Farewell, Thank You . . . And Welcome

*This message is adapted from a letter sent to OU staff on June 22, 2020.

September 1 will mark my retirement date as executive vice president of the OU. My responsibilities have now been assumed by an outstanding and dedicated management team—OU Executive Vice Presidents Rabbi Moshe Hauer and Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph. In this, my last “official” column in Jewish Action, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you as I reflect on the past six-plus years.*

At the conclusion of Parashat Pinchas, the Torah delineates the korbanot brought throughout the seven days of Sukkot, offerings representing the seventy nations of the world. The Torah then demarcates an eighth day of festival, Atzeret—an independent holiday, with its own korban: “Vehikravtem olah . . . par echad, ayil echad. . . .You shall offer a burnt offering . . . one young bull, one ram. . . .”

Rashi sees the emphasis on one (a single bull and a single ram) as representing the singular, unique relationship between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the Jewish people, and the sense of imminent loss, of impending disruption in that special relationship following the Sukkot holiday, heightened and magnified as it had been during the festival period. With Sukkot ending, that impending loss of constant contact was difficult to bear.

Rashi explains (Bamidbar 29:36): [It is as if Hashem is saying:] “Hitakvu li me’at od, uleshon chibah hu zeh, k’vanim haniftarim mei’avihem, v’hu omer lahem, ‘Kashah alai pereidatchem, akvu od yom echad.’” “Remain with me just a bit longer; this denotes affection. As when children take leave of their father and he says to them: ‘Your departure is so difficult for me; remain for just another day.’”

“Kashah alai pereidatchem.”

Taking leave of my role is difficult for me. Why? I ask myself. After all, it was well over eighteen months ago that I advised our lay leadership that I intended to retire in the fall of this year. My decision was well thought out and carefully and deliberately considered. I had retired once before— from the law firm I had been a part of for almost forty years. At least I thought I had retired. But the offer to lead the OU and, through it, to devote my energies to the klal, proved irresistible. So I accepted the role, intending to fill it for a relatively short time. Now six-and-a-half years later, I have chosen to retire again . . . for the second time—and there is so much that my wife and I look forward to. So why is leaving my post so difficult?

I would be less than honest if I said that I will not miss this role more than I can express. Most of all, the sense of real, collective achievement, working together with our remarkable staff and lay leadership to build an organizational structure that has met the needs of our communities, and all of Klal Yisrael, in a myriad of significant ways, and to establish a solid platform for continued growth and accomplishment. We have sought to professionalize the OU so that we could deliver our services and programs in the most creative and efficient ways possible. We introduced detailed strategic planning to each of our program departments; created a budgeting process that required—and rewarded—the careful expenditure of communal funds, and enhanced our processes for fiscal prudence and accountability; and revamped our communications and public relations functions. We turned our accounting department into a finance department, emphasizing proactive fiscal planning and effective management reporting. As a result, we have ended each of the past five fiscal years with no budget deficit and placed the organization on a firm financial footing. We hired a general counsel and consolidated all our legal and regulatory compliance work in that office. We implemented detailed policies and procedures to make certain that our data gathering, storage and utilization conformed to all applicable government regulations. We undertook a thorough review of our Information Technology Department; as a result of that comprehensive review, we have embarked on a three-year program to consolidate the totality of our IT operations—hardware, software, policies and IT governance—so that our IT Department will be set up to service all of our IT needs—across all departments, at 11 Broadway as well as at all of our offices and locations domestically and globally. By the conclusion of the project, all OU data and related systems will be streamlined into a single, unified and uniformly administered system.

It is not easy being a servant of the klal. Resources are in short supply; frustrations engulf us from every direction. Above all, we know our work is never done and that the needs of our people and our communities are beyond our capacity to ever fully meet.

We introduced and insisted upon a true development culture in each of our departments, and rebuilt, literally from scratch, our institutional development capacity. We have now seen the incredible results of this cultural reorientation in so many arenas. Thanks to all of you, our annual fundraising has grown steadily and significantly; we remain hopeful that the Covid epidemic will not stifle this upward trajectory that is so critical to further expansion of our programming and services. But the real transformational change is still in front of us, and is within our reach. Our investment in institutional advancement, and the dedication of our IA staff, both national and programmatic, is beginning to yield truly striking results. In the past two years alone, we have received two gifts of $5 million each, and a number of seven-figure contributions as well. We have captured the attention—and admiration—of key philanthropic families and foundations, and we are now poised to take giant leaps forward in the ability to philanthropically support our holy work. We are, of course, enormously grateful for such support. But, at the same time, we are constantly mindful of the stark economic realities that continue to circumscribe our ability to reach so many more. There was rarely a day when I did not agonize over the painful recognition that for every teen and collegiate we worked with, there were thousands more we could have serviced; for every individual with a disability for whom we provided programming, there were hundreds more for whom we could not.

