Six years of preparing for the unanticipated

When I announced my upcoming retirement this fall after six years of leading the Orthodox Union as its senior professional, the world looked very different.

The OU Israel Center in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
The OU Israel Center in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
More than a year ago, when I announced my upcoming retirement this fall after six years of leading the Orthodox Union as its senior professional, the world looked very different. Words like pandemic, social distancing or flattening the curve were hardly part of our daily vocabulary. The Jewish community – like every community – has been shaken by COVID-19. But our fundamental mission – to address the myriad needs of the Jewish people and inspire their spiritual dimension – remains constant.
During these last six years, we’ve vastly expanded the scope and reach of our programming and sought to professionalize the organization by emphasizing detailed strategic planning; rigorous program evaluation and data-based management techniques. We created the OU Center for Communal Research with a dual mandate: to engage in sophisticated, ethically appropriate research regarding issues of communal concern; and to conduct robust, objective evaluations of our programs using recognized social science techniques and the establishment of objective metrics.
A number of important studies are underway, including the shidduch (matchmaking) crisis; attitudes and beliefs of day school graduates and communal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Women’s Initiative was created to expand high-level learning and leadership opportunities for women throughout our community. In less than four years, the outstanding programming of this new department has positively impacted dozens of communities and has provided significant and ongoing opportunities to make outstanding female scholars available to audiences far and wide. Helping other new and innovative Jewish nonprofits grow is also a priority and so we created the Impact Accelerator program, to harness the energy and creativity of start-up ventures within the Jewish community, mentoring and supporting a number of new and exciting organizations.
During this period, our community has faced a multitude of complex challenges. The cost of yeshiva and day school tuition has skyrocketed; the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the enormous burden on parents in providing top quality and meaningful Jewish education for their children. We sought to mitigate this burden by building the most potent, sophisticated and well-orchestrated advocacy effort ever mounted, so that our children could have access to the same programs and services their public-school peers have access to. Over the past six years, we have been successful in securing approximately $1.15 billion in state and local funding for our yeshivot and day schools.
As we look toward the next decade, I believe that hate crimes directed at Jews and Jewish institutions will continue to multiply, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, and as the line continues to blur between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The resurgence of antisemitism has presented itself in the form of physical attacks and other incidents leaving us fearful for our safety and the security of our children and families. But there is also a second form of antisemitism which must be watched with a close eye, because it is often more subtle and therefore more pernicious, allowing for seemingly reasonable political debate to blend easily into antisemitic tropes.
It provides cover to those who peddle vilification and animus in the guise of wholesome and legitimate discourse. It is leading to a world that has enormous difficulty in making those subtle distinctions and separating fact from deafening crescendo of social media fueled fiction and innuendo. Saying that one is opposed to Israel’s policies is very different than the articulation of raw antisemitic ideology; but these lines are frequently blurring. In the process, many – including academics, journalists and respected thought leaders – have come to tolerate intolerance.
We must also unite as a community to understand, and address the myriad challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must plan now for the inevitable economic impacts of the pandemic, both short term and longer run. In particular, we must plan for the consequences of such economic strains on our institutions, including schools and shuls. We must confront the mental health implications for the post-coronavirus world, including the effects of isolation, depression and increases in domestic abuse. And we must recognize both the challenges and opportunities presented by the heavy reliance on technology – all of this will need to drive change within our community.
We have seen tremendous growth during these last six years in the scope and breadth of OU programming – in OU Kashrus, in NCSY, Yachad, OU-JLIC, in our Torah programming, in OU Israel and so much more. I am confident that as the organization heads into its next chapter, it will continue to embellish familiar paths and blaze new ones to meet the ever-changing needs of our community. 
 
The writer is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry with more than 400 congregations in its synagogue network.