On Sunday, January 16, at the Biennial National Convention of the Orthodox Union in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, Dr. Simcha Katz officially assumed the position of the 13th President of the OU. With semicha from the RIETS Seminary of Yeshiva University, with graduate degrees in engineering, business and finance, with 25 years of involvement in the Orthodox Union, notably as Chairman of its Kashrut Commission, which oversees the work of the world’s largest and most respected kosher certification agency, Dr. Katz brings to his position living proof that one can excel in the outside world while devoting his life to Torah and mitzvot.
With four children and 16 grandchildren, who were at the Convention to cheer him on, Dr. Katz intimately knows that family is at the heart of Orthodox Jewish life. Quoting the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Dr. Katz said in his inaugural address, “The purpose of the entire Egypt experience was to develop for B’nai Yisrael a sense of family, a sense of unity, a sense of caring for one another, a sense of Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh (the Jewish people are responsible for one another). The OU in its many activities is a communal manifestation of this sense of unity and caring.”
The following is the text of that address:
How did I get here?
Five years ago, I received a call from the Orthodox Union President, Steve Savitsky, and then it was followed up by a call from my close friend for over thirty years, Rabbi Menachem Genack, asking me to serve as Chairman of the OU Kashrut Commission. I was happily learning half-a-day in a Beit Midrash in Passaic, and then free to do whatever I wished. I knew that being the Chairman of Kashrut would be very time consuming, so I asked my spiritual mentor, Rabbi Genack, “What will happen to my learning?” He responded, “The Torah world will survive!”
Over the last few weeks in the weekly Torah portion, we read of the birth of the Jewish people as a nation in the crucible of Mitzrayim. The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) suggests that the purpose of the entire Egypt experience was to develop for B’nai Yisrael a sense of family, a sense of unity, a sense of caring for one another, a sense of Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh. The OU in its many activities is a communal manifestation of this sense of unity and caring. Our mission is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life .We are a great unifying tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such we are the central address for those issues which can best be handled on a national basis. Let me touch on two areas, assimilation and tuition affordability.
Challenges: Assimilation, Tuition:
Preserving Jewish life starts with addressing assimilation. Outside of New York, 70 percent of Jews intermarry. We have in place several wonderful outreach and inreach programs. NCSY | Jewish Youth Leadership, the OU’s international youth program, in twelve different regions throughout the United States and Canada as well as our partnership with the 250 Jewish Student Union culture clubs in public high schools, reach out to teenagers totally unaffiliated or marginally affiliated with Jewish tradition. Together, both programs have current enrollments of 35,000 teenagers.
We also recognize the extraordinary challenge to our yeshiva day school graduates in maintaining traditional values on college campuses. Under the auspices of our JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus), we have placed couples on 15 college campuses to reach out to these day school graduates to keep these students engaged in traditional Jewish life and not to disappear into the melting pots of the universities.
Several weeks ago, my wife Pesh and I spent a Shabbos with the 15 couples at a retreat in Baltimore .We were impressed with the passion and commitment that each of these couples reflected, but the couples are clearly overwhelmed. Take the University of Maryland campus in College Park, for example, a destination campus for many of our yeshiva day school graduates. This year’s entering class had 150 yeshiva day school graduates, joining the 300-plus that are already on campus. The JLIC educators cannot reach out to more than 120 -150 in a meaningful way. On a Friday night, less than 200 students show for tefillah or meals. Where are the other 300? How do we reach them before they become an assimilation statistic? In both these areas of high school and college-age youth, we need to do more, and it will require more focus and more resources.
Let’s touch on tuition affordability. When I completed my doctoral thesis, we were living in a railroad apartment in Washington Heights; we had two children, and Pesh worked and took care of everything, so I could be free. I thanked and dedicated my thesis “to my wife who made it possible and to my children who made it necessary.” In taking on this OU responsibility and specifically my commitment to tuition affordability, I can easily state here “thanks to my wife who makes it possible and to my children who make it necessary.”
In the United States, the most challenging reality facing our families and affecting in a very negative way their quality of life is yeshiva tuition. We have a situation in which a family earning as much as $200,000 (only 3.5% of Americans earn more) with four children or more in yeshiva day schools cannot afford to pay full tuition and must apply for tuition assistance. This problem is decades in the making, and we now are facing a broken and unsustainable system. This challenge must be addressed and our success or failure in addressing the cost of raising an observant family will determine what Orthodox Judaism in America will look like 25 years from now. We will do our part by refocusing our internal resources and partnering with other stakeholders, whether they come from the Jewish or non-Jewish world. We will need multiple approaches to ameliorate this situation. It is a terrible problem and Rabbi Steven Weil (OU Executive Vice President), our lay leadership and I are committed to focus on it.
Just two additional thoughts: Parnossah (livelihood) and Israel.
Our community has not been spared from the financial earthquake experienced over the last several years, and our community reflects the national nine percent-plus unemployment rate. I had the privilege of introducing to the OU during Harvey Blitz’s tenure as President (2000-2004) the ParnossahWorks program, now called Job Board | Employment and Resumé Opportunities. We have helped over 2,000 people gain employment over the last few years. The unemployment problem hasn’t gone away. Going forward, we will partner with entities across the Jewish spectrum to mine jobs from both OU and non OU-affiliated synagogues. The need is great, it is national in scope and we will do more.
In addition, Israel will continue to be an important priority for the OU. We are very much involved with Israel and are committed to preserve and extend our involvement to enhance the quality of Jewish life to the not yet observant.
In conclusion, we are involved in a number of important activities for the Jewish community — programs for the disadvantaged and disabled; kiruv for inreach and outreach; mining for jobs and placements; political advocacy; Israel programs; kashrut and more. But to be effective, we need the resources to implement these programs. Kashrut income, after operational expenses, is all turned back to the community, but it is limited. We will need to raise more funds and invest them wisely in addressing the needs of Klal Yisrael.
I invite each of you to become involved in any of the activities the OU is engaged in so every one of us can express in deeds the lesson of Mitzrayim that we are indeed a united, caring family.
To find out more about OU’s 2011 Convention Resolutions, please visit: OU Adopts Resolutions at 2011 Convention
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.