The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (UOR), often called by its Hebrew name, Agudath Harabonim or Agudas Harrabonim ("union of rabbis"), was established in 1901 in the United States and is the oldest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the United States. It had been for many years the principal group for such rabbis, though in recent years it has lost much of its former membership and influence.
The Agudath Harabonim was formed in 1902, in direct consequence to Solomon Schechter's takeover of the formerly-Orthodox Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). Within 100 days of Schechter's appointment, the Union formed and issued a statement critical of JTS and Schechter. They rejected any future graduate of JTS, though "... early students who emerged from there were full-hearted for the faith of Israel and its Torah."
Agudath Harabonim was also an answer to the Orthodox Union (OU), which had formed five years earlier. There was two distinct groups within the American Orthodox rabbinate: the Europeans and the American-born.... The Americans were English-speakers, often had a secular education, and competed with Reform (and later Conservative) movements for the heart of the modern American Jew. European transplants were often Yiddish-speaking with limited English skills, trained exclusively in rabbinics, and would be termed Haredi today, and had a stronger affinity to the entire body of religious texts; they were there to maintain standards. Though there were American scholars trained in the European path, and European schools that supported secular scholarship, most rabbis belonged to one camp or the other.
To the Europeans, the OU and its later affiliated Rabbinical Council of America, were a notch down in erudition, and perhaps a bit lax in religious law. Depending on where the Americans studied and how they were brought up, their credentials were also subject to question. The European set needed a fellowship to promote its ideas and raise its political capital, and the Agudath Harabanim served that need. While not entirely antagonistic to the OU, the Agudath Harabonim clearly had a diverging agenda.
One area where the OU leadership and the Agudath leadership cooperated was on kosher supervision. The Agudath Harabonim initially started raising standards in New York and elsewhere, but had some trouble getting the butchers and shochtim in line. Mendes and his OU brethren in New York lent them assistance in this area.
Among the main founding rabbis of the Agudath Harabonim were Bernard Levinthal, Moshe Zevulun Margolies (known as "RAMAZ"), Moshe Yisrael Shapiro; and S. A. Joffee. Margolies was from Europe, and equally at ease in Yiddish and English, had feet in both camps, with a personality well suited for the modern American congregation.
Among the well-known leaders from the Agudath Harabonim's past are Rabbis Eliezer Silver and Moshe Feinstein. In recent years, the organization has been under the direction of Rabbi Tzvi Meir Ginsberg.
Competing Haredi organizations
Almost form the start, the Agudath Harabonim had critics among the Yiddish-speaking Rabbis as well. In particular, Rabbi Gavriel Wolf "Velvel" Margolis felt that the Union was too lax in some areas of kashruth, too exclusive, and too interfering in the kashruth work he had been hired to do by his congregation. He founded a competing organization, the Knesseth Harabonim (Assembly of Hebrew Orthodox Rabbis). Evidence of the Knesseth exists starting around 1920, but a Knesseth convention claims that it had existed for some years previously; in any event, it had not been a successful organization prior to 1920.
Several public relations wars broke out between Knesseth and Agudath in the 1920s. Many of them were about competing claims of laxity in meat supervision, wine supervision, or legitimacy of import and licensing of sacramental wine during Prohibition.  However, not all was war, kashruth, or Prohibition. Both organizations worked on social issues of the day that affected Jews, and on the improvement of rabbinical life for their members.
A third, less-active group was the Council of Orthodox Rabbis (Degel Harabanim). It may have merged with Knesseth shortly after its founding. They are known to have shared conventions, especially in opposition to Agudath. The warring seems to have died down in the late 1940s or 1950s; Knesseth and Degel faded away as a separate organization.
A later group, also small, is the Iggud Harabanim (Rabbinical Alliance of America), founded in 1942.
Only Agudath and Iggud still function today, though neither is very active.
The organization has not shied away from controversy in the past .
In 1945, at Hotel McAlpin in New York City, the Agudath Harabonim "formally assembled to excommunicate from Judaism what it deemed to be the community's most heretical voice: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the man who eventually would become the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Kaplan, a critic of both Orthodox and Reform Judaism, believed that Jewish practice should be reconciled with modern thought, a philosophy reflected in his Sabbath Prayer Book.". The prayer book was allegedly burned.
The group has regularly placed advertisements in Jewish newspapers shortly before the High Holy Days, prohibiting worship at non-Orthodox synagogues. Similarly, the Friday April 4, 1997 edition of The Jewish Press, quoted from "A Historic Declaration", issued by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis on March 31, 1997:
- Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. Their adherents are Jews, according to the Jewish Law, but their religion is not Judaism...we appeal to our fellow Jew, members of the Reform and Conservative movements: Having been falsely led by heretical leaders that Reform and Conservative are legitimate branches and denominations of Judaism, we urge you to be guided by this declaration, and withdraw from your affiliation with Reform and Conservative temples and their clergy. Do not hesitate to attend an Orthodox synagogue due to your inadequate observance of Judaism. On the contrary, it is because of that inadequacy that you need to attend an Orthodox synagogue where you will be warmly welcomed...
The organization also condemned the National Jewish Outreach Program's (NJOP) Shabbat Across America/Canada (SAA) program because it co-ordinated and helped Reform and Conservative organizations. In an advertisement placed in the Friday March 7, 2003, edition of The Jewish Press it declared:
- ...Agudas Horabonim cannot approve of a call to attend a Reform or Conservative temple on Friday night, or any time. As important as Kiruv—bringing Jews closer to the synagogue—is, it must be carried out in accordance with the Halacha. Since the "Shabbat Across America/Canada" does not state that the synagogue must be Orthodox, clearly implying that it can also be a Reform and Conservative temple, the Agudas Harabonim strongly disapproves, and warns all Jews not to take part in the "Shabbat Across America/Canada" program.
