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The Man behind the Podium

Yisroel Besser

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 now.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

man at the podiumRabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel gets plenty of press time. His voice, insights, and opinions are included, on a fairly regular basis, in most Orthodox periodicals. We’re all familiar with his picture, and many of us have heard him speak. In short, he’s the kind of person the profile writer, always on the lookout for fresh personalities to feature, would avoid. Everyone knows him, right?



First Surprises

It 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 their respective ways, back to Brooklyn, Monsey, or Lakewood. Only the convention guests remained for a late-night Melaveh Malkah, and the crowd seemed very small and intimate 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, in an impromptu display of appreciation, and started clapping. How did Rabbi Zwiebel react?

The ovation, gathering steam as he stood there, trapped him like a deer caught in the headlights. A blush 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 with 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 would 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 in the e-mail. I therefore followed up with a phone call.

He earnestly discussed the value of the book, which sells for about eight dollars, softcover binding with full-color illustrations. He also shared various quotes from the book, so laden with depth and meaning that no explanation was necessary.

“I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy. “I want 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 man who sometimes comes across as somewhat professorial has a deeply creative and original side, not always visible in the black-and-white, politically correct world of Orthodox diplomacy and bureaucracy. It was this person whom I wanted to get to know. And 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.

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