later, the world would know her as Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, but to me, she was Gladys. I remember attending a school play and she had a starring role, as Captain Maguire. She had the whole audience in stitches; she just had this flair for drama. It was my first lesson in how a personality trait can be used for the good. Much later she was diagnosed with the illness that would eventually claim her life, but for 15 years she suffered in silence. No one knew how sick she was. She acted, just as she had back then, smiling, speaking, teaching with her customary energy and enthusiasm." Chaim Dovid attended Torah Vodaath, and after graduating high school he took accounting classes at night. "That was before the days of yeshivah credits," he explains. "Most of us would remain in yeshivah by day and attend Brooklyn College at night." He married the daughter of Reb Chaim Yitzchok Rosner, a son-in-law of the legendary Satmar rosh hakahal Reb Sender Freund. With Vizhnitzer lineage and Satmar influence, how did he end up with Agudath Israel? His relationship with the organization began while he was still a teenager, when he led Shabbos Pirchei groups at Rabbi Vorhand's shul, on the West Side. Later, he was asked to write for the Zeirei Forum, an Agudahsponsored publication for younger readers. A gifted writer, he was soon appointed editor. His columns from that era, "Thoughts from the Editor's Desk," typewritten, the lines slightly crooked, are bursting with eloquence. Rejoined the kollel of Torah Vodaath after he married. "But after two years, my shver had 'the talk' with me. It was time to find a parnassah." Reb Chaim Dovid had majored in accounting and taken additional classes in psychology at Brooklyn College, but since that wasn't what he wanted to do he enrolled at Cardozo Law School. There, he distinguished himself as someone with a sharp legal mind. His writing skills drew attention as well, and the Spring 1979 issue of the Cardozo Law Review featured David Zwiebel at the very top of the masthead, in his role as editor in chief of Volume I. "Of all the many hobbies and pursuits that I've been forced to give up over the years, I miss writing the most," he admits. "I found it so stimulating." After graduating, he interviewed with a law firm and experienced an encounter that would help shape his worldview. Reb Chaim Dovid explains that in those days it was hard for a person wearing a yarmulke to get an interview. When he entered the interview room, the associate looked at the yarmulke and then at him with surprise. "He studied my yarmulke and said, An observant Jew, huh?' I nodded. He then said, 'I'm also Jewish, but I got to tell you that I really resent you guys. On Friday afternoon, when we're knee-deep in a case, Mel from down the hall he's Orthodox, like you suddenly gets up and excuses himself. He's got to get home before sundown. I never get to leave that way. It's unfair, and it really bothers me.' "You can laugh," says Reb Chaim Dovid, "but I never forgot his resentment. It taught me that even though we have the right to defend our religious liberties and I've spent a good part of my career defending those liberties we still have to take into account how they perceive it, as unfair. We need to try to validate what they feel when we insist that we can't work Shabbos of Yom Tov. Our values aren't negotiable, but how we relate to the workers around us certainly is