The Orthodox Union (OU) is the leading organization supporting and building the American Orthodox community. Its teen and young adult engagement efforts stretch across North America through NCSY and JLIC; its lay and rabbinic community building efforts are significant, with its work in supporting synagogues around the country, those with disabilities through Yachad, and rabbinic leaders through the RCA; its advocacy work is also noteworthy, with significant resources devoted to domestic and Israel policy lobbying. Most recently the OU has been involved in advocacy for FEMA relief after Hurriance Sandy. The OU, led by the great Rav Menachem Genack, is also (and most recognizably) the largest kosher certification agency in the world, certifying more than 500,000 food products in 80 countries. The OU helps to make it possible for religious Jews to survive and thrive in America.
With all leadership transitions, we can reflect upon our hopes for the next stages. The current prestigious president of the OU, Rabbi Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck, New Jersey, has been active with the organization for 25 years, mostly through OU’s kashrut division. Ordained as a rabbi, Dr. Katz also earned an MA in engineering, MBA, and PhD in Statistics and Finance from New York University. He has founded and served as senior executive for a technology firm, is a professor of finance at CUNY’s Zicklin Business School, and has helped found organizations to help the unemployed find jobs, which today has become the OU Jobs Board. In Teaneck, he was a founder of the Yeshiva of North Jersey and Congregation Keter Torah, and studies Jewish texts for hours each morning. Dr. Katz has prioritized affordable Orthodox Jewish living in America, reasonable yeshiva day school tuition, the right of every Jewish child to a religious education, and expanding accessibility to special education. He has been galvanizing everyone around this issue.
Dr. Katz has often decried the current day school tuition crisis, which threatens further erosion in attendance and community impact. While stressing that an Orthodox lifestyle demands sacrifice, he understands that families earning $200,000 annually find it difficult to afford day school, and most people earn much less. He has proposed a combination of reforms, including challenge grants; reducing administrative and infrastructure spending; and a willingness to adapt from the concept of hashkafot (personal religious philosophies), where multiple schools with small populations and huge costs are built, to a concept of achdut (unity), in which minor differences are passed over in order to build fewer schools that can accommodate more students in a more economical fashion.
When Rabbi Katz recently graciously invited me to meet with him at the OU I was struck by his passion and insight but also by his humility. He is an empathetic and inspiring leader who sees the big picture. There is an upcoming vote on March 10th to determine the next OU president and there are reports that Martin Nachimson of Los Angeles will be chosen as the new president. Dr. Katz will have made a significant impact at the O.U. and he will certainly remain a force in the community.
The OU, like all major communal institutions, has a lot of potential for growth. It must set the example by leading not only to protect our own self-interest (Israel, day schools, kashrut, etc.) but also ensure that the Orthodox community is showing global leadership to protect the vulnerable and further more just societies. There should be more leadership on social justice and global issues, like ensuring that the American kosher industry operates justly with more concern for workers, animals, and the environment. The public affairs branch needs to transition beyond the parochial and be a force for good on a much broader level in addition to its current noble efforts. Outreach efforts should be as concerned with leadership development and moral and spiritual development of students as they are with growth in ritual observance. Further, the Orthodox Union should maximize its zerizut (alacrity) to be on the front lines whenever there is crisis. It was inspiring to see Israelis arrive immediately in Haiti after the earthquake, for example, but the American Orthodox leadership were once again absent.
When leaders at the Orthodox Union take the lead on these issues, it is good for the Jews and for the world we live in. Orthodoxy is growing and the Orthodox Union has a crucial role to play going forward in collaborating to bring hope and redemption to the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"