Inside the OU

Inside the OU – Fall 2020

Happenings Around the OU

Interns Get Real-Life Experience at Start-Ups
During a summer where internships were hard to come by, the OU’s Impact Accelerator (IA) provided thirteen college students with the opportunity to work for IA, as well as for the four start-up ventures of IA’s second cohort. IA was founded in 2018 to identify and invest in ventures addressing current and future Jewish communal interests. Each start-up was assigned one or two interns who would work on projects for the duration of the internship program, which ran from June to early August. In addition to their assigned work, interns were given one-on-one career guidance, participated in weekly “Lessons with a Lay Leader” group seminars, and joined bi-weekly group coffee chats to promote group bonding.


PC20: Bringing Summer to Life

An NCSY teen volunteering for Habitat for Humanity as part of a PC20 program. Photo: Josh Weinberg

With camp, travel and NCSY Summer programs canceled as a result of the pandemic, the OU set an ambitious goal to become an emergency resource for Jewish students and communities.

After receiving local and state guidelines and medical guidance, Project Community 2020 (PC20) was launched in early July with the OU’s signature programs—NCSY, Yachad, Teach Coalition and OU-JLIC—to make summer 2020 one of chesed and connection.

The closure of summer camp programs has left thousands of teens and parents without enriching and fulfilling summer plans. Our goal in creating PC20 is to answer that need, helping to contribute to our communities and enriching Jewish life across North America.” —OU President Moishe Bane

“Our goal is fairly simple: to provide opportunities for our teens to come back together as a community,” said NCSY Summer Director David Cutler, who together with the local Regional Directors is overseeing New York and New Jersey’s programs. “Our hope is that the program maximizes our participants’ ability to have fun together, learn together, volunteer together and ultimately grow together as our communities re-emerge from our shutdowns.”

Highlights of PC20’s signature programs included Perfect Pair, connecting teens with seniors; Yachad Buddies, where volunteer squads bring the fun to Yachad members at home; and NCSY-PC20 Carnivals, outdoor carnivals and block parties for young children and Yachad members.

PC20 programs took place across thirty cities in the US and Canada, specifically curated for a distinct range of participants: day school teens, public school teens, Yachad members and college students. Participation grew every day, impacting over 2,000 people in the first two weeks.

Girls in a PC20 program paint the Far Rockaway Skate Park in Far Rockaway, New York.


Bringing Shavuot Night Home
With shul doors shuttered in May, two OU initiatives brought Shavuot-night programming to homes.

“Sinai At Home,” presented by the Department of Torah Initiatives, offered a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn from some of the greatest teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins for a full night of learning. On the program’s web site, users could browse for shiurim, obtain source sheets, and print a packet of shiurim to learn Shavuot night. In just a few weeks, the site saw approximately 25,000 shiur downloads.

As part of its ongoing mission to provide inspiration and education to teens and their families, NCSY presented “Shavuot in a Box,” a five-hour, self-guided learning experience for Shavuot night. More than 2,700 boxes were delivered to NCSY families across the US, thanks to a generous subsidy from Touro College.


Keeping the Beit Midrash Doors Open
Covid-19 may have kept students locked in at home, but OU-JLIC’s new Virtual Beit Midrash kept the doors of the beit midrash wide open. Held in June, this four-week comprehensive beit midrash program for male and female college students included shiurim, chavrutot and social activities, and provided students with the unique opportunity to learn from almost every OU-JLIC educator across the North America.

“We kept hearing from students that they wanted more in-depth opportunities for Torah and social engagement online, so we created the Virtual Beit Midrash,” says Rabbi Jonathan Shulman, Director of OU-JLIC Israel, who has overseen OU-JLIC’s successful “Summer in Jerusalem” program for the past four years. “A one-time shiur doesn’t offer the same level of growth and fulfillment we can offer with an ongoing and more robust program.”


Yachad Family Shabbaton Goes Virtual

“The special needs community has been impacted tremendously by social distancing requirements. For so many of our families, this virtual event served as a reminder that we are not alone and are here to inspire each other.” —Yachad International Director Avrohom Adler

Some 350 participants attended Yachad’s Northeast Family Shabbaton, a virtual event held this past May. Normally held over a weekend, the week-long online conference featured sessions and workshops delivered by the same inspiring speakers who would have been at the in-person weekend event. Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, is the OU’s program dedicated to addressing the needs of Jewish individuals with disabilities. As an added bonus, the online program allowed Yachad families from around the globe to attend the sessions. Topics addressed the emotional struggles in caring for others, balancing children’s behavioral needs with everyone at home, managing stress, and how to use technology and analog activities to connect.


