Talking with Allen I. Fagin

By Mayer Fertig  

Mayer Fertig, chief communications officer of the Orthodox Union, converses with Allen Fagin, newly named executive vice president and chief professional officer of the OU.

fagin2Over the past few years, the Orthodox Union has witnessed stunning growth. Multi-faceted and wide-ranging, the OU is today not only a leader in kashrut, certifying over 700,000 kosher products worldwide, it is a leader in youth work, reaching some 20,000 teenagers annually; in synagogue services, representing hundreds of OU shuls across the US and Canada; as well as a trailblazer in political advocacy, social and educational programing for Jews with disabilities, Jewish life on campus and so much more.

With the unprecedented growth of the OU, the organization’s officers and Board determined that a new kind of professional leadership was necessary to steer the OU into the future, and concentrated their search on someone with significant management experience who would best serve the needs of this increasingly complex and expanding enterprise. With his strong management background and intimate involvement with the OU for decades, Allen Fagin, former chairman of Proskauer Rose LLP, was an obvious choice.

Mayer Fertig: You have been an OU lay leader for decades. Despite the fact that you were a partner in a prestigious law firm, you dedicated so much of your time, energy and resources over the years to working on behalf of the klal. Why?

Allen Fagin: I have been involved with the Orthodox Union ever since Shelly Rudoff, a”h, served as president of the Union from 1990 to 1994. Part of the reason I think I became so involved in klal work is because I am the only observant member of my family on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. I have always felt very fortunate to have had a yeshivah education. At the same time, I believe our community has an enormous obligation to reach out to others who have not had the same opportunity.

On my wife’s side of the family, I saw remarkable dedication to klal work. For decades, my father-in-law, Max Rosenberg, a”h, served as chairman of the board at Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Breuers). My mother-in-law’s father, Walter Joseph, a”h, was the first president of Khal Adath Jeshurun in WashingtonHeights when it was re-established in the United States. I think much of what I learned about being osek b’tzarchei tzibbur I learned from my in-laws, Max and Elizabeth Rosenberg, a”h.

MF: How do you find the transition from lay leader to chief professional officer? What have you learned about the OU that you didn’t know before?

AF: It’s impossible for most people to realize the scope and breadth of what the OU does, day in and day out. Since I took on this position right before Pesach, I’ve had numerous meetings with the heads of our various departments. To really grasp what the OU does, you need the kind of unique opportunity that I have had: spending several weeks going from program head to program head, from staff member to staff member, learning what each one does every day.

We all know, for example, that the OU sponsors this extraordinary youth movement called NCSY. Without spending time understanding how many different programs NCSY runs, how many locations it serves and what these programs accomplish, you can’t get a sense of the enormity of NCSY. And the same is true of every one of our programs.

MF: It is no secret that a lot of the OU’s activities are funded by our kashrut services. Is there something about that that you wish more people knew?

AF: I wish people understood that while kashrut does fund a substantial part of our operations, the shortfall between what we spend on programs and our kashrut revenue is huge. And that is just to run our current programs. There are really two gaps here: there is a gap between what we currently spend and the kashrut revenue that we use, which doesn’t begin to cover the full cost of what we’re doing, and then there is an even larger gap of what we could be doing with our existing programs with far greater support.

One of the things that I have come to appreciate in the last few weeks is the number of really important programs that we can’t run. There are numerous programs that we can’t expand, campuses or communities where we can’t go—despite the fact that they may be desperate to have us there. This is certainly the case with respect to Yachad/NJCD, our program for individuals with disabilities, it’s true for NCSY, it’s true for our programs on college campuses . . . it’s true for all our programs. Our revenue stream doesn’t begin to cover our budget or to address the enormous unmet needs.

MF: Good managers tend to leave their mark on an organization and your experience at Proskauer would seem to indicate that you’re one of those. What are your primary objectives for the OU?

AF: A critical part of my job is to import into the Orthodox Union sound management practices, including a robust program of professional development so that every member of the staff feels that he or she is growing and learning. Succession planning, which in many ways is the most important responsibility of any chief executive officer, is another critical goal. This entails seeing to it that every head of a division and program has carefully considered who his or her replacement will be when he or she is no longer in the job.

Another important objective is to take all of the OU programs and weave them together so that they form a single tapestry instead of a series of unique programs.