OU Kosher continues to enable us and our programs to grow and to thrive. In the midst of this pandemic, now more than ever, the dedication and professionalism of OU Kosher—its management, rabbinic coordinators (RCs) and rabbinic field representatives (RFRs)—have not only maintained the integrity of the world’s most respected and trusted kashrut  certification but have provided critical financial stability to our organization and programs. I will be forever indebted to OU Kosher for providing us with unstinting support and encouragement.

We reorganized our Synagogue and Community Services Department, placing dedicated regional representatives throughout the country to bring the OU and its programs closer to our constituents, which allowed for the magnification and expansion of the programs and services we provided.

Our advocacy has reached new heights of effectiveness and accomplishment over the past several years. From the most modest beginnings, our state and local efforts to bring urgently needed funds to yeshivot and day schools have developed into a most potent, sophisticated and well-orchestrated initiative, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in government support (in STEM, technology, security grants and other forms of government funding) to our yeshivot and day schools in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, California and Maryland—where almost 90 percent of yeshivah and day school students reside. The OU Teach Coalition Network is now universally recognized as the leading school-centered advocacy program, bringing urgently needed relief to our educational institutions and their parent bodies. Nationally, OU Advocacy continues its outstanding efforts—fighting for religious liberty wherever it is challenged and for equal treatment for shuls and schools in security funding, emergency disaster relief and so much more. It is imperative that we continue—and amplify—our advocacy work, to help relieve our families from the enormous financial cost of providing a yeshivah education to our children.

We engaged in a top-to-bottom reorganization of Yachad, creating an effective management structure that will allow its chapters, social and recreational programs, school network for special needs students, vocational rehabilitation programs and iconic summer programs to grow and thrive. Yachad is now poised to further expand its critical work, by adding a resource and guidance center to its growing menu of vital services.

NCSY embarked upon its first-ever five-year strategic plan, setting ambitious goals for the number of teens to be impacted by its programming, and the number of dollars to be raised to support critical efforts to inspire yeshivah and day school teens, and to inculcate a deeper Jewish identity among those  with little or no background in Yiddishkeit. NCSY has met or exceeded every one of these goals, and now moves on to its next five-year plan, constantly reinventing itself to meet the ever-changing needs of Jewish teens. Of critical importance in this next stage of NCSY’s development will be a fundamental re-examination of public-school-based JSU clubs—NCSY’s primary mechanism for reaching unaffiliated teens. NCSY’s embrace of this process, and its openness to consider every aspect of its programming and methodology, is a remarkable testament to its organizational self-confidence and professionalism. It has been a highlight of my tenure to work with NCSY professionals and to constantly be inspired by their indefatigable drive to fulfill their mission.

I am particularly proud of NCSY’s summer programs which, this year (pre-Covid) anticipated a record number of participants—upwards of 1,700 teens! Among these extraordinary summer offerings, the Mechina track in the NCSY Kollel and Michlelet programs stands out as unique, embedding the most Jewishly committed public school teens within our most sophisticated Torah study summer programs. There was no greater nachat than watching our Kollel and Michlelet teens vying to work with the Mechina group and watching the Mechina participants taking giant steps forward in their Yiddishkeit. May we have the zechut of seeing these—and all our summer programs—back in full swing next year.

Our Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) continued to grow, bringing the most talented cadre of educator couples to campuses to foster community, enhance Torah learning opportunities and provide critical personal and halachic guidance. It was gratifying to watch OU-JLIC expand its network to Israel—opening outstanding programs at IDC Herzliya and Bar-Ilan University—to accommodate the growing number of Anglo students attending those institutions.

We all take justifiable pride in the breadth and richness of our programming—touching virtually every demographic  and segment of our community.

A major thrust of the past several years has been the enormous expansion of our Torah learning programs, lectures, and shiurim offered through our Torah Programs Department, our Department of Synagogue and Community Services and the Women’s Initiative—programs like All Daf, the Semichas Chaver Program, Torat Imecha, Torah New York, Torah Los Angeles and others too numerous to mention. These programs have greatly increased the number of individuals who have committed to make Torah learning an important part of their lives and have provided our community with such a broad array of learning opportunities that there is room to match virtually every level, learning style and substantive interest.

