Rabbi Judah Isaacs of Teaneck recently took on the newly created position of director of community engagement at the Orthodox Union.
Since coming on board March 21, he has been meeting with rabbis of OU member synagogues to identify the most pressing issues they face so that the organization can address these issues.
“What’s come up in conversations are strategic planning, people taking leadership roles in shuls, and finding good youth programming,” said Isaacs. “The overarching issue is fundraising and how to maintain shul finances. But that dovetails with leadership, because without effective leadership you can’t raise money.”
The purpose of his new position “is to oversee the work the OU is doing throughout North America, whether by programs or by involvement with individual shuls or schools on their issues – through their rabbis, executive directors, youth directors, directors of development, and lay leaders – and thereby to strengthen our community.”
OU’s roster of hundreds of member congregations include five in Teaneck, three in Englewood; two each in Fair Lawn, Jersey City, and Passaic; and one each in North Bergen, Fort Lee, Bergenfield, and Paramus.
Plans to service them more intensively will involve the OU’s new “Wings” synagogue consulting service and sessions targeted to youth professionals and synagogue executive directors.
“We also hope by Rosh HaShanah we will launch our new website with resources for synagogues across North America,” Isaacs said. “We are doing a lot of individual consultations and hope to expand that over the next few years.”
Isaacs said his approach “starts with planning – having a vision, a strategic plan, and a very clear direction of where we want to go. Once that direction is in place, my expertise is in helping staff and lay leadership work towards that vision and actualize it.”
His career began as coordinator of the Fair Lawn branch of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, a precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and in 1993 he embarked on a series of executive positions at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Agency for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Detroit. He moved back to the area last summer to work for the Jewish Education Project, formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
“We look forward with excitement to Judah’s dynamic leadership in developing creative and impactful programs for our member synagogues and communities,” said OU President Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck. “In his more than two decades of service to the Jewish community, he has earned a reputation as an innovative ‘doer’ who works closely with lay people and professionals.”
In fact, noted Isaacs, along with his professional experience in organizational and strategic planning, he served as a synagogue president and youth chairman in his Detroit-area synagogue. This background, he said, allows him to bring a lay perspective to his work. “The way you develop a vision is by putting lay people and professionals together; it’s an organic process,” he said.
He will be working with Frank Buchweitz, national director of Community Relations and Special Projects; Laya Pelzner, Penny Pazornick, and Yehuda Friedman of Synagogue Services; and Rabbis Saul Zucker (of Teaneck) and Cary Friedman of Day School and Educational Services.
Isaacs is proud of the fact that he is a fifth-generation American Orthodox Jew, a descendant of Schachne Isaacs, who came to America in the 1850s. This ancestor and his sons built the religious Jewish infrastructure of Cincinnati, Ohio.
“This heritage is an important part of why I’m excited to be working on behalf of the Orthodox community in North America,” he said. “We are very fractured today, and people don’t really understand what it takes to create robust communities. This job goes back to the basics demonstrated by Schachne Isaacs.”
Isaacs and his wife, Beth, and their children attend Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. Beth Isaacs is a kindergarten teacher at Yavneh Academy in Paramus.