Four Decades at the OU

By Martin Nachimson

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I often reflect on the fact that I have been involved with the Orthodox Union for more than four decades. And during those past four decades, I have witnessed much change take place, not only at the OU, but in the American Orthodox community at large.

So how did I get involved with the OU?

Growing up in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, I was part of a demographic that is no longer prevalent: my family was “Orthodox not shomer Shabbos.” My parents, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from White Russia (now Belarus), attended an Orthodox shul, ate kosher (we checked labels in those days) and were Orthodox, in fact, in every respect, but they didn’t keep Shabbos.

In those years, Orthodoxy in America was in its infancy, dwarfed by the bigger, wealthier and more powerful Reform and Conservative movements. The day school movement was just beginning, and most of us Jewish kids who were first-generation Americans went to public school.

But then something remarkable happened: at the age of seventeen, I went to Cornell University. It was there, at a seemingly Jewishly isolated college campus in upstate New York, that I discovered authentic Orthodoxy. How did this come to be? At the end of my freshman year, my father passed away. Since I had to say Kaddish every day, I began spending a lot of time at Cornell’s Center for Jewish Living, then known as Young Israel of Cornell. It was actually a fraternity house with a kosher dining hall; more importantly, it was a social hub for Orthodox students. For me, it was eye-opening. I had never been exposed to so many frum kids, or to a genuine Shabbos table. By my junior year, I moved into “the house” and developed strong friendships with my frum peers. Ironically, it was in the halls of uber-secular academia that I learned what it meant to be a full-fledged Orthodox Jew.

I graduated from Cornell University with a BA and went on to obtain an M.B.A. from Columbia University. During that time, I married my wife, Liz, and we settled in Brooklyn. Subsequently, we moved to our first house on Long Island. When we had our first child, we made the decision to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle and build a Torah-true home. In 1963, I began working for the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, a job I would have for more than forty-five years—my entire career.

But as I slowly integrated into the Orthodox world, I began to feel a burning desire to serve the klal. I knew how fragile my own connection to Yiddishkeit had been. What if I hadn’t discovered Torah Jews in Ithaca? What if there had been no Center for Jewish Living? When, in 1974, I was transferred to Los Angeles and saw firsthand the work of the newly established West Coast NCSY, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be where I devote my energies—to help bring Jewish kids back to the fold, to give them a religious anchor, to provide for them what the Center for Jewish Living had provided for me.

Over the years, I have taken much pride in the remarkable growth of West Coast NCSY, and the establishment and development of the OU West Coast office. Back in the 80s, we realized that for the OU to be a truly national organization, it had to have a strong presence on the West Coast as well as on the East Coast. Together with the talented and capable Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, we were able to bring our dream of a West Coast office to fruition. Today OU West Coast, located in the heart of the Orthodox community in Los Angeles, is comprised of an impressive network of forty shuls from Vancouver to San Diego and as east as Denver, Colorado.

American Orthodoxy today is entirely different than it was forty years ago. It is, baruch Hashem, thriving, strong and confident. To keep up with the demands of a growing, changing community, the OU has had to evolve as well. Today the OU is not only a leader in kashrut—certifying more than 700,000 products worldwide—it is an international, multi-faceted organization that is a leader in youth work, synagogue services, political advocacy, social and educational programming for Jews with disabilities, Jewish life on campus and so much more.

Each of our programs, whether it is OU Advocacy or Our Way for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing, could theoretically be a Jewish organization on its own. Not too long ago, our officers and board determined that a new kind of professional leadership was needed to keep up with the demands of our ever-growing, complex organization. With my background in corporate restructuring, I knew that instead of placing a rabbi at the helm, as the OU has been doing since it was founded, we needed a leader with significant corporate and management experience. In 2014, we chose Allen I. Fagin, former chairman of Proskauer Rose LLP, to serve as OU executive vice president. I am proud to say that he has truly been remarkable.

It is my fervent hope that I merit to stay involved with the OU for at least another four decades.

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This article was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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