By Martin Nachimson
As many of you know, this is my last column in these pages as my term as president will come to an end this January. Reflecting on my presidency, I feel a sense of immense pride. I am truly amazed at the extraordinary changes that have taken place at the OU in four short years. I do not say this boastfully—I give full credit to the talented professional at my side: Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU. Remarkably, in a brief period of time, Allen, drawing upon his background as former chairman of a major law firm, has managed to dramatically change the professional culture at the OU. The changes, implemented at a dizzying pace, have not only helped make our programs and services more efficient and effective, they have helped make the OU an indisputable leader in the world of Jewish nonprofits.
The OU is a complex, diverse and multi-faceted organization. With almost 1,000 employees, the OU runs a myriad of programs, ranging from youth work to campus outreach to political advocacy. Indeed, many of our departments are practically full-fledged organizations in their own right. Under our vast umbrella, we serve the needs of hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world.
Our programs are so effective—we are so good at what we do—there is a constant need to grow our programs and increase our impact. Take OU Advocacy, for example. In the past few years alone, OU Advocacy has helped secure tens of millions of dollars for Jewish communities across the country; but its success in advocating for increased government funding for Jewish schools has simply underscored the need for even greater efforts in this arena. To meet the need, we have established full-time field offices in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, where our skilled advocacy teams work with government leaders to promote the needs and interests of the local Jewish community. Eventually, we hope to expand into the mid-Atlantic, New England and West Coast regions.
Four years ago, it was clear to me that to manage this ever-growing, multi-dimensional enterprise, we needed sophisticated and skilled leadership. We needed someone with managerial expertise; someone with vision and a sense of purpose.
With Allen at the helm, we got just that. Together, we set out to professionalize our operations in an unprecedented manner; we consulted with various professionals to assess our programs and create objective evaluation criteria and measures of success. (How can we, for example, evaluate how effective our campus programs are in supporting Orthodox students on campus? Or how successful our JSU clubs are in bringing public school kids closer to their Jewish roots?) We made strategic planning an integral part of the budgetary process so that senior staff are required to think hard and deeply about the programs they are running and where they are headed. NCSY, for example, recently completed a five-year strategic plan, outlining its goals not only for the year ahead but for five years from now. Such sophisticated management practices will help keep our programs robust, relevant and cutting-edge.
We have always believed that our staff is our greatest asset. Part of valuing one’s staff means investing in them. Over the last four years, we’ve put tremendous energy and resources into professional development. We now have, for the first time, several staff members whose sole responsibility is to focus on staff training and development. We send select staff members to high-level management training programs. We are also in the midst of creating career paths so that employees can grow with the organization.
Recruiting, retaining and promoting talented women have also been top priorities for us. We’ve created a more family-friendly work environment, and now offer employees paid parental leave. (The new policy grants up to eight weeks of paid maternity/child care leave to those who have worked at the OU for more than one year.)
Additionally, we’ve established the OU Women’s Affinity Group, a forum for professional women within the OU where, periodically, female employees get together for a management training seminar, networking event or brainstorming session.
This focus on women’s leadership is not limited to professional staff; we have been opening up leadership positions on the lay level as well. I am proud to say that OU officers now include three female national vice presidents and two associate vice presidents.
We are also in the process of a creating a department within the OU—with a senior-level full-time professional at its helm—that will be dedicated to coordinating all OU programming for women. This department will create exciting new programs for women—particularly in the realm of sophisticated Torah learning—throughout our communities, and will launch novel programming initiatives in shuls and communities that will focus on women’s leadership. While we are still in the beginning stages of this endeavor, this is a very exciting venture for all of us. We have taken a giant first step in ensuring that the Jewish community fully benefits from the dynamic and capable women in the communal talent pool.
I want to add that one of the most gratifying aspects of serving as president of the OU is being able to work so closely with both the highly skilled professional staff and the dedicated lay leadership of this organization. Getting to know many of the professionals personally has truly opened my eyes, and made me appreciate the broad range of expertise and talent they bring to the organization. We are so very fortunate to have such a wonderful staff who are passionately devoted to klal work. I am also deeply impressed with our exceptionally gifted lay leaders. Bringing an array of knowledge and skills from a variety of fields, our lay leaders selflessly give of their time and resources to the OU, attesting to their passion, dedication and commitment to strengthening the Jewish people.
A final thought: there is a well-known Talmudic debate concerning the Chanukah candles. The debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai centers on the following question: do we light eight candles on the first day, and the number of candles decreases each day (Shammai) or do we light one candle on the first day, and the number of candles increases with each passing day (Hillel)?
The Gemara rules that we follow Beit Hillel, in accordance with the principle “ma’alin bakodesh, in holy matters, one should increase and not detract.” At the OU, we try to follow this principle as well: we want to continually increase our impact and spread more light. We want to reach more unaffiliated college students and Birthright participants, influence more teens on Shabbatons and summer programs and connect more Jews, at every stage of their lives, to Torah and Yahadut.
This is our mandate and our mission. I am deeply grateful to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for giving me the opportunity to be involved with klal work, and while my presidency is coming to an end, I have no intention of ending my connection with the OU. I have been involved with the OU for four decades and hope to give the organization at least another four more!
A happy Chanukah to all!