OU-JLIC NYU Co-Director Named to “36 Under 36”
Congratulations to Rabbi Joe Wolfson, OU-JLIC Co-Director at NYU, on being named to the New York Jewish Week’s 2020 “36 Under 36” for his efforts to fight the devastating impact of Covid-19. Rallying his students and alumni, Rabbi Wolfson partnered with DOROT to coordinate hundreds of calls to isolated seniors and arranged for groups of student volunteers to deliver kosher food packages to the elderly through the Met Council. At short notice before Pesach, he coordinated the delivery of hundreds of pre-Pesach meals to Covid-19 patients at the Javits Center. Now, in a different stage of the crisis, he coordinates daily online classes for isolated seniors given by OU-JLIC students across the country, helps facilitate the distribution of thousands of meals each week on the Lower East Side and is pairing his students with children at a school in the South Bronx in an effort to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on children’s literacy.



OU Advocacy Wins Big in Supreme Court Rulings Protecting Religious Freedom
As the Supreme Court wrapped up its 2019-20 term, it handed down two rulings related to issues of importance to the Orthodox Jewish community and that protect religious freedoms: Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey–Berru and St. James School v. Biel.
In both cases, the justices writing the majority opinions cited the “friend-of-the-court” (amicus) briefs the OU Advocacy Center helped author and that supported the majority opinion the high court rendered.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, the court ruled 7-2 that religious schools can’t be sued in secular court over the dismissal of a religious teacher. In citing the brief the OU joined (p. 20, footnote 19), Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion: “The contemporary American Jewish community continues to place the education of children in its faith and rites at the center of its communal efforts.”

A state discriminating against religion is just as unconstitutional as a state promoting one particular religion. In this ruling, the Supreme Court has clearly rejected any kind of discrimination based upon the religious ‘status of a family, school or student.’

OU Advocacy Executive Director Nathan Diament

In Espinoza v. Montana, the OU— which joined other national religious organizations in its “friend-of-the-court” brief—urged the US Supreme Court to reverse a decision of the Montana Supreme Court that relied upon an anti-religious state constitutional provision in striking down a Montana tax credit program that supported scholarships to attend nonpublic K-12 schools, including religious schools. The high court ruled 5-4 on the case.
In his opinion concurring with the majority, Justice Alito cited the OU’s amicus brief (p. 42, footnote 19) in the landmark case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, in which the OU argued to strike down an antiquated, anti-religious amendment to state constitutions in the interest of the safety and well-being of religious Americans.

Immediately following both decisions, OU Advocacy hosted webinars with attorneys renowned for their work on religious liberty issues, to explain the significance and implications of the high court’s decisions: Professor Michael (Avi) Helfand, Associate Dean, Pepperdine Law School and the Hon. Paul Clement, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and Former Solicitor General of the United States.


Over Sixty? SPIRIT Might Be for You!
Since its launch in April, over 2,000 people from communities throughout the United States, Canada, Israel and even Australia have participated in SPIRIT (Stimulating Program Initiative for Retirees that Inspires Thought), a bi-weekly learning program offered over Zoom for retirees, not-yet-retirees, baby boomers, empty nesters, sandwich generation parents, and seniors. The wildly successful program offers expert lecturers on a whole host of topics of interest to this demographic, including coping with anxiety, financial management, halachot of end-of-life matters, memory improvement and cyber security, to name a few.

“As the generation of baby boomers leaves their professional responsibilities, they are looking for spiritual, educational, physical and intellectual stimulation,” said Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, Director of Community Programs and SPIRIT Coordinator for the OU Department of Synagogue and Community Services. “As soon as the OU became aware of the challenges facing the over-sixty population with regard to Covid-19, it was obvious that SPIRIT would be the perfect way to engage this demographic in a virtual setting.”


Women in Action

Screenshot of attendees at the WI’s virtual leadership summit in June.

Reimagining Leadership & Community: Pandemic and Beyond
More than 150 women attended the OU Women’s Initiative (WI) virtual summit in June to discuss pressing issues for Jewish communal leaders as they plan for the post-Covid-19 impact to their organizations. Participants hailed from seventy-eight communities around the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Designed to provide female lay leaders with a platform to learn and network with peers facing the same issues, sessions focused on current program challenges and ideas, reimagining program needs and formats post Covid-19, the long-term impact of virtual programming and virtual meetings, and fundraising with sensitivity, among other topics. Presenters were expert lecturers, educators and leaders in the field—including Erica Brown, Michelle Brody, Rachel Cyrulnik, Amy Katz, Leslie Ginsparg Klein and Adina Morris.

“This year we took our summit virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We also wanted to gear the sessions toward the topic that’s on everyone’s mind—how to effectively lead organizations through Covid-19 and how to rebound successfully afterwards.”

—Founding Director of the OU Women’s Initiative Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman

WI has utilized virtual programming since its founding, including the Torat Imecha Nach Yomi program, the monthly Rosh Chodesh “Lunch N’ Learn” series, the “Ideas and Inspiration” series and several specialized webinars for rebbetzins and educators. With the pandemic continuing to restrict in-person events, WI rolled out interactive, creative, and intellectual programming throughout the summer with presentations delving into architecture, literature, philosophy and history. Over the course of the Three Weeks, six presenters shared their expertise on areas related to the First and Second Temples. Following the popularity of the Torat Imecha Nach Yomi’s virtual tour of ancient Israel, the series included a virtual tour detailing Jerusalem’s rich history.

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