|More than 700 people came to the OU’s conference on Jewish life in Woodcliff Lake on Sunday. Courtesy the Orthodox Union|
The Orthodox Union is more than just that little OU symbol on your can of baked beans, and that message was the focus on the OU’s biennial convention over the weekend in Woodcliff Lake.
More than 700 people from across the country came out to the Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, where more than 25 sessions during Sunday’s one-day conference on Jewish life focused on Torah, synagogue life, and communal life. The OU also installed its new president, Rabbi Simcha Katz of Teaneck, and passed a series of resolutions to guide the organization through the next two years.
The past three OU conventions were held in Israel, at the directive of outgoing President Stephen Savitsky, who wanted to boost the Israeli economy when it was suffering under the Palestinian intifada. When organizers decided to bring the conference stateside, Bergen County provided easy access for a large number of the OU’s members in the tri-state area, according to organizers.
One of the conference’s goals, according to Emanuel Adler, the Teaneck resident who chaired the convention, was to shine a light on the OU’s various programs and dispel the idea that the organization only provides kosher certification.
“The OU is really so much broader than OU kashrus,” Adler told The Jewish Standard after the convention. “We’re really a movement.”
Before the day’s plenary sessions, attendees watched videos highlighting such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and the OU Job Board, which showed the OU’s programmatic diversity.
“Community affairs, marriage seminars, publications … numerous services we provide to the community, our campus initiative, which is relatively new in the OU – all of these things we do really come together to make the OU that more powerful a movement,” Adler said.
The purpose of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, according to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, considered the father of modern Orthodoxy, was to create a sense of family among the Israelites, Katz said Sunday during his inaugural speech.
“The OU in its many activities is a communal manifestation of this sense of unity and caring,” Katz said. “Our mission is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life. We are a great unifying tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such we are the central address for those issues that can best be handled on a national basis.”
Panels at the convention were divided among three tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Among the more than 25 sessions, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, religious leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Etz Chaim, led a discussion on “The Hidden Cost of Free Speech on the Internet,” focusing on what constitutes lashon harah in a public forum; Rabbi Menachem Genack, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood and CEO of the OU’s kashrut division, led a discussion on contemporary issues in kashrut; and Rookie Billet, former principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, led a discussion on “Dating and Mating: A Common Sense Approach for Singles, Parents, and Educators.”
“The idea is there are just so many issues and concerns that unite so many of us,” Adler said. “Being in America for the first time in eight years came as an opportunity to focus on the things we do here in the U.S.”
First-time attendee Carol Ginsberg of Monsey, N.Y., called the sessions “moving and inspiring,” while Esther-Malka Stroemer, another first-time attendee, from Teaneck, said the topics represented an “important beginning of dialogue for the Jewish community and the frum community.”
While Israeli issues played a larger role at past conventions, the Jewish state was still a major focus this year. Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington, moderated a panel discussion on U.S.-Israel relations, with Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor Bret Stephens and David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.
The “cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush administration alienated many in the Muslim world, while President Obama has made a large effort to reach out to that world, Stephens said, but that has gotten the president very little in reciprocation. Obama’s government, meanwhile, has been the most hostile to Israel since President George H.W. Bush’s, Stephens added.
“What the Netanyahu government seems to be trying to do is put on a good face and wait the Obama administration out,” he said.
“What Israel ought to be doing is pointing out it faces a Palestinian population that doesn’t want a Palestinian state confined to Gaza and the west bank, but to seize Gaza and the west bank as phase one.”
Israel faces a legitimate demographic challenge from the west bank, though. “At some point it is in Israel’s interest to have a Palestinian state alongside it,” Stephens said. The question then will be how that state’s character will be defined.
“Is that state going to be different in the way that Canada is different from the United States? If that state is going to be the tip of an Iranian spear then I have a problem with it,” he said.
Makovsky reminded the audience what the Middle East was like when the late Yasser Arafat headed the P.A. and created a “culture of victimization,” and the idea that Palestinians are victims responsible for nothing but entitled to everything.
“It was terrible for Israelis but no less terrible for Palestinians,” he said.
Since then, there has been a shift in the “culture of accountability” that has given Makovsky some hope because, he said, there is a spreading belief among the Palestinians that the Palestinian cause is “not just about whining about what the Israelis are doing to us but what are we doing for us.”