One of the leading organizers of the above public protests was Rabbi David Hollander, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and writer in New York.
In 2005, French politician Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor, was invited to speak at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Yehuda Levin, on behalf of the Union, wrote to the President of Poland that it was inappropriate for Veil to speak at the event, since by "having brought about the legalization of abortion in France" she was "responsible for an ongoing destruction of human life far exceeding that of the Nazis".
Notable current members of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the USA and Canada:
- Honorary President: Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, world-renowned Halachic authority and Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem.
- Av Beis Din: Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam
- Rabbi Hershel Kurzrock, Av Beis Din of Iggud HaRabbonim.
- Rabbi Dov Aron Brisman, Av Beis Din of Philadelphia.
- Rabbi Dovid Schochet, president of the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto
- Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, Av Beis Din of the Va'ad Harabonim of Queens.
- Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood.
- Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, a senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University's RIETS.
- Rabbi J. David Bleich, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University's RIETS and a world-renowned authority on Jewish law and ethics.
- Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem – Staten Island Campus.
- Rabbi Elozor Yonah Ginsberg, Av Beis Din of K'hal Agudas Achim Brooklyn.
- Rabbi Avraham Osdoba, Senior member of the Crown Heights Beis Din, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Central Chabad Yeshiva.
- Rabbi Zalman Labkowski, Rosh Yeshiva of the Central Chabad Yeshiva.
- Rabbi Yosef Heller, Senior member of the Crown Heights Beis Din, and Rosh Kollel of the Crown Heights Kollel.
- Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky, senior Halachic authority of Crown Heights.
- Rabbi Leib Schapiro, Rosh Yeshiva and senior Halachic authority of Miami Beach.
- Rabbi Jacob Israel Blumenfeld, Chief Rabbi of Rio de Janeiro.
- Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division.
- Rabbi Chaim Krauss, Av Beis Din Ohel Chaim in Brooklyn.
- Rabbi Sholom Shuchat, Rabbi in Crown Heights.
- Rabbi Ovadiah Fabbi, Av Beis Din of Las Vegas.
Critics of Agudath Harabonim's efforts claim that the group's leadership does not deserve a media bully pulpit to denounce the practices of other American Jewish movements, because its rabbinical membership represents a statistically small portion of the total number of rabbis ordained by all movements in the United States, and even by the Orthodox movement itself.
In addition, they maintain that the group's controversial activities are not vocally supported by the American Orthodox Jewish community as whole, because its centrist and Modern Orthodox rabbinical members generally do not appear with the group during such announcements. In addition, rabbis maintaining membership in both the UOR and Rabbinical Council of America frequently tend to place greater importance in, and watch more carefully, the activities of the RCA, thus making their support of UOR activities marginal at best.
At present, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada does not maintain an official website.
- Gurock, Jeffrey S. American Jewish History, Volume 5: The history of Judaism in America. KTAV. p. 162.
- Sprecher, Hannah. "Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition" (PDF). American Jewish Archives. p. 172-173. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
32. Gurock, Resisters and Accommodators, pp. 147–148, describes this ongoing conflict as follows:
- 'This senior scholar, the reputed [sic] author of several European-published rabbinic tracts, quickly elected chief rabbi of several New England area congregations, saw little personal value in affiliating with the relatively new rabbinic organization. If anything, he recognized the Agudat ha-Rabbanim as an organizational establishment which stood in the way of his economic and rabbinic-political advancement through the kashruth industry. . . . he undertook a decade-long campaign to undermine the reliability of Agudat ha-Rabbanim within New York Orthodox circles.'
- Arthur A. Goren, [Transitional] Institutions Transplanted, in The Jews of North America, ed. Moses Rischin (Detroit, 1987), p. 73, describes the conflict as follows: 'In 1911 Adath Israel appointed the eminent rabbi, scholar and preacher, Gabriel Ze'ev Margolis, as its spiritual leader. The Adath Israel leadership, with Margolis at its head and with the support of the Morgen Zhurnal, the Orthodox Yiddish daily, entered the thicket of communal politics. For the next decade it attempted to federate all Orthodox institutions with the goal of communalizing the supervision of kosher meat and religious education. Although the effort proved abortive, it illustrates the communal thrust latent in the traditional hevra kadisha society.'
- Sprecher. "In January 1920 Gabriel Wolf Margolis finally received the recognition that had eluded him when, together with 135 other he formed the Assembly of Hebrew Orthodox Rabbis of America."
- "11th Annual Convention of K'nesseth Ha'rabonim". Jewish Daily Bulletin. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. May 12, 1926. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- Sprecher. Even the Assembly of Orthodox Rabbis entered the fray, sending telegrams to Wilson, President-elect Harding, and various congressmen. As reprinted in the organization's Sefer Knesset haRabbanim, they contained the following message: "Ministering as we do largely among erstwhile strangers in our land, we can testify that they are ready to embrace American ideals at the first opportunity. To create legislation which would leave undying pain in hearts of all American immigrants would certainly leave a poor background for us to do Americanization work."
- Zachary Silver, "A look back at a different book burning," The Forward, June 3, 2005
- Debra Nussbaum Cohen, How a small Orthodox group wrote a national story, Jewish Telegraphic Agency [j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California], April 4, 1997
- Article Details
- E.g., "The Agudas Horabbonim still exists, but is little more than a paper organization." Jerome Chanes, A Primer on the American Jewish Community, American Jewish Committee
- E.g., "The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada comprises a fraction of the Orthodox rabbinate in North America, and in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, despite massive support from the government, still reach only a fraction of the population." Remarks of Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), April 12, 1997 Archived February 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.