Take a stroll with me to 22 Rechov Keren HaYesod in Yerushalayim. There you will find the Seymour J. Abrams Jerusalem World Center of the Orthodox Union. Come inside and take a look for yourself. You will see hundreds of OU members from all over the world who have the great privilege of living in our holy city. For them, the Israel Center is a home. Yes, it’s a little nostalgic when they gather together and reminisce about life in the Diaspora. But it is so much more. Offering an array of programs, lectures and shiurim for the English-speaking population in Israel, the Israel Center is a tremendous source of pride for us; we feel privileged that we touch the lives of thousands of Orthodox Jews there.
This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The OU, the founder of NCSY, the largest and most successful youth organization in North America, decided some years ago that it was time for us to bring our kiruv “know-how” to Israeli society.
I must admit, at first, I was skeptical. After all, there are so many outreach organizations in Israel already. Did we want to become just another one? But in 2006 we had the good fortune of Rabbi Avi Berman joining our staff in Israel as director-general of OU Israel. A dynamic, charismatic professional, Rabbi Berman had served as the NCSY regional director in Vancouver, British Columbia, for five years, where he turned on countless teenagers to Judaism, both in Canada and in the American Northwest. Rabbi Berman, who was born in the United States, made aliyah with his parents as a young boy, served in the IDF, obtained semichah, and came on shelichut to the OU. When Rabbi Berman decided to move back to Israel four years ago, it was natural for us to select him to head our kiruv efforts in Israel.
The first day Rabbi Berman reported to work, the Lebanon War broke out, and Hezbollah began firing a steady stream of rockets into Israel’s north. Rabbi Berman mobilized his staff and nearly 900 volunteers to go up north to bring provisions for families in bomb shelters and provide entertainment for the children. At the same time, the Israel Center became a refuge for many Israelis who fled south. I don’t know of too many people who start a new job under such circumstances and yet perform so brilliantly, literally under fire.
Once the War was over, we, together with our Israel Center Commission, chaired by Senior Vice President Yitzchak Fund and Honorary Vice President Harvey Wolinetz, decided to forge ahead with our efforts to develop programs that would change the character of Israel, one person at a time. We had two goals, reflected in our two slogans: “Making Israeli Jews Jewish Israelis,” and “Connecting the Jewish People.” Taken as a whole, these two slogans exemplify what the Israel Center is all about. Using NCSY as a model, Rabbi Berman perfected a program called Makom Balev, our now-growing youth organization with chapters all over Israel. Building on that success, we created the Jack E. Gindi Oraita program, which aims at taking at-risk teens off the street and inspiring them to set goals and achieve them. At an Oraita Club, teens can hang out in the evenings in a safe, friendly and religiousenvironment, playing pool eating dinner or studying Torah with a chavruta.
I have personally visited many of these clubs, where you can find a pool table, video games and a high-definition television in one room, and a mini beit midrash, with young people learning Torah texts in the next room. I’ll never forget the time I visited one of the clubs with my wife in Maale Adumim during the summer. As we entered, we saw twenty-five young men sporting earrings, tattoos, and chains around their necks; upon looking closer, I noticed each of the young men had a kippa on his head, and was learning Mesillat Yesharim.
When it comes to outreach, there is no place in the world like Israel. Learning Jewish texts is fairly easy for an Israeli, who already knows the language; kosher food is plentiful, and Shabbat is easy to keep, as it’s the national day of rest. Engaging in outreach in Israel is an opportunity we simply cannot forego.
One of the locations in which we run our Makom Balev program is Sderot. A few years ago, when rockets kept raining down on Sderot, traumatizing its population, the Israel Center was there, supporting and uplifting the residents. The Israel Center raised funds to build bomb shelters and even shelters with indoor playgrounds so that Sderot’s children could forget about air raids—at least temporarily. We hired teams of psychologists to work with high school students, helping them cope with the ongoing stress and trauma. Our teams of therapists got these students to talk about their lives and their anxieties, offering immeasurable support and comfort during a very difficult time.
Aware of how important successful role models are to being effective in outreach, the Israel Center launched Lev Yehudi Yisraeli, a kiruv initiative that encourages young religious families to relocate to secular communities, thereby spiritually strengthening the local populations. With more than 250 such families in neighborhoods throughout Israel, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli is effecting dramatic changes and is winning over the hearts of the most avid secularists.
Another critical program we run is the Pearl and Harold M. Jacobs OU Zula Outreach Center in Jerusalem. Attracting between 100 and 200 troubled teens each night, The Zula offers professionally trained advisors, psychologists and social workers and a warm, accepting atmosphere. Many of The Zula’s “graduates” take control of their lives and end up returning to Yiddishkeit.
As we entered, we saw twenty-five young men sporting earrings, tattoos, and chains around their necks; upon looking closer, I noticed each of the young men had a kippa on his head, and was learning Mesillat Yesharim.
Together, Makom Balev, The Zula, and Oraita reach some 5,000 young people annually. But that’s not all. The Israel Center, cognizant of the self-sacrifice of our young, idealistic IDF soldiers, created the Mashiv Haruach program. Working closely with the educational branch of the IDF, Mashiv Haruach takes soldiers on tours of Gush Etzion and Yeshivat Har Etzion for a glimpse into the world of Torah. More than 15,000 military personnel each year are brought closer to their Jewish roots through this one-of-a-kind program.
Week after week, the Israel Center’s Educational Director Phil Chernofsky produces Torah Tidbits, a widely read parashah publication reaching more than 8,000 English speakers in Israel.
But there is yet one more area in which the Israel Center plays a significant role, and that is kashrut. I know how confusing kashrut is in Israel. Many products have multiple hashgachot, and one has a hard time figuring out which ones are acceptable. While the OU has been in the kashrut business in Israel for many years, our certification was mostly used for products that were exported. However, in light of the fact that we have a significant constituent base of North American Orthodox Jews living in and visiting Israel, we decided that we need to play a more visible role in setting kashrut standards in Israel.
Under the direction of Rabbi Yosef Minsky, we have been able to grow and expand the OU certification in Israel. As a result, today there are restaurants in Jerusalem with OU certification, as well as more and more products in Israeli supermarkets bearing the OU symbol. So next time you walk down Rechov Keren HaYesod and pass the OU Israel Center, stop in for a visit. There is a lot to be proud of. I am proud to be an OU member, not just in North America but in our holy country. OU Israel is truly a makom balev–a place in “my” heart.
May we all be blessed with a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, a year of peace, health and happiness.
(To find out how you can be part of our exciting kiruv initiatives in Israel, contact Rabbi Avi Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org.)