Ever since I assumed the presidency of the Orthodox Union in November 2004, one of my major priorities has been the growth and development of smaller Jewish communities. I vividly remember the speech I gave on this theme at our Biennial National Convention in Jerusalem as I assumed office. Later that night, I participated in an impromptu meeting with several rabbis and lay leaders of smaller Jewish communities. That meeting led to the revival of the OU Smaller Jewish Communities Conferences, the first of which was held several months later in Milwaukee.
I have visited many such communities during my presidency, to spend a Shabbat, to listen, to learn, to teach, to speak and to build friendships that will, hopefully, last a lifetime. While it became clear to me during my travels that each community’s needs are different, there were consistent themes I found almost everywhere.
“How do we grow and increase our membership?” “How do we get more people to attend our services?” “How do we develop school systems that will attract highly qualified teachers?” “How do we get to critical mass, in order to afford the basics of Jewish life?” To my great satisfaction, I discovered that, given the availability of hundreds of thousands of kosher products, many of them with OU-certification, keeping a kosher lifestyle is possible, even in small Jewish communities.
It became apparent to me that the OU could be of assistance to smaller communities in several significant ways: First, we can help grow the Orthodox population in these areas by encouraging those living in larger Jewish communities to relocate. Smaller communities have much to offer: the cost of housing is dramatically lower than in larger, more developed Orthodox Jewish communities; day school education is more affordable and there is a higher quality of life, as well as a sense of community that I found missing to some degree in larger, more established areas.
An idea came to me: why not identify employment and business opportunities in these smaller communities, which could provide an economic incentive for Orthodox families to relocate? Our highly successful job-placement initiative based in the New York area, ParnossahWorks (parnossahworks.com), has placed hundreds of applicants in meaningful jobs that draw upon their education and skills. With the formation of the OU Job Board, we expanded the program to assist job applicants in cities across the country and even in Israel. This summer, I witnessed a Job Board-sponsored job fair, held at OU headquarters, at which twenty people were hired on the spot, and additional candidates received offers weeks in the weeks following the event. Another job fair was held right before Rosh Hashanah with similar results.
Through the Job Board, we are calling on smaller communities to participate in locating jobs for accountants, lawyers, doctors, business people, teachers and other professionals. We hope to sponsor a job fair on both the East and West Coasts in the near future; these events will give smaller Jewish communities the opportunity to highlight the advantages of living in their area.
Second, we hope to concentrate our efforts in assisting small shuls located in vibrant Jewish communities or in close proximity to them. We can help develop user-friendly synagogues that will attract all Jews in the local community, making them feel comfortable in an Orthodox environment. Expanding on the theme, “You don’t have to be Orthodox to belong to an Orthodox shul,” we must find a way to make every Jew feel comfortable and welcome in our synagogues. Almost every Jewish community can grow by attracting Jews in the local area who are either unaffiliated or who attend non-Orthodox synagogues. This alone can revitalize countless communities in North America. An Orthodox synagogue with 100 families of varying sizes in a Jewish community with 10,000 Jews has a targeted population of approximately 9,500 Jews who can transform that area into a wellspring of Torah and learning.
Under our Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, now led by the energetic Rabbi Bini Maryles, new ideas are emerging every day as we devote ourselves to marshalling the strengths of the OU and making them available to our shuls. I have committed myself to a North American tour, which began just after Sukkot and will continue through next spring. With God’s help, my wife, Genie, and I will spend Shabbat with ten small Jewish communities throughout North America. Throughout our visits, we hope to bring the OU message of the beauty and sweetness of Torah (“Derachehah darchei noam, Its ways are the way of pleasantness”) and a feeling of warmth and love for our fellow Jews.
In October, we launched the tour in Vancouver where we saw first-hand the extraordinary work of Vancouver NCSY. We also met Dr. and Mrs. David Freedman, who don’t take religious life for granted but have to work hard to ensure that their families live by Torah standards. A visionary, Dr. Freedman, president of Congregation Schara Tzedeck and founder of Pacific Torah Institute, is a pillar of the Vancouver Jewish community. Invariably, on these kinds of visits, Genie and I feel that we receive far more than we give.
This tour represents only one part of our efforts to assist smaller communities; upon my return from each specific location, I meet with OU staff to create a tailor-made program for each community. Through our coordinated efforts, with contributions from each OU department—including the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, NCSY, the Job Board, the Kashrut Division, the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) and the Young Leadership Cabinet (YLC)—we will enhance the flame of Torah throughout North America.
I am excited about the road trip and eagerly anticipate making new acquaintances and friendships. No OU community, no matter its size, needs to feel isolated or alone. The OU’s priority of strengthening smaller Jewish communities is just that—a priority—and our efforts on their behalf are certain to produce dramatic and enduring results.