Building Orthodox Judaism in America

Harold M. Jacobs (Courtesy of the Jacobs family)
Harold M. Jacobs (Courtesy of the Jacobs family)

The following is an except from Building Orthodox Judaism in America: The Life and Legacy of Harold M. Jacobs. To read a review of the book from Jewish Action magazine, click here.

By the autumn of 1973, less than one year into his presidency, Jacobs could report to Modern Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, numerous tangible successes in advancing “my primary goal–the broadening and strengthening of NCSY and the impact we can make on Jewish youth.” Enough individual local chapters had been created to establish four new official regions to provide programming support and supervision: Atlantic Seaboard, New England, Eastern Canada, and Central Canada. As a result, “we expect to be serving 8,000 more young people this year than we reached last year.” During the just-concluded summer, OU and NCSY “operated camps and special programs engaging more than 1,000 youngsters in activities ranging from 2 to 8 weeks.” Of special importance was a pilot project that “brought together 18 public school students for a special Torah learning program. After two weeks, 9 of the 18 elected to attend Yeshiva high schools.”

Jacobs correctly understood that in addition to touching individual lives, the NCSY outreach campaign could help create the next generation of Orthodox leadership. Already in 1973, he could proudly point to the fact that not only had “hundreds [of young Jews] gone on from NCSY experience to studies in institutions of higher Jewish learning,” but “many have [then] become rabbis, teachers and youth leaders, with tremendous impact on both the youth and adult communities.” The idealism and enthusiasm characteristic of young NCSY recruits, and the experience they gained in the NCSY environment, inevitably helped propel some of them towards positions of communal responsibility. Jacobs personally played a key role in the process of recruiting and cultivating such potential young leaders, although those who knew him are unanimous in their judgement that his contacts with students were a sincere reflection of his warm and outgoing personality, not just a strategy for molding future leaders.

Mandell Ganchrow later vividly recalled “going with other collegiates to the Jacobs’ home on Simchas Torah to celebrate, to dance and to sing. Each young person was made to feel like a ben bayis.”

Yaakov Kornreich, who went on to become Jacobs’s speechwriter, director of communications for the OU, and editor of national OU and Young Israel publications, came to OU as a result of his participation in NCSY activities.

Michael Wimpfheimer, then a student at the Harvard Law School, met the Jacobs family at a Sukkos holiday weekend in Monsey in 1966. Harold invited him to spend Simchas Torah with them in Crown Heights. “That began a lifelong friendship and involvement in OU,” Wimpfheimer recalled. Jacobs arranged for him to serve as a delegate to an OU convention in Washington, D.C.  The impact of that experience, in turn, led to Wimpfheimer chairing OU events,  then joining the national board, and eventually serving as senior vice-president for an unprecedented 39 consecutive years, not to mention an array of other communal affiliations. “If not for Harold, I would never have become involved,” according to Wimpfheimer. “He was almost like a father figure, giving me guidance, someone whom I could always reach if I wanted to talk about something. He was outgoing and knew everybody, but he would always make time when someone needed him.”

For Paul Glasser, Jacobs was “a hero and an immense role model.” Coming from a non-observant background, Glasser was first introduced to Judaism through NCSY activities in his Queens neighborhood. His friendship with Jacobs helped lead to his decision to attend Yeshiva University, to become a national adviser to NCSY under the Karasick and Jacobs administrations, and eventually to become NCSY’s national executive director. Glasser credited the later success of his Passover vacation retreats to his experiences participating in, and then organizing, hundreds of NCSY Shabbatonim and other events during the years of the Jacobs administration.

Dr. Luchins, for his part, began participating in NCSY activities in 1961, and attended his first OU convention in 1964. “Harold was a fixture at OU and national NCSY events, and he sought out the young people who were attending–he would go out of his way to come over and talk to us at every opportunity,” Luchins later recalled. “It was an empowering experience. Our opinions really mattered to him.” Luchins was especially impressed by Jacobs’s personal touch. “Other OU officers came to the OU and NCSY conventions, and just talked to each other. Harold spent his time talking to the teenagers. You could see that he got energy and strength from that, he loved it.”

Joseph Jacobs likewise recalled how his father “always preferred hanging around with younger people, and they in turn liked him very much.” He recalled overhearing his father tell a group of men his own age, in synagogue, “What am I doing around with you old guys?,” and “then he walked over to sit and eat with a bunch of younger people.” One might say that the impact was felt by both sides: “Dad never got old because all his friends were young,” Vivian remarked. “As [family friend] Roz Samuels once said, “I would call any other man his age ‘Mr. Jacobs’–but him, ‘Harold’!”

Luchins added: “Most OU officers never attended an OU event outside New York City. Harold went to them constantly. OU had its elite and it had its ‘street’. Harold was a ‘street’ person. Even though he had been so successful in his business career, he never forgot his Brooklyn roots, the working class world where his father and uncles fought to make something of themselves. He never forgot where he came from, and that showed in his passion, his care for others, his common touch.”

Jacobs became Luchins’s mentor. At age 17, he was addressing OU conventions as a youth delegate. By 22, he was taking part in meetings between OU representatives and Members of Congress. In 1970, at Jacobs’s initiative, Luchins became the youngest member in the history of the OU board of directors, a position he holds to this day. Before Luchins was 30, Jacobs made him chairman of the OU resolutions committee and member of nominating committee, two important policy-shaping positions. By 1976, he was a national vice president. “I was just one of many NCSY veterans in their 20s and 30s whom Harold put on the board,” Luchins noted. “Other OU leaders looked at the purpose of NCSY in its most obvious sense, that is, to get young people Jewishly involved. But Harold understood that it also could have another vitally important purpose–it could be a pipeline for the future leadership of American Orthodoxy. He had the vision and foresight to recognize that.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.