As we approach the Yamim Noraim, we are obligated to contemplate the events of the past year and to formulate a strategy for the coming year. This takes place on the organizational as well as on the individual level. Here at the Orthodox Union (OU), we are unfortunately undergoing a painful evaluation process. In light of the current economic climate, we are forced to carefully assess each of our wonderful departments and programs and determine which should continue to thrive and which should be discontinued; which should be granted additional resources and which should not.
These decisions, are, of course, inextricably bound to the significant issues facing the Orthodox and general Jewish communities today. With our limited resources, we need to first identify the most pressing challenges and then ask ourselves, How can we best meet the challenges in the coming year?
Below are some of the most pressing communal needs, as I see them.
* With almost six million Jews in the United States, and with the general US population growing, the Jews in this country are quickly becoming marginalized. Moreover, with most Jews centered in only three or four major metropolitan areas, our political importance has been greatly diminished. Most critically, because of the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage, we are losing our young people.
* Through NCSY, the OU’s international organization for teens, we have been responding to the grave threat of assimilation for more than half a century; today, with both NCSY and the Jewish Student Union, our outreach program for students in public high schools, we are touching the lives of almost 40,000 Jewish teenagers in North America. Yet, despite our efforts, we reach no more than 7 percent of the Jewish population in the US and Canada. We must develop ways to reach far greater numbers.
* We are also stepping up our efforts to encourage OU synagogues do a better job of reaching out to the unaffiliated. With our motto “You don’t have to be Orthodox to daven in an Orthodox shul,” we are promoting the idea that synagogues must become more user friendly for beginners and the unaffiliated.
* But the battle against assimilation cannot be left strictly to the professionals. All of us must take upon ourselves the responsibility to educate our irreligious neighbors, relatives, coworkers and friends about the profundity and beauty of our heritage. While this may be a difficult task, in light of the statistics, we have no other choice. If every Orthodox individual and every shul resolved to tackle this issue, who knows what kind of results we could see by the year’s end?
* I’m deeply concerned that the Orthodox Jewish population has priced itself out of the market. With the incredibly high costs of education and housing it seems that only the top 10 percent of earners can afford to be Orthodox. This is not a sustainable model. We must find ways of establishing new communities in which the cost of housing will not be so prohibitive. We must also strive to provide meaningful Jewish education at a reasonable cost.
* This past year we established the Department of Day School and Educational Services. Headed by Director Rabbi Saul Zucker and Assistant Director Rabbi Cary Friedman, the department has taken the Jewish community by storm. In a relatively short period of time we have evaluated the crushing tuition crisis and have proposed meaningful and creative solutions, including several significant cost-cutting measures for yeshivot and day schools (purchasing a national health insurance plan for all yeshivot and day school staff, raising funds for schools through a customizable Internet toolbar, et cetera).
* Furthermore, as chair of the OU Education Commission, I, along with the commission members, am seriously looking into educational alternatives for the Jewish community, including vouchers, charter schools, hybrid schools and no-frills schools. We have accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, but much work lies before us. I have no doubt that the OU will rise to the occasion and will help alleviate the terrible financial burden facing Orthodox parents in this country.
* Within the Orthodox world, there is greater polarization than ever before. What can be done to create more achdut? Achdut can be achieved either from the “top down” or from the “bottom up.” Working from the top down, we have reached out to all segments of the Orthodox community, trying to find common ground where we can work together. Unity does not mean uniformity. While there may always be hashkafic differences among the various segments of Orthodoxy, we must find ways to bridge the gaps. From the bottom up, it’s important that we find ways of reaching out to our fellow Orthodox Jews regardless of the color or size of their kippot. If we are to be “a light unto the nations,” we must first direct that light upon ourselves.
* As we say in the Shemoneh Esrei, “Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu veal kol Yisrael, May God Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all the people of Israel.” Who does the aleinu (“upon us”) of the verse refer to? To the people who recite this tefillah three times daily—Orthodox Jews. But if we cannot make peace among ourselves, how can we expect to make peace with everyone else?
* We are challenged by our role as Diaspora Jews vis-à-vis Israel. With our broad range of members with differing opinions on Israel-related issues, we try to make every effort to reach out to as many of our synagogues and individual members as possible in order to help determine our positions. I take pride in the fact that our decision-making process is an open one, transparent to all of our board members, and that the consensus we reach takes into account the range of opinions within our broad constituency.
* Our position on Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of the Jewish people forever is unwavering, and advocating this stance will remain a top priority in the coming year. We will continue to support aliyah and to work closely with organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh to encourage our members to seriously consider living in Israel.
* We need to clarify our role as the largest and most trusted kosher-certifying agency in the world. In light of various recent events, we wrestled with a complex question this past year: When certifying a product as kosher, what are our ethical obligations? Cognizant of our limitations with regard to our human and capital resources, we concluded that the OU is first and foremost a kashrut agency. Our rabbis are trained in this area and the trust they have earned throughout the world is unparalleled. We cannot begin to monitor labor practices, immigration issues and other complex areas in which we have no expertise. Having said that, however, our kashrut staff will endeavor to ensure that our companies adhere to Torah standards with regard to employment-related issues.
* The singles crisis must be a priority. It is well known that many religious young women especially are experiencing great difficulty in finding a marriage partner; though over the years we have tried many different approaches to resolving this painful predicament, none have been terribly successful. This past year, we began a relationship with Jeff Cohen of the MakeAShidduch Foundation who has developed numerous new and innovative approaches to making shidduchim that we believe have enormous potential. We look forward to working together to achieve new levels of success.
* We have done much in the past to help ensure the survival of small Jewish communities throughout North America. I believe American Orthodoxy will be strengthened if, within the next decade or so, we build strong, dynamic Torah communities around the country. A few months ago, we invited twenty-two small Jewish communities to New York for our Emerging Jewish Communities Job and Home Relocation Fair. Some of the communities represented at the fair have the potential to grow; our responsibility is to help them so that we can provide choices to the American Orthodox population and perhaps even a solution to the exorbitant cost of Orthodox Jewish life. In many of these communities the cost of housing and Jewish education is more affordable, and the overall quality of life is greater than in cities with major Orthodox Jewish populations. We hope to continue to work closely with these communities, for the benefit of all Klal Yisrael.
* As I both reflect back and look forward to the future, I see challenges—but I also see great opportunities. The OU has been there for the Jewish people during this past year of economic turmoil—among other initiatives, our OU Job Board has facilitated meaningful employment for hundreds of people nationwide. As the umbrella organization for Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, we take upon ourselves the responsibility of meeting the needs of the Jewish people. I am aware of our professional staff’s dedication and deep concern for the Jewish people and for the Land of Israel. I am confident that God will once again bless the OU as He has in the past, enabling us to continue our leadership role in the year ahead.
May we all be blessed with a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, a year of peace, health and happiness in the world.