Inside Philanthropy

Major New Gift Enables OU to Expand its Focus on North American Communal Growth

Stamford, Connecticut representatives discussing the amenities of the community and answering questions about housing during an OU Jewish Community Relocation Fair. Photo: Zush Heinrich/Zee photography, Inc.

When Steve Savitsky started his term as OU president in 2004, he and his wife Genie began traveling nearly every other weekend to a different Jewish community in North America. It gave the couple the opportunity to experience the warmth typical of many smaller out-of-town communities. But they also got to see firsthand how families were being priced out of the housing market in the New York Tri-State area and big cities like Los Angeles.

“I realized we needed to help build Jewish life in smaller communities,” says Steve, who is the co-founder of ATC Healthcare Services, a nationwide provider of temporary medical staffing.

In 2008, Savitsky launched the OU’s Jewish Community Relocation Fair, a groundbreaking space for small communities to network with frum Jews seeking more affordable places to set down roots. Held in conjunction with the OU dinner that year, the Fair drew sixteen communities and several hundred registrants. It was the first step in establishing communal growth and sustainability as foundational priorities of the OU. “We wanted to offer alternatives to major metropolitan areas, where the cost of Jewish life is so high,” says Savitsky, who has been involved with the OU for decades, serving as OU Board Chairman from 2002 to 2004; OU President from 2004 to 2011; and then Chairman again from 2011 to 2015. “I believed the OU was the right organization to take on this issue.”

Over time, the biennial Fair became extraordinarily popular, inspiring thousands of people to relocate to communities where they participate in strengthening Jewish life while enjoying the lower cost of living. At the most recent Fair, held virtually, more than sixty communities were featured and more than 2,500 people from thirty-five states and nineteen countries attended.

Recently, the Savitskys reaffirmed their commitment to community sustainability by partnering with the OU to create the new Savitsky Communal Growth Initiative. Their major investment will expand the OU’s strategic approach to North American Jewish communal development.

“Steve and Genie are community builders; due to their vision and generosity, we will be able to assist small communities to grow and prosper and thousands of Orthodox families and individuals to have a better quality of life,” said OU President Mitchel R. Aeder.

“Within larger Orthodox communities, there is significant local peer partnership and support,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, OU Executive Vice President. “Smaller communities tend to be more isolated, making ongoing support from national organizations so much more valuable. Every person and every organization must strive to be there for those who need us most. The generosity of the Savitsky family will enable the OU to be there for our smaller and emerging communities.”

Steve and Genie Savitsky. Photo: The Visual Image

In addition to sponsoring the highly successful biennial Fair, the Savitsky Communal Growth Initiative will offer essential resources to those seeking to relocate, as well as to communities seeking to grow. Aside from supporting an existing Community Guide in which each community showcases its amenities and services, the Initiative will sponsor a reimagined communities website that will offer information about the Fair; individual community web pages; and an array of resources, including such seminars as Home Buyer Basics 101.

“As a couple who has traveled the vast expanse of North American Jewish communities, Steve and Genie have profound insight and experience in areas related to communal growth,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, OU Managing Director for Communal Engagement. “This initiative embodies the enduring impact of the Savitskys’ legacy at the OU in elevating the value of communal growth and development as a core priority for the OU.”

The Initiative will also include leadership training for community leaders, as well as a leadership conference. OU staff will engage in one-on-one leadership training on an ongoing basis for communal leaders. A leadership conference, held in the alternating years that do not feature the Community Fair, will bring together community leaders to share best practices, learn from successful community builders, develop leadership skills, and extensively network among like-minded communal leaders. Lastly, a new biennial award will recognize one community for its commitment to sustaining Jewish life outside the major centers.

Many variables factor into an individual or family decision to move. While quality of life and cost of living are foremost among them, the Savitskys understand that the impetus is often more nuanced. That’s where the Fair comes in—serving as an unparalleled networking space where families can find a community that suits their particular needs best.

“The Communities Fair is the only national platform of its kind. It plays a significant role in our ongoing growth by allowing us to affiliate with the OU’s branding and its embrace of a wide spectrum of Jews,” points out Rabbi Avi Goldstein, rav of Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, Ohio.

“It gives me tremendous nachat to meet people who tell me that they are able to better afford Jewish life in a smaller, out-of-town community,” says Steve. “I think the Fair has helped change the face of Jewish life in America. If that’s my legacy at the OU, I could not be prouder.”

The day-long Fair, which has been held virtually since the pandemic, features video presentations and group sessions with North American community representatives, who are also available for private appointments. For those interested in aliyah, Nefesh B’Nefesh is also on-site, showcasing various Israeli communities.

“The Savitskys’ vision has helped thousands find affordable communities in which to raise their children,” said Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, Senior Director, OU Community Projects and Partnerships.

“Steve is looking to be a leader in this area. He wants to inspire others to give, to follow in his and Genie’s footsteps,” says Rabbi Simon Taylor, National Director, OU Community Projects and Partnerships. “We look forward to a transformative partnership with the Savitskys—for both the OU and North American Jewry.”



Finding the Right Place for Their Family

Marissa and Eitan Barlaz met while undergraduates at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (at the home of the OU-JLIC couple on campus), staying on to complete their doctorates. After they married and moved nearby, they realized there were very few Jews off campus. When their son came home from his secular preschool asking for a holiday tree, they knew they had to relocate before he started kindergarten.

“We wanted a community where we’d feel valued right away. Someplace small, but not too far from our families,” Marissa recalls.

As a busy mom of three working full-time as a data scientist, Marissa appreciated being able to do all her research online through the OU’s communities website. “It was great that all the resources were in one place,” she notes. They also visited five communities during the virtual 2022 Communities Fair, selecting them based on size, professional opportunities and location. Albany stood out because “the community rep invested in a transparent, honest conversation about its strengths, weaknesses and growth priorities.”

Now happily settled there, Marissa is grateful. “The Fair helped us find the right place for our family.”

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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