It officially begins today.
More than a year after the announcement of his appointment, and three months following his arrival in his new office in New York, Rabbi Steven Weil, today, July 1, 2009, officially assumes the position of Executive Vice President, the chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union. In that capacity, he will have day-to-day responsibility for running the largest Orthodox synagogue umbrella group in the world, overseeing its staff and programs, maintaining fiscal responsibility, and above all, projecting an image of leadership and vision throughout the Orthodox Jewish community worldwide.
He succeeds Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who has served the OU with great distinction since 2002, and who assumes the position of Executive Vice President Emeritus, in which he will have the opportunity to use his towering learning to write and speak on issues of significance to the Jewish world. Since the announcement of Rabbi Weil’s appointment, in April 2008, Rabbi Weinreb has served as a mentor to him and the two of them have continued to build on their long-standing friendship.
Rabbi Weil takes over an organization that operates a dazzling variety of programs, including its network of synagogues; initiatives for youth (NCSY and the Jewish Student Union); for individuals with disabilities (Yachad for the developmentally disabled and Our Way for the deaf and hard of hearing); for the Jewish family (Positive Jewish Parenting and Positive Jewish Marriage); for its community members via its Department of Community Services; for Orthodox students on secular college campuses (the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus); for the people of Israel through the Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center; and for input into federal, state and local government through its Washington-based Institute for Public Affairs.
Even before the economic collapse, the OU was very active in finding meaningful work for the employed and underemployed through its Job Board; its initiatives in the economic field are now growing seemingly by the day to cope with the crisis. The organization’s various messages are transmitted worldwide through its primary website, www.ou.org, and a host of other websites representing its various departments.
And of course, there is OU Kosher, the largest and most well-known certification agency, whose famed OU symbol is the standard for kosher designation the world over.
All of this is enough to keep Rabbi Weil busy. He’s been diligently training for the job, most recently in the Golden West.
Rabbi Steven Weil, 43, comes to the OU after eight resoundingly successfully years at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, CA, the largest Orthodox congregation outside of the New York metropolitan area. Prior to that, he served for six years as Rabbi of Young Israel of Oak Park, Michigan, in suburban Detroit. Both are Orthodox Union member congregations. A man of great personal charm, Rabbi Weil has gained a reputation as a gifted orator, weaving inspirational messages of contemporary relevance into his teaching of traditional texts.
Terming his departure from Beth Jacob “bittersweet,” Rabbi Weil wrote to his congregation on April 15, 2008 that the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community “has a life of its own.” In contrast, he said, “there are untold numbers of Jews all across the map in the smaller cities who are missing out on a real connection to the richness and beauty of Jewish life because they don’t have resources, critical numbers, nor tools for growth. It is my dream that this position (at the OU) will afford me the opportunity to help these isolated shuls and schools build the kinds of programs that we have built and experience the opportunities that we have experienced.”
“There are hundreds of idealistic men and women serving the smaller communities across North America, sacrificing the comforts of larger Jewish population centers, and they need our support and our mentoring because the responsibility of taking care of Klal Israel is not theirs alone,” he emphasized. “But taking on this new role, I make it my responsibility as well.”
In his new position, Rabbi Weil will be reaching out to the surrounding community, with two specific areas of concentration in the Orthodox world and beyond.
“The first major area that the OU team will be working on is adolescent kiruv (outreach), which has two components: NCSY throughout North America and the 10,000 unaffiliated Jewish teenagers in public high schools who attend the Jewish Student Union every week,” Rabbi Weil declared.
“The second area is serving as the network and community which supports those on the front lines of Orthodox Jewry. The two major components on the front lines are the lay and professional leadership of hundreds of synagogues as well as the lay and professional leadership of our day schools, which are mentoring and nurturing the Jewish future,” Rabbi Weil explained. “Our responsibility at the OU is to work with, to partner, and to enable those on the front lines to be as strong and successful as possible in their sacred work of educating and leading the halachic (observing Jewish law) community.”
Rabbi Weil has made a strong impression on leaders in American Jewish life.
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said, “I have had the privilege to know Rabbi Weil for many years and had the ability to see first-hand his many talents and deep commitment to his synagogue, community, Israel and the Jewish people. On a personal level I value his friendship and his warm and caring style. I know that he will make meaningful contributions both to the Orthodox Union and the Conference of Presidents.”
Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University, declared, “Rabbi Weil is a dynamic leader whose inspiring vision and engaging personality will invigorate both the Orthodox Union and the broader Jewish community. I look forward to partnering with him in addressing issues of common concern in our community.”
And Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, commented, “This is a seminal moment in American Jewish life and Rabbi Steven Weil is the right person at the right time to head the Orthodox Union. He’s a talmid chacham who combines great knowledge and charisma and he will be a major new voice on the American scene.”
Undoubtedly, this was exactly what was in the minds of OU President Stephen J. Savitsky and the OU Executive Committee members as they conducted the six-month national search that brought them to the door of Beth Jacob Congregation. There they found a unique individual whose background and resume would not exactly be considered standard in the world of the Orthodox rabbinate.
Raised on a cattle farm outside of Buffalo, NY, thereby growing up in a rural environment lacking the Jewish educational institutions necessary to live a fully observant lifestyle (the Weils were the only Jewish family within a 40-mile radius), young Steven migrated to New York City at age 14 to attend Ohr Torah High School; following a year in Israel, he proceeded to Yeshiva University and then to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of YU, where he received semicha – rabbinical ordination. At the same time, he pursued an MBA in Finance at New York University, utilizing the New York City subway system to shuttle back and forth between the domain of the Book and the domain of the bank book.
“At NYU he demonstrated great talent in the financial and business world,” OU President Savitsky declared in the Summer 2009 issue of Jewish Action, the Orthodox Union’s quarterly magazine. “He had a calling, however, and gave up many of his business aspirations to enter the rabbinate.” At Oak Park, where he was hired after delivering a particularly outstanding sermon at his brother’s wedding, Rabbi Weil “was quickly labeled a rising star in the Jewish world,” wrote Mr. Savitsky. Then came Beverly Hills, where “he ignited the spark of Judaism throughout the community.”
Both congregations grew in striking fashion, as word went out that a charismatic young rabbi was turning the local synagogue into the place to be, with its clubs, educational programs, youth activities, and sermons that warmed the heart while educating the mind. All of this happened while the MBA rabbi was solidifying the shuls’ financial position, thereby providing an insight into what he is being called upon to accomplish at the Orthodox Union.
Since arriving at the OU on April 1, Rabbi Weil has been traveling constantly, visiting OU congregations across the country. These trips have taken him to Boca Raton and Hollywood in Florida; Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore, Washington/Silver Spring, Dallas and Denver; plus sessions spent with OU colleagues in Lakewood NJ, learning from the leadership of the world’s largest Torah educational center, Beth Medrash Govoha. He has spent considerable time with the leaders of AIPAC, studying the organizational model from what many consider American Jewry’s best-run organization.
Today, as he officially begins his OU position, Rabbi Weil is in Israel, inspecting the OU’s many programs there with the organization’s lay and professional leadership.
Following his travels, Rabbi Weil has flown home to California to observe Shabbat with his wife, Yael, and their seven children. When in New York, a packed suitcase often adorns his office, as he prepares for his next journey on behalf of the Orthodox Union. He’ll be taking lots of them in the years ahead.
“I am profoundly grateful to God to have this opportunity to work with and serve American Jewry at a watershed period in its history,” said Rabbi Weil. “The outstanding quality of our partners serving the members of the halachic community and the greater American Jewish community makes our excitement, passion and optimism that much more tangible as we at the OU embark upon building a better tomorrow.”