We all take justifiable pride in the breadth and richness of our programming—touching virtually every demographic and segment of our far-flung and diverse community. But despite our enormous reach, our emphasis has—and will always be—on uniform excellence in all of our myriad endeavors. OU Press continues to publish multiple volumes each year of outstanding scholarship, focusing on the Torah of the Rav, z”tl. Our Birthright program, Israel Free Spirit, continues its unbroken streak of recognition for programmatic excellence in educational content. OU Israel continues its dominant role in providing the broadest array of programming for the Anglo community, and extraordinary work with youth at risk throughout Israel in its Makom Balev and Oraita chapters and at its iconic Zula Center in Yerushalayim.

No organization that prides itself on serving the emerging and evolving needs of the Orthodox world and the broader Jewish community can simply rest on its laurels and past achievements. I am proud that, over the past several years, we have meaningfully expanded our horizons with new and exciting ventures.

We recognized, as a critical organizational imperative, that we needed to vastly expand our efforts to attract, train, retain and promote extraordinarily talented women within our professional ranks. Toward this end, we created the OU Women’s Affinity Group to give the women professionals at the OU a central address to enhance their professional development and to network with one another. We redid our compensation process by developing a comprehensive job grading system—so that salaries were set by position, thereby ensuring pay equity throughout the organization. We promoted a number of outstanding women into senior managerial roles. I am enormously proud of the start we have made, but it is only a start. If we want to succeed as an organization, we must effectively harness the talent and experience of our entire community, not just half of it. The enormous contributions—and accomplishments—of so many women at the OU proves without doubt the truth of this proposition. I am confident that the momentum we have developed will continue and will grow, and that the OU will be ever more successful as a result.

And, with equal intensity, we sought to enhance learning and leadership opportunities for women throughout our community by establishing the Women’s Initiative. The Women’s Initiative has now found its place as one of the OU’s critical and core endeavors through its multiplicity of Torah and leadership development programs. What I find particularly gratifying is the impact the Women’s Initiative has had on communities throughout the United States and Canada by providing significant and ongoing opportunities to showcase outstanding female scholars to audiences far and wide.

When I began as executive vice president, I learned that much of our strategic planning and program evaluation was “management by anecdote.” Data-based management techniques were hard to find. Likewise, many of our programming decisions and policy determinations were not grounded in factual analysis. With these critical gaps in mind, we created the OU Center for Communal Research, with a dual mandate: to engage in sophisticated, ethically appropriate research regarding issues of communal concern and to conduct robust, objective evaluations of our programs using recognized social science techniques and the establishment of objective metrics. The CCR has already had significant impact, designing and implementing a multitude of important surveys and analyses, including a seminal study on the shidduch crisis; attitudes and beliefs of day school graduates and communal responses to the Covid pandemic. The Center has, through its wide-ranging activities and networks, positioned the OU at the forefront of thought leadership and policy development within our community and beyond.

We began our Department of Communal Entrepreneurship to harness the energy and creativity of start-up ventures within the Jewish community, mentoring and supporting a number of new and exciting organizations. We watched with pride as Jewish Action continued its sophisticated presentation of the many faces of contemporary Orthodoxy, winning accolades and awards year after year for its outstanding journalism.

The foregoing hardly does justice to the breadth and scope of OU activity, all of which I will sorely miss. Nor can it possibly describe the extraordinary amalgam of talent, dedication and passion that our staff brings to these endeavors on a daily basis. I was probably the only person with the honor and privilege of having a unique vantage point from which to witness, daily and in-depth, this remarkable range of accomplishments; a vantage point that permitted me to view the extraordinary quality and diversity of OU activity and the impact we had—and have—on so many communities and so many people; a perch from which I could see each of our staff stretch to do more, to accomplish more, to touch ever more lives. Each day was filled with enough nachat to last a lifetime.

“Kashah alai pereidatchem.”

There is so much I will miss about my job. I will miss the view from my office window— the sweeping panorama of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and all it symbolizes—a constant reminder of the freedoms we enjoy in this great country, and the opportunities and vistas opened to us to develop, prosper and thrive. I will miss the visits to the White House and the State House—with senators and congressmen too numerous to mention—the overwhelming feeling of being blessed by Hashem’s beneficence; and the overpowering recognition that, just two short generations ago, our grandparents experienced the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, and today we walk proudly and confidently into the president’s home, dining on kosher food, with little cards in silver holders reminding attendees that the food is pat Yisrael and kemach yashan. I will miss the privilege afforded me in this great democracy of sitting across from the former president of the United States and, on behalf of our community, respectfully conveying, without fear or trepidation, the view that his proposed deal with Iran was a mistake that would endanger Israel and world peace.

I have watched in awe as our staff pivoted every aspect of our operations and programs to virtual platforms. The energy, the creativity, the tireless devotion that have permeated that process are achievements of unprecedented proportions.

