Meet Simcha Katz, New President of the Orthodox Union

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12 Jan 2011

Simcha Katz (Teaneck) takes office as the Orthodox Union’s new President at OU Convention, Sunday January 16

The Orthodox Union “is a great tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such is the central address for those issues which can best be handled on a national basis.” – Simcha Katz, Incoming President, Orthodox Union

From left: Pesh Katz, Simcha Katz’ wife; granddaughter Avigail Katz; Simcha Katz

When the Orthodox Union holds its Biennial National Convention in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey this weekend, one major item of OU business will be to install its new President, Dr. Simcha Katz, of Teaneck, New Jersey. As he begins his two-year term, he will succeed Stephen J. Savitsky of Hewlett, Long Island, New York, who served three acclaimed two-year terms. Dr. Katz will be the 13th OU President in a line dating back to 1898.

The transition should be seamless. With his 25 years of service to the Orthodox Union, many of them spent working alongside Mr. Savitsky, Dr. Katz will step into his new position determined to continue the many initiatives developed during Mr. Savitsky’s administration, while adding his own personal touch to the organization. During the Savitsky years, the number of Orthodox Union priorities and programs grew exponentially, as the organization fulfilled its mandate of “Enhancing Jewish Life.”

“One of the special joys of being involved in Jewish communal life is meeting with outstanding leaders – Steve Savitsky is one of those,” Dr. Katz declared. “We have worked together on a personal and organizational level. He is a dynamic leader with the courage to effect change, truly a wonderful servant of the Jewish people; a tremendous role model, and a partner. The good news for me is that two former Presidents, Steve Savitsky and Harvey Blitz (OU Chairman of the Board and Mr. Savitsky’s predecessor as President) are going to work closely with me over the next few years.”

Mr. Savitsky is equally praiseworthy of his successor. “We at the OU are very fortunate to have my good friend Simcha Katz as our next President,” he said. “Simcha has a long history with the OU over a quarter-century and has held many leadership roles. His reputation for honesty and high moral standards is well-known throughout the Jewish world. Simcha is a person of great passion for the Jewish people and I have had the privilege of working with him daily over the last four years. I look forward to his leadership and continuation of the many innovations and changes that have occurred in the last six years.”

During his tenure at the OU, Dr. Katz’ primary involvement has been with the kashrut division, OU Kosher, the largest and most respected kosher certifying organization in the world. He served most recently as Chair of the OU Kashrut Commission, which oversees the work of the department. The fees that kashrut earns for its worldwide certification services provide a substantial proportion of the funding for the OU’s expanding array of programs.

Working with OU Kosher Chief Executive Officer Rabbi Menachem Genack and Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Moshe Elefant, Dr. Katz provided the impetus for the division’s broad entry into kashrut education, with its wide range of programs designed to clarify kashrut law and its adaptation to modern food production techniques. Audiences range from children to senior rabbis, themselves kashrut experts.

“Kashrut education is a critical tool,” Dr. Katz explained. “We’ve introduced children to kashrut through school visits, CDs and the Internet. Education is a very critical piece of our operation. We have the broadest and deepest expertise in kashrut in both the technical and the halachik aspects. Every kashrut agency around the world recognizes the OU as the building block of its hechsher (certification) – because even if a product isn’t certified by the OU, its ingredients probably are.”

Dr. Katz graduated from Yeshiva University where he was a pre-med student, but then went on to YU’s RIETS seminary where he received rabbinical semicha (ordination) – although he has never practiced as a rabbi. He earned an MA in engineering and an MBA from New York University; and a PhD from the Stern School of Business in Statistics and Finance. He founded a technology company, where he remained for 15 years as its senior executive, retiring from it five years ago. He learns from Jewish sacred texts for three hours every morning, most of the time with two of his sons. Then he’s ready for his day.

He is currently a professor of finance at the Zicklin Business School of the City University of New York. In his home community of Teaneck, where he has lived since 1973, Dr. Katz has been involved in his synagogue, Bnai Yeshurun, was the founding president of the local mikveh and among the founders of the Yeshiva of North Jersey and of Congregation Keter Torah, among other local Jewish institutions. He and his wife, Pesh, have four married children and 16 grandchildren.

