Looking Back, Looking Forward

by | in President's Message

For the last six years, I have considered myself to be the most fortunate Jew in the world. During these years, I’ve had the great privilege to be president of what I believe is the most important Orthodox Jewish organization. There is no organization like the Orthodox Union (OU) that is involved on a daily basis in virtually every aspect of Jewish life.

While I have traveled throughout the length and breadth of North America representing the OU, I have never been able to succinctly explain its essence. Thus, during the many Shabbatot when I am visiting one of our shuls and delivering the derashah, I always look to the parashah to try to convey what the OU is all about. Just recently, I related the following in a derashah: As we all know, in Parashat Shemot, following Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the baby boys, Yocheved puts the infant Moshe in a basket in the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter hears him crying and stretches out her arm, bringing the crying infant to safety. Describing the scene, the Torah states, “V’hinei na’ar bocheh,” “And behold! a young lad was crying.” Many commentaries discuss the Torah’s odd use of the word “na’ar,” which means a young boy, not an infant.

The Ba’al HaTurim explains that indeed, it was not the infant who was crying. It was Aharon, Moshe’s older brother. Standing next to the water, Aharon, observing his brother in distress, started to cry. I have always found the message in this interpretation to be most meaningful: When you see another Jew in trouble, how can you not cry?

This indeed has always been the OU’s motto and mission statement. When we look out at the broader Jewish world and see it in a state of crisis and distress, how could we not cry? How could we remain indifferent?

With the devastating economic crisis affecting Jews across the religious spectrum, we heard the crying and felt the deep pain of our brothers and sisters, and established the OU Job Board. In the few short years the OU Job Board has been in existence, it has helped hundreds learn many critical job-hunting skills and find employment. I have personally attended a few of the OU Job Board’s phenomenally successful job fairs, and witnessed the delight on the faces of those who have found employment through it.

“V’hinei na’ar bocheh.” We heard the crying and felt the pain of the soaring rates of assimilation and intermarriage ravaging our community. How did we respond? We pumped significant funding into NCSY, the largest Jewish teenage outreach program in North America. Each year, NCSY touches 35,000 teenagers across the continent, many of whom get their first taste of Shabbat through our Shabbatonim. We established the Jewish Student Union, specifically geared for public school students, and have reached thousands of kids who are Jewish in name only through our more than 200 JSU clubs in high schools throughout the North America.

“V’hinei na’ar bocheh.” We heard the crying and felt the pain of the Jewish disabled who are often excluded from religious life. We created Yachad, our highly successful program that provides social and religious opportunities for developmentally disabled children and young adults, fulfilling their dreams of Inclusion.

I’ve seen the joy of Yachad members who attend Shabbatonim surrounded by friends. I’ve seen parents of Yachad members, who never dreamed their disabled children would ever have such an opportunity, crying tears of joy in the airport after sending their son or daughter off for a six-week Yachad summer program in Israel.

“V’hinei na’ar bocheh.” We heard the crying and felt the alienation of our Israeli brothers and sisters who grow up ignorant of their Jewish heritage. So we founded Makom Balev, and the Jack E. Gindi Oraita Clubs as well as other programs, overseen by the Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center, which seek to bring secular Israelis closer to Torah in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way.

Dr. Simcha Katz, the OU’s new president, speaking at the convention held this past January.

I can go on and on about our various programs and departments including the Community Services Department, which provides ongoing and meaningful programs for communities across the country; the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, which supports our vast network of shuls in communities large and small; the Institute of Public Affairs in Washington, which provides access to governmental officials on the local, state and federal levels; Jewish Action magazine, our refreshingly open quarterly magazine that is chock-full of thought-provoking, relevant articles; the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which provides Orthodox programming on secular college campuses, and so much more. Regardless of the particular program, our mission is always the same: to heed and respond to the diverse needs of the Jewish community.

That’s what we’re all about at the OU. We have no limits; we have no boundaries. Our goal is to help the Jewish community. Our aim is to reach out to those who are unaffiliated and to strengthen those who are affiliated.

The last six years have been extremely rewarding. I feel honored that many of the goals I established—in particular, strengthening the interconnectivity of the various OU divisions and ensuring greater follow-up through our growing NCSY alumni program—will be major components of the new administration.
I feel particularly blessed that I have been selected to be the chairman of the board during the next administration and will continue to work hard for the OU and the Jewish community.

I will also continue to travel and inform Jews throughout North America about the vital work of the OU. When I first became president, I was very fortunate to have succeeded Harvey Blitz, who worked diligently to ensure that the OU would have a strong financial base. This has enabled me to continue to grow the organization and attract the best talent in the industry. Our new president, Dr. Simcha Katz, is a thoughtful, honest and talented Jewish leader. I know Simcha will be an outstanding president of the OU, and I feel privileged to be chairman of the board during his administration.

In particular, I want to express my gratitude to my dear wife, Genie, who has traveled with me throughout the continent and the world, serving as a most gracious first lady, and representing the OU in the finest way possible.

In the years and months ahead, the OU will continue to remain attuned to the ever-changing needs of our community, and respond to the pain and suffering of the Jewish people the world over. We remain confident that Hashem will continue to bless this organization and to provide us with the resources and the wisdom to unite the Jewish community under one banner, Torah u’Mitzvot.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2011.

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