I will miss the daily receipt of innumerable “nachat notes,” each attesting to a life enriched—and often transformed—by our staff. I will miss agonizing over my Jewish Action messages and obsessing over their tone and content. I will miss my summer visits to Israel, and the ability to see first-hand how thousands of young people are impacted by OU Israel, Yachad, NCSY, OU-JLIC and Israel Free Spirit Birthright. There will always be a special place in my heart for NCSY Kollel, Michlelet, Camp Dror and Yad B’Yad. In a role so often dominated by numbers and statistics, the summer, for me, was a time to focus on the power of one; on the uniqueness and value of each of our program participants, on their individuality, and on how our extraordinary staff sought to effect the development of their Jewish identity and relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

“Kashah alai pereidatchem.”

More than anything, I will miss my cherished colleagues. I have deliberately chosen not to acknowledge anyone by name—to do otherwise would turn this message into a multi-volume work, which still would not fully reflect what each has accomplished. They have supported, motivated and encouraged me at every turn.

I hope, my dear readers, that you recognize that our staff is the heart and soul of our organization. It is not easy being a servant of the klal. Resources are in short supply; frustrations engulf us from every direction. Above all, we know our work is never done and that the needs of our people and our communities are beyond our capacity to ever fully meet. But not a day goes by when our dedicated professionals have not made a lasting, indelible impact on the destiny of the Jewish people, on the quality of their lives and on their relationship with the Borei Olam. For the past several months, I have watched in awe as our staff pivoted every aspect of our operations and programs to virtual platforms. The energy, the creativity, the tireless devotion that have permeated that process are achievements of unprecedented proportions. It is—and will always remain—a testament to their professionalism, skill and dedication. May they continue to enrich the lives of our people, nourish their souls and inspire their future.

We are truly blessed to have an extraordinary leadership team in place to carry this great organization into the future—with skill, with confidence and with abiding optimism. Rabbi Moshe Hauer is a man of remarkable intellect, vision and depth; in the past few months he has demonstrated the rare blend of wisdom and practicality in so many aspects of his work—his guidance to shuls in their closing and reopening; his masterful leadership of this summer’s massive Project Community; his shepherding of a major Covid-inspired mental health programming initiative and so much more. The OU will truly be the beneficiary of his ability to organize, to lead and, above all, to formulate and articulate our evolving mission.

Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph brings to his new role at the OU his enormous passion, and a proven track record in deftly administering a large and complex institution. His unique knowledge of our community and extensive management and operational experience will guide us through the myriad of challenges of this pandemic and its aftermath, and guide the organization as it continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of our community. Together, Rabbi Joseph and Rabbi Hauer will forge an unparalleled management team that will— together with all of you and with Hashem’s blessing—lead the OU mei’chayil el chayil.

I also want to express my deepest gratitude to our dedicated and visionary lay leadership, led by our devoted President Moishe Bane—to our Executive Committee, our Officers, our Board, Commission Chairs and Commission and Committee members and members of our Benefactor Circle. They have been true partners in every aspect of our endeavors and have created a new and exemplary paradigm for lay-professional cooperation, support and encouragement. And to you, dear readers, my sincerest thanks, for taking the time to read my messages in this column and for sharing your thoughts and reactions with me.

I hope that, in some small way, I have occasionally entertained, maybe even enlightened, and perhaps spurred a conversation or two on matters that spoke to your hearts or minds. I hope to continue writing—albeit in other publications and forums—and would warmly welcome your comments, critical or otherwise.

And finally, “Acharona, acharona, chaviva” —I must share one last expression of gratitude. The most important one. Several weeks ago my wife, Judy, and I celebrated a very special wedding anniversary. As we were locked in an almost impregnable Covid quarantine, it was hardly the celebration I had envisioned. But it was, nonetheless, a time for reflection, for taking inventory of a life’s worth of memories, both joyous and sad. Self-enforced isolation allows one the uncluttered ability to distill the most important aspects of life; to refine and highlight the most treasured encounters and relationships. And here I have been truly blessed by Hakadosh Baruch Hu with a life partner and friend, a trusted advisor, a frequent and loving critic and a constant source of encouragement. Whatever I may have accomplished in life, I have my wife to thank, and I take this opportunity to do so now.

May Hakadosh Baruch Hu bless each of you with abundant health and happiness. May Rabbi Hauer’s and Rabbi Joseph’s tenure be filled with siyata d’Shmaya; may they embellish familiar paths and blaze new ones; may they inspire you and be inspired by you; and may they—in the fullness and richness of the responsibilities they have now officially assumed—be rewarded with the same extraordinary satisfaction that I have been privileged to experience for the past six years.

 

Allen I. Fagin is OU executive vice president, emeritus.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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