“We have more hope today than we have had in a very long time,” Makovsky said. “Israel has to stand fast in what it believes in and its security, but it has every interest in encouraging a non-Hamas approach to this problem.”
After the convention, Diament told the Standard that while Stephens and Makovsky differ on many issues, “the OU is a big tent and it’s very important that we bring in front of the community divergent points of view.”
He did regret, though, that Ehud Barak’s resignation from the Labor party and Labor’s resignation from Netanyahu’s coalition came too late in the day to be included in the discussion.
The past and the future
Two plenary sessions examined the role of Jewish tradition and the Jewish community of the future.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus, led the first session on the mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition, and its place in modern society.
“For me, Torah is a diamond but mesorah is the setting of the diamond. It brings out all the beauty of the diamond. It enhances it. You can remove a diamond from the setting and it remains sparkling and pure, but the beauty is in the [unity of the diamond and the] setting.”
Modernity is the opposite of mesorah, and “modern Orthodox” is actually an oxymoron, Weinreb said.
“Mesorah is the business of preserving the culture of one’s group,” he said. “We’ve suffered worse insults than being called old-fashioned and obsolete.”
The second session focused on “The Orthodox Role in the Jewish Community of Tomorrow” and included Jerry Silverman, president of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of the federation system; Marian Stoltz-Loike, dean of Lander College for Women/The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School of Touro College; Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future; Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.; and Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, and the OU’s managing director.
Rabbi Steven Weil, OU executive vice president and the panel’s moderator, asked, given the projected growth of the Orthodox community compared to other streams of Judaism in the coming decades, and if the commitment of future generations of non-Orthodox Jews weakens, what is the Orthodox responsibility to the entire Jewish community.
Silverman called on Jews and Jewish organizations to “collaborate and get in the game.”
Burg called for greater openness in the Orthodox community to welcoming the non-Orthodox.
“What we need to do as an Orthodox community is express our friendship,” he said. “And not just to people who might become Orthodox. Sometimes our shul doors are not as open as they should be.”
Insularity is the challenge of the Orthodox community, Stoltz-Loike said.
“We need to be much more open,” Goldberg said, “and say this is who we are and you may never be Orthodox at the end of the day, but there’s a friendship there and we value you as a human being.”
Too many Jews are focused on ritual instead of passion, he continued. He called for taking outreach out of the domain of the professionals and making it everybody’s concern.
“If we’re going to delegate outreach to the professionals, we’ll never make a dent,” he said. “If we’re going to make a dent [against assimilation], it won’t be with professionals. It’ll be when everybody gets involved.”
A community is different from a shul, he continued; it transcends shul.
“Let’s not be afraid to get involved,” Schacter said. “Our job is to take the world in which we live and try to elevate it; to take the Torah HaShamayim [from the heavens] and bring it down to earth and make it sing and make it meaningful and make us feel so excited about what we do so that we can transmit it via our own ambassadorship to others.”
The day was also one of transitions for the OU, which installed its new president and said goodbye to Savitsky, its president of six years, who assumed the chairmanship of the OU’s board of directors.
Many live their lives as if each day is just another day, Savitsky said during a ceremony marking the end of his three terms.
“When I came to the organization, I said I wanted every day to be yom harishon [the first day], every day is a day we can change the world,” he said, as he accepted a service award. “That’s what we’re about – looking up. If you keep looking up and keep thinking, you get closer and closer to the shechinah,” the presence of the divine.
Setting a political tone
OU members voted on a series of resolutions on Sunday to guide the organization through the next two years. Resolutions included a call for civility in public discourse; uniting with other Jewish organizations to combat the rise of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to exact economic damage on Israel; and recognizing the growing problem of childhood obesity and eating disorders.
The resolutions passed almost unanimously, said Diament, a member of the resolutions committee. While civility has become a hot-button issue in recent weeks because of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., the OU’s call for a change in how the community handles public discourse was drafted at least a month before the assault that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others hospitalized.
“It’s very much in the spirit of what’s going on in the past week,” Diament said. “We need to have more civil discourse in the United States and that’s something everybody ought to be able to agree to.”
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement represents a “clear and present danger to Israel,” Diament said, while health is a primary concern of everyone.
Next year in…
No location has been chosen yet for the next OU convention, which will take place either in late 2012 or early 2013. Adler expected that he and other organizers would spend this week reviewing evaluations, which, he said, have been largely positive.
“There was a real buzz,” he said. “I think people that attended did get a sense of being part of a movement.”