When the coronavirus struck, it came fast and furious, sending the world into a tail spin— economically, emotionally, spiritually. COVID-19 created a crisis that no one could have predicted or prepared for. And yet, thanks to its ever-widening circle of influence, born of trust and an infrastructure that has been growing for over 120 years, the Orthodox Union was uniquely prepared to deal with this crisis. It responded to COVID-19 in much the same way it has responded to the many challenges it has faced since its inception: stepping in and stepping up, swiftly and decisively.
In 1898 it was indeed a crisis—if not of sickness and death but of Jewish spiritual survival—that brought 12 American Orthodox synagogues together to form the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. The battle was to preserve and strengthen traditional Judaism and fight for the religious rights of Jewsin America. It was the OU that obtained permission for Jewish soldiers in the Spanish-American War to receive furloughs for yom tov; helped Sabbath observers find jobs via the OU’s employment bureau; fought the blue laws; created a Youth Division and a Women’s Branch. And it was in the late 1920s that Women’s Branch representatives began personally inspecting food manufacturing plants and pressing the OU rabbinical leadership to expand its kashrut supervision efforts, which led towhat the OU is best known for: its kosher seal of approval.
And so, in March, when it became starkly clear that the coronavirus was not a passing phase, the OU responded immediately on both a communal and an individual level. We asked ourselves: What do
communities need now and how can we provide it? What do individuals—children, parents, the elderly, people with disabilities—need, and how can we help them?
It began with listening to our OU partners and constituents as they shared their concerns, fears, needs, and wishes. Then followed phone calls and discussions at all hours, sleepless nights, departments joining forces, leaders and lay leaders checking in with employees and coworkers. Decisions made, programs overhauled, revamped, and recreated in a matter of hours and days, meeting the community’s needs in creative, out-of-the-box ways, using technology and our connections around the globe.
We helped bring shuls and rabbis clarity, direction, and guidance as centers for our dispersed community and for the leaders who, in many cases, needed help guiding their congregations. Our virtual conference with Dr. Anthony Fauci helped clarify shul guidelines, which have evolved through consultation with other top infectious disease specialists including the U.S. Surgeon General, spiritual leaders, and rabbanim from across the country.
Recognizing the severe economic toll the pandemic was taking on our community, the OU Advocacy Centerwas able to affect fast-moving federal and local legislation: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act ensured that our Jewish schools and shuls would get as much monetary relief as possible. The OU Advocacy Center continues its tireless work to maximize monetary relief for our community.
With thousands of Jewish teens left without summer programs, the OU developed Project Community 2020, a platform of local social and educational activities for over 4,400 teens, college students, and Yachad members across the United States and Canada. Chessed programs included rebuilding a house with Habitat for Humanity, planting vegetable gardens, painting local parks, offering free car washes,connecting teenswith seniors, installing mezuzahs, and hosting carnivals for individuals with disabilities. GO (Girls Only) and Kollel sessions also took place in various communities.
Concentrating on the emotional and spiritual needs of specific populations, we created online seminars with therapists, and the OU’s Center for Community Research coordinated surveys to understand the mental health effects of COVID-19. Our rabbanim created wide-ranging Torah-based programming, including a daily Tehillim call attended by thousands.
And we focused on meeting physical needs, as the OU's Teach Coalition advocated for and helped facilitate government distribution of over seven million free kosher meals throughout New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In New Jersey, Teach Coalition was also able to obtain $25 per student for school security, despite the state’s deficit.
Indeed, thanks to effective leadership across the board, 2019–20 was one of the OU’s most successful fundraising years—a true testament to a strong partnership with our community
Between a $1 million gift to Yachad, a generous gift from Drs. Miriam and Felix Glaubach and family for the NCSY Shevet Glaubach Fellowship, and many other significant commitments from donors, federations, and foundations, the OU continues to gather momentum.
In the midst of this worldwide crisis, the OU has sadly bid farewell to Allen Fagin, to whom we are collectively and individually indebted for his commitment, vision, counsel, and leadership. Taking the helm were Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer and Executive Vice President and COO Rabbi Josh Joseph, Ed.D. Building on Allen’s legacy, the two will stay true to the DNA of the OU as an organization rooted in Torah addressing the community’s needs. Throughout the pandemic, they, along with OU’s lay leadership, have actively managed the organization, this communal asset, ensuring continuity for generations to come.
Then there was the time just before any of us could have fathomed COVID-19, when the Siyum HaShas— with a sell out crowd of 90,000—showed Klal Yisrael’s commitment to Torah and community.Hundreds of NCSYers attended this historic celebration on January 1, an experience that undoubtedly helped strengthen these young people spiritually for the challenges that were to come.
These are indeed historic times, and despite the bad news we hear daily, there is hope for the future. With the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates(UAE) and Israel, OU Kosher’s Rabbi Krakowskiwas on the first plane to the UAE to ensure the food served to Jewish guests followed Jewish law.
Through COVID-19, individuals, families, children, adults, and communities have all experienced profound change. But difficult times can bring out the best in people, and the “new normal” has been a catalyst for personal and communal growth, for reaching beyond boundaries and discovering new sources of strength. At the OU, we too will continue to embrace what we learn, as together, we face this new world—both its challenges and its blessings.