Even before assuming the presidency, Dr. Katz has been seen on a nearly daily basis on the 12th floor of the OU’s lower Manhattan headquarters, where OU Kosher is located, as well as on the 14th floor, his new home, where the executive offices are found. From that vantage point he will oversee the OU’s wide range of activities, as he works with Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil to confront the challenges of Jewish well-being in this day and age.

“The Orthodox Union’s mission is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life,” Dr. Katz said. “It is a great tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such is the central address for those issues which can best be handled on a national basis.

“That starts with assimilation. Outside of New York, 70 percent of Jews intermarry. We have in place several wonderful outreach and inreach programs. NCSY (the OU’s international youth program) ) in 12 different regions throughout the United States and Canada as well as our partnership with Jewish Student Union culture clubs (of which there are now 220) reach out to teenagers totally unaffiliated or marginally affiliated with Jewish tradition.

“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 15 couples on 15 college campuses to reach out to these day school graduates to keep these students engaged in traditional Jewish life and not disappear into the melting pots of the universities. In all these areas, we need to do more, but it will require more focus and resources.

“In the United States, the most painful situation facing our families affecting 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 or more children in yeshiva day schools cannot afford to pay full tuition and must apply for tuition assistance. We have a broken and unsustainable system. This challenge must be addressed. 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 have to find a way to ameliorate this situation. It is a terrible problem.”

Israel will continue to be an important priority for the Orthodox Union, both through its Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center, and through approaches to the federal and local governments through the Washington-based Institute for Public Affairs. “We are very much involved with Israel and are committed to preserve and extend our involvement in Israel to enhance quality of Jewish life to the not yet observant.” Dr. Katz declared.

In Teaneck, Dr. Katz was involved in the initial years of Project EZRAH, a program to help the local unemployed find work. He brought that program to the OU as ParnossahWorks where it has morphed into the Job Board, which has put over a thousand people to work while providing intensive education in job search skills.

“New leadership and young leadership are priorities. Every chair of the 11 Commissions which supervise OU departments will be mandated to bring in younger community members whom senior Commission members will mentor. We must groom the next generation of leaders,” Dr. Katz explains.

Rabbi Steven Weil is in his second year as Executive Vice President, the senior professional officer of the OU. The Katz-Weil working relationship will be an important factor on how smoothly the OU functions. Dr. Katz was chair of the search committee that identified Rabbi Weil to assume the role of chief professional. “Having Simcha as a partner, friend and mentor over the coming years, which will be watershed years for the OU and the Orthodox community, will be a source of profound blessing,” Rabbi Weil said.

Dr. Katz also uses the concept of partnership to describe how they will work together. “My role as President of this organization, in terms of partnering with Rabbi Weil, means that together we will be addressing the various goals we have identified. Rabbi Weil is a dynamic individual and I’m honored to be able to work with him.

“In the end, as with every organization, ultimate success – beyond ideas, beyond programs, beyond determination, beyond a successful partnership at the top – comes from the resources to implement the ideas and programs, to turn determination into results, and to assure that the partnership can fulfill its mandate to guide the Orthodox Union to new heights.”

“We are involved in a number of critical activities for the Jewish community, programs for the disadvantaged and disabled, kiruv for inreach and outreach, mining for jobs and placements, political advocacy and kashrut. We are an organization that reaches out and services the needs of the Jewish people. We are a broad-based community organization addressing the needs of our community in areas of great importance. But to be more effective we will need to raise additional funds. Kashrut funds after operational expenses are all turned back to the community, but they are limited. We need to raise more funds and invest them wisely.

“We will do an evaluation of each area of our involvement, assess priorities and determine where we should invest more resources and where we should cut back. We will do the best we can in focusing our resources on strengthening the financial, organizational and spiritual needs of Klal Yisroel.”

Stephen Steiner is OU Director of Public Relations

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