Fusing Timeless Torah with Tomorrow’s Innovation

One aspect of the OU’s operations that continuously intrigues me is the ability to fuse our timeless Torah values with the most modern and innovative methodologies. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has noted: “One of the most striking features of Jewish life is that from Israel to Palo Alto, Jews are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of information technology and have contributed disproportionately to its development (Google, Facebook, Waze). But we still write the Torah exactly as it was done thousands of years ago—by hand, with a quill, on a parchment scroll. This is not a paradox; it is a profound truth. People who carry their past with them can build the future without fear.”

As you can see from our Annual Report, which accompanies this issue of Jewish Action, we’ve built an entire infrastructure devoted to enhancing Jewish life and fostering traditional Judaism through the effective use of cutting-edge technologies: Enter our kashrut offices, and you’ll find the industry’s most advanced computerized platform for tracking kosher ingredients, products and clients, servicing some of the world’s most sophisticated companies. Visit our popular web site, OUTorah.org, and join tens of thousands who partake daily of our outstanding Daf Yomi podcasts by Rabbi Shalom Rosner and Rabbi Moshe Elefant, or who avail themselves of thousands of shiurim in our expanding collection. With our Nach Yomi, Mishna Yomit, and Halacha Yomit e-mails, we bring a daily array of Torah learning to thousands of inboxes every morning. Each week we field hundreds of queries about Judaism, kashrut and halachah addressed to our Webbe Rebbe. Thanks to our outstanding digital product development team, we continue to roll out mobile apps which seek to enrich Orthodox Jewish life—including our Kosher app, with close to 100,000 downloads, where you can access, at your fingertips, a guide to all products certified by the OU; our Torah app, where you can listen to shiurim at any convenient time; or our Jewniversity app, where you can research available Jewish resources on college campuses throughout the United States and Canada. Most recently, we’ve announced the NCSY Bencher app, which brings the iconic NCSY Bencher into 2016, including music and lyrics for dozens of the most popular zemirot. Or enjoy our new Nussach HaTefillah database, which brings the beauty of cantorial melodies and appropriate nussach to ba’alei tefillah worldwide, allowing them to expand their repertoire through our growing archive of recordings.

Our growing reliance on the most sophisticated methodologies goes well beyond our use of technology and the development of new products. We are committed to professionalizing every aspect of our programs and operations, and importing into the OU the techniques and processes utilized by the most sophisticated companies and organizations. This approach, our commitment to excellence and professionalism in all we do, is now deeply embedded in our organizational culture.

For example, we recognized that if we wanted to achieve truly transformational change in our advocacy efforts designed to bring significantly greater government funding to yeshivot and day schools, we would need to utilize the same strategies undertaken by the most sophisticated companies and advocacy groups. And so we invested—in lobbyists and strategists and in public relations professionals—to help guide our advocacy efforts. We have seen enormous returns on this investment. During the past year, in New York alone, we brought over $85.8 million in new state and local funding to our schools.

And we are constantly working to further professionalize our management and human resources practices throughout the OU. At the program level, we have implemented comprehensive strategic planning efforts. For example, NCSY has recently completed a detailed five-year strategic plan, “NCSY 2020,” with comprehensive goals and objectives. Yachad, the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), Synagogue Services and OU Israel are each in the midst of their own strategic planning efforts. Our new budget process requires that each department at the OU prepare detailed goals and objectives, together with objective, verifiable metrics to measure progress towards those goals; twice annual reviews are conducted with each department to review the results. Across the organization we are investing in our staff’s professional development through mentoring programs and a wide array of formal and informal training programs. Most recently, we have introduced a succession planning process to make certain that there is a defined pathway to replace senior leaders.

Our human capital is our key asset, and our human resources policies must keep pace with this critical reality. We have recently enhanced our child care/maternity leave policies to reflect industry best practices. And we have introduced a comprehensive grading system that assigns a salary grade and compensation range to each program position. This will ensure fairness across departments and truly meaningful pay equity. We now engage in a robust evaluation of all our programs to make certain that every dollar is spent wisely and with maximum impact. Last year, for example, NCSY commissioned Professor Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz to conduct a longitudinal study of alumni of NCSY’s Anne Samson TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey) summer program in Israel for public school teens. Cohen and Kopelowitz found that after participating in TJJ, 98 percent of alumni thought it’s important to raise kids with a Jewish identity, 95 percent deemed it important to marry a Jew, and 92 percent attended a Seder the following Passover. A similar study is now being conducted of all alumni in NCSY’s JSU program—our signature program for public school teens, operating in over 200 communities nationally.

This is the new OU; we are celebrating our past while building our future. I’m excited about the new ideas and projects that 2017 will bring—our new Department of Women’s Initiatives, which is currently being designed; our social entrepreneurship incubator; and the launch of the Community Giving Project, which will collect, warehouse and distribute consumer goods of all types to individuals in need.

Each of these innovations requires the encouragement and active support of a forward-thinking and committed lay leadership. The OU has been truly blessed to have Marty Nachimson at its helm for the past four years. Marty is everything any organization would want in its president. His decades of business experience, at the highest level, make him the perfect sounding board for management and operational decisions. And his decades of Jewish communal leadership, at the highest levels, make him the perfect sounding board for policy and programmatic determinations that affect the wellbeing of our community and all of Klal Yisrael. Marty has been an inspired leader and visionary, and his wisdom, judgment and impeccable integrity have, consistently, characterized his tenure as OU president.

Marty will step down as president in January. All of us at the OU, and the thousands of beneficiaries of OU programs and services, throughout the United States, Canada and Israel, will forever be indebted to him for his warmth and his leadership. We wish him good health and happiness as he continues to serve the klal with tireless devotion.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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