I also intend to work with the OU lay leadership and with professional staff to fine-tune our organizational mission, determine our goals and priorities and put into place an effective system of evaluating objectively whether programs we run are successful and cost effective. We have wonderfully talented lay leaders. Many of them have served in important lay capacities for substantial periods of time. It is vitally important that we continue to develop new leadership talent who will continue to steer the Union into the future.

MF: There are so many different things that we do. Who is the OU’s constituency, in your mind? When you think about it, whom are we serving, and do you have any plans or feel a need to adjust our constituency?

AF: I believe we have two constituencies. The first is our immediate constituency; we represent the Orthodox world—hundreds of Orthodox shuls and their members and the Orthodox communities that they in turn serve. We serve as a spokesperson for them and provide on a national level and international level many types of services for that community.

But we also have a much broader constituency: the rest of Klal Yisrael. Many of our programs are, in effect, outreach programs to the rest of the Jewish world. If there is one significant lesson that we have learned from the results of studies like the Pew report, we know that while demographically the Orthodox community will continue to grow, unless something drastic changes, the balance of the larger Jewish community will shrink. That imposes a huge obligation on us as Orthodox Jews.

We must try to address the rapid decline of American Jewry. Each individual must decide what his response will be.There are those who engage directly in outreach, and others who   provide financial support to those who engage in such activities.

As Modern Orthodox Jews, we in particular have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to influence our coreligionists. We must model appropriate behavior, language and speech. We represent Orthodoxy to unaffiliated Jews who oftentimes have no other contact with religious Jews.

I spent forty years at a major international law firm. Many of my colleagues were Jewish, but very few were Orthodox. Given the fact that my colleagues knew I was Orthodox, it was particularly important for me to behave in a way that reflected positively on our community, in a way that was always respectful and welcoming.

MF: Who are the people who have had the greatest influence on you?

AF: From a professional point of view, I was heavily influenced by several of my partners in a variety of respects. I have been enormously lucky to have had several mentors while I was growing as a professional who pushed me, and had confidence in my abilities way before I knew I had them.

In a more personal vein, I have been deeply influenced by my wife, Judy, an extraordinary woman—a remarkable wife and grandmother and a phenomenal educator. She was the head of school at Ramaz for many years and now serves, post retirement, as the educational advisor to Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn. She’s had an enormous impact on me from the day we met.

Probably one of the most significant influences on me religiously was Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, a”h, of the Queens Jewish Center, who was my rav for many years. Rabbi Grunblatt was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known, whose brilliance was only matched by his sensitivity and menschlichkeit. He also had a serious influence on my understanding of what it means to be an osek b’tzarchei tzibbur. When I was relatively young and had comparatively little time, he asked me to become president of the shul. For a variety of reasons, I was trying to avoid taking that position. I told him my main hesitation was that I wouldn’t be able to sit next to my two young sons—who would sit next to them and show them how to behave in shul, how to daven? He turned to me and said something I did not understand at the time but which I clearly understand now: “They will learn far more from watching you sit at the front of the shul than you can teach them by sitting next to them.” I took the position, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized how very right he had been.


A well-known attorney and former chairman of Proskauer Rose LLP, one of the country’s most prestigious law firms, Allen Fagin has, over his almost forty-year legal career, represented many distinguished companies including Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, UPS, AllianceBernstein, NBC, Met Life and Goldman Sachs, among others. He is a graduate of Ramaz in New York City, Columbia College (1971), Harvard Law School and the JFK School of Government at Harvard, where he received a JD and a master’s degree in public policy. He then served as a law clerk to the Hon. Robert L. Carter, United States district judge in the Southern District of New York.

Mr. Fagin practiced law at Proskauer beginning in 1976, where he specialized in employment law, co-chairing Proskauer’s Labor and Employment Law Department for many years. He served as Proskauer’s chairman from 2005 to 2011. During that time, the firm grew to over 750 lawyers and approximately 1,500 employees and opened offices in London, Sao Paulo, Chicago and Hong Kong. A longtime lay leader of the Orthodox Union, Mr. Fagin retired from Proskauer at the end of 2013 in order to devote himself, as he puts it, “with far greater intensity to communal activity.”

This article was featured in the Summer 2014 issue of Jewish Action.