President's Message


In September 2008, I was privileged to join a group of OU leaders for a pre-Rosh Hashanah visit to the Oval Office. This was during the twilight of the presidency of George W. Bush and in the midst of a contentious campaign to succeed him. It was also at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. President Bush told us that he was hosting an important economic meeting that afternoon and had invited both the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates, Senators McCain and Obama, to attend. Yes, he had a preferred successor, but his commitment to the country and to a successful transition was more important to him than partisan politics. All of us in the room were deeply moved by President Bush’s humility and leadership.

In the business world, a primary responsibility of a board of directors is to hire senior management and evaluate their performance. Part of that responsibility is succession planning or thinking about who comes next. If the CEO leaves the company or retires, is there someone on the team ready to replace them? How difficult will it be to find a replacement from outside the company? Are future leaders being cultivated from within?1

Effective executives also focus on succession planning throughout their organizations. One of my former employers updated the succession plan for every management-level position in the company every two years.2 Not only did this help the company pivot quickly when someone left, but it also forced them to focus on their employees’ professional development and readiness for promotion.

Leadership changes are effectuated in a variety of ways. For example, Berkshire Hathaway has been led for decades by Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, both of whom are now in their nineties. Several years ago, Mr. Buffet appointed two heirs apparent to significant leadership roles. In 2021, he announced that Greg Abel would eventually be CEO. Everyone—the board, the markets, the employees—knows the plan.

Some companies wait for the CEO to retire or depart before commencing a search. At other companies, “activist” investors pressure boards to replace the CEO, sometimes even when the CEO founded the company (which is what happened at Apple and Twitter, among many others).

But this is Jewish Action, not Harvard Business Review. My sense is that in the Jewish communal world, many organizations—shuls, schools, social service groups and yeshivot—do not plan in a conscious and proactive manner for professional and lay succession.3 Concomitantly, professional development of employees is often haphazard and ad hoc. As Jewish organizations grow beyond the fledgling state into maturity, succession planning must be on the agenda.4

Why is succession planning so critical? Two recent cases brought this to mind. I received a call from the founder of a small but successful organization that he has led for over forty years. There is no heir apparent. Nor does the organization have an independent board. The founder recently had a health scare, and he is starting to think about slowing down. If he were to step aside, the organization would face an existential crisis without a clear structure for moving forward. Thankfully, he now realizes some planning is in order to pave a path for the organization’s future success.

The very same week, I heard from the founder of a thriving social services organization. Having built and run the organization for many years, he wants to move on and pursue a new communal venture. But the organization has no one ready to fill his shoes, and the board is not sufficiently informed or engaged to lead a search for a replacement. Consequently, he feels trapped until he can belatedly develop a successor.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to succession planning.

Some communal leaders lack the time, resources and internal talent to groom successors. Other organizations or communal institutions have long-term founders or leaders who are “irreplaceable.” A significant obstacle to succession planning in nonprofits is the lack of a clear governance structure. In the business world, management reports to the board, which in turn answers to shareholders. In most communal organizations, on the other hand, there are no shareholders per se and therefore no one to hold the board accountable. And because organizational boards are often appointed by the founders and leaders, there is frequently a lack of independence and oversight. Furthermore, the boards of communal organizations consist of volunteers who are generally also donors. It therefore becomes incumbent on the board to plan for its own succession and replacement. This requires humility, foresight and wisdom.5

I suspect most of us are familiar with shuls, schools and other local organizations that have had the same professional and/or lay leadership for many years. I also suspect most of us are familiar with crises that developed upon the retirement or death of a leader. Tensions, “breakaways,” and even lawsuits have ensued in connection with leadership transitions at shuls, yeshivot and even Chassidic dynasties.6 In many of these cases, advance planning may have alleviated or avoided the crisis.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to succession planning. Considerations vary between developing and mature organizations; national and local groups; broad-based communal organizations, such as shuls and day schools; and “private” enterprises, such as shtiebels and gemachs. Also, smaller Orthodox communities may have a limited local talent pool from which to recruit successors. However, I would argue that for organizations that desire to outlive their founders, there are two structural imperatives: 1) Clear lines of decision-making authority; and 2) A board or similar body that is independent from the CEO. Decisions regarding succession can be difficult, even wrenching, and often impossible if overlaid with arguments over who is authorized to decide.

Some issues relevant to professional leadership succession are:

To what extent is the organization’s success and culture inherently connected to the current CEO? To what extent are donors’ commitments to the organization dependent on their relationship with the current CEO?

If the CEO departs, for how long can the organization survive until a replacement is found?

Is there an internal candidate? Has the CEO actively developed his or her replacement? Are the CEO and the board aligned on the readiness and qualifications of the heir apparent?

When is the leader likely to retire? What severance arrangements are in place to permit retirement?

Who are the decision makers? Do they reflect the organization’s constituency?

Is there a vision for what the next generation will look like?

Larger organizations also need to plan for the perpetuation of lay leadership. At the OU, our constitution mandates term limits for officers, board members and committee chairmen. (Hence, the transition from Bane to Aeder.) This is designed to ensure a continuous influx of new talent and perspectives, and helps the OU reflect today’s Orthodox community rather than that of yesteryear. There are downsides to term limits, as some still vibrant and visionary leaders (and donors) will inevitably be pushed aside. This challenges us to find other avenues to keep former lay leaders engaged.

While there is no one governance model that will work for every organization and situation, it is incumbent upon the lay and professional leadership of every Jewish communal institution to proactively plan for succession—and for success. The OU’s Impact Accelerator provides mentorship to selected promising communal start-ups. Part of this mentorship involves helping these organizations think about governance, long-term planning, and succession.

I want to take the opportunity to thank my predecessor and mentor, Moishe Bane, for his thirty years of dedication to the Orthodox Union, the last six as president. Moishe is one of the greatest communal leaders of our generation. His selfless commitment to ensuring a smooth presidential transition is just another example of his model leadership. It is said to be much easier for a new leader to replace a great leader than a weak one.7 If so, my job at the OU will be a breeze.

We wish Moishe and Joanne good health as they continue to serve Klal Yisrael and the OU.


1. Succession planning has been defined as “a deliberate and systematic effort by an organization to ensure leadership continuity in key positions, retain and develop intellectual and knowledge capital for the future and encourage individual advancement” (William Rothwell, Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring Leadership Continuity and Building Talent from Within [New York, 2001]).

2. The employees colloquially referred to this process as Project Bus. V’hameivin yavin.

3. A 2011 study not focused on the Jewish community concluded that “few nonprofits do anything toward succession planning” (“Succession planning in nonprofit organizations,” Froelich, McKee & Rathge, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 22, no. 1 [Sept. 2011]).

4. Erica Brown summons Abraham-to-Isaac, Moses-to-Joshua and Elijah-to-Elisha as Biblical templates for models of succession planning. See Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Vermont, 2008), 191-201.

5. The OU’s Department of Synagogue Initiatives conducts seminars that teach shul boards about proper governance.

6. There is much discussion in halachic literature concerning the right of a rabbi or rosh yeshivah to pass his position to his son in certain circumstances. This is beyond the scope of this article.

7. See Inspired, 192.


Mitchel R. Aeder is the newly elected president of the Orthodox Union.

This article was featured in the Spring 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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