Certified community building

As head of the Orthodox Union Israel, Rabbi Avi Berman speaks to the organization’s many initiatives, which strive to connect Jews of disparate backgrounds.

A Taglit-Birthright group, part of the OU ‘Israel Free Spirit’ program, visits the Western Wall. (photo credit: OU ISRAEL)
A Taglit-Birthright group, part of the OU ‘Israel Free Spirit’ program, visits the Western Wall.
(photo credit: OU ISRAEL)
As far as quick mental associations go, Orthodox Union Israel executive director Rabbi Avi Berman understands that when most Jews think about his organization, they imagine the back of a Heinz ketchup bottle.
“The first thing that comes up when you say ‘OU’ is kosher products and certification – it’s a Heinz ketchup bottle,” he chuckled ruefully. “It makes it a little more challenging to market yourself and explain to the world what you’re doing.”
In a candid conversation with the Magazine, Berman described why the OU goes beyond that specific, albeit important, function, and actually serves to bridge gaps between the Jews within Israel and also connect to Jews in North America.
Berman, who joined the OU 14 years ago, insists that the nonprofit invests every agora and cent it earns in kosher supervision back into the Jewish community.
That investment is manifested in its myriad of programs both domestically and abroad, which all attempt to drive home a simple, yet salient message: We are all Jews, and as such, it is our responsibility to look out for one another.
“When the three boys [yeshiva students Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel] were kidnapped [last June], it was very clear that every Jew in the world was connected and were all caring about these boys. During Operation Protective Edge [last summer], every Jew around the world was davening [praying] for our soldiers and the citizens of Israel, but we try to take it to the next step,” he explained.
“When I look at the programs the OU has been involved in the last 117 years [the organization was established in 1898], it really has been trying to keep its finger on the pulse of the Jewish people and what their needs are,” Berman clarified.
“It’s an extremely Zionistic – we forcefully use that word – organization that sees itself as extremely involved in the thousands of communities in North America.”
On the Diaspora side, it frequently partners up with the Jewish Agency or Taglit-Birthright so that American Jews can experience what Israel has to offer firsthand.
This year alone, OU Israel and its student youth group NCSY are planning to bring 1,300 teenagers to the Jewish state during the summer. Many of the participants were recruited from its wide network of 270 clubs in public schools across North America.
“These are kids not coming from Orthodox, Conservative or Reform homes.
They are completely disconnected from the Jewish community,” he noted.
Berman acknowledges though that spreading the good word about Israel in a public school setting can be challenging due to the at-times tense political climate around Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“Sometimes, because of the political status, we have to say ‘Hebrew’ and not ‘Israel,’ but we play the game wherever we have to play it,” he admitted.
But keeping the OU’s apolitical yet pro-Israel stance is extremely crucial if the organization hopes to maintain its come one, come all approach to world Jewry.
“I’m not telling people who to vote for, I’m not telling people what my political views are. Nobody, including my wife, knows who I vote for,” he disclosed.
“Do I love the Land of Israel? Yes. Am I Zionistic? Yes. Everything else is up to anybody else to think what I think and don’t think.”
Berman is affable and unassuming as he speaks in his Jerusalem office, and he has a penchant for delivering rhetorical flourishes and anecdotes when asked questions.
For example, when discussing the tragic terror attack in Paris’s Hyper Cacher kosher market last January, this reporter asked if he agrees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plea that European Jewry seek refuge in Israel, and if he believes in an aliya of necessity or aliya of choice.
It is a serious question and one that most people would answer directly, but Berman smiles sadly and offers a metaphor about family dinner that is surprisingly apt.
“Look, with my kids, I want them to look at the salad and all jump and fight over it. So, you have an ideal situation and you have a realistic situation,” he detailed. “We sat here crying for the four people killed in France... not because we knew them, but because they were our brothers. I don’t think, ‘Oh my God, it could have been my son.’ I say, ‘That is my son.’ “Unless I believe internally that every kid I’m helping in Yeroham or Kiryat Shmona or New York or Vancouver is one of my kids, then I can’t do my job faithfully. I think that’s how Jews should feel, we’re all intertwined,” he added.
For Berman, however, Jewish empathy and giving should not be a one-sided experience in which American Jewry is constantly financially and morally supporting Jews in Israel; Jewish brotherly (and sisterly) love should be a twoway street.
After Hurricane Sandy hit the US’s eastern seaboard in 2012, Berman wondered, “How many Jews were sitting in the cold, without electricity? How many of our shuls [synagogues] in Israel were davening for them? Is it a two-way or one-way street, and do we believe in our hearts that no matter where they live in the world, we should daven for them when they’re sick and don’t have electricity and are in the middle of the winter and freezing because Sandy just hit them?”
Domestically, with clashes between the secular and religious, Ethiopians and police, rich and poor, Berman recognizes that the Jewish community within Israel is becoming increasingly fragmented – and focusing on uniting Jews within the Jewish state is another goal of the OU.
To that end, the OU has set up a variety of programs to do just that – examples of which can be seen in their L’Ayla program, which assists women in securing career opportunities through study sessions and networking events.
The organization also partnered with the IDF Education Corps and its rabbinate to form Mashiv HaRuach (Return the Spirit), which gives roughly 16,000 IDF soldiers history lessons about Israel and the Bible. It also offers study halls and after-school activities in the periphery, so students in impoverished cities like Kiryat Shmona, Ofakim and Dimona can also feel part of the collective Jewish and Israeli experience.
But at the end of the day, the OU does supervise what is or is not religiously permissible to eat, and even that has become a point of contention in the wake of the BDS Movement.
BDS activists targeting UK supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco constitute a worrisome phenomenon for Berman, indicating further proof of the rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
“It makes it clear to me that you’re not talking about anti-Israel, you’re talking about anti-Semitism,” he asserted. “Because kosher has nothing to do with Israel.”
Ironically, though, the threat of BDS has managed to help Berman bridge gaps with another unexpected community: North American Muslims.
“The bottom line is that the OU is getting calls off the hook for more companies that want the OU and want kosher certification; and many Muslims enjoy the fact that they have the OU.
The heads of the Muslim and Jewish communities in America work very well together. They do not have the network to certify products as halal themselves – the OU does,” he revealed.
“And Muslims know if they pick up the product with the OU, they know there’s no wine in there, they know there’s no pork in there, they know they can trust it.”
It is that happy byproduct that epitomizes what the OU stands for : cooperation, mutual respect and caring for its community.