Orthodox Union appoints ‘ambassador’
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Orthodox Union appoints ‘ambassador’

Regional director for North Jersey and Rockland to represent, personalize services

There are 52 synagogues in the state of New Jersey and in Rockland County, New York, that are members of the Orthodox Union. Approximately 40 more synagogues may be eligible to be OU members. But neither the shuls that are members nor the ones that could be have had a regional contact from the national organization, so they may not have been aware of the variety of support services they could receive.

That situation now is changing, with the appointment of Rabbi Avi Heller as regional director for New Jersey and Rockland County.

This new initiative of the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community and Synagogue Services aims to provide more personalized attention to the OU’s 400 member synagogues and communities in North America, to reach out to more Orthodox synagogues, and to foster contacts among regional and national member shuls.

Rabbi Avi Heller“The synagogue is the cornerstone of Jewish spiritual growth, social connection, educational development, and of deepening Jewish identification and commitment,” said Barbara Lehmann Siegel, OU’s national vice president and chair of its Commission on Community and Synagogue Services.

“Rabbi Heller, the OU’s first New Jersey-Rockland County area regional director, will serve as its ‘ambassador’ to strengthen bonds between the OU and member synagogues, as well as to deepen the relationships among the region’s various shul communities,” Ms. Siegel said.

The catchment area reaches from Rockland, through the northern half of New Jersey, going south to Monmouth County.

Rabbi Heller, 42, originally is from Denver. For the last six years he has been the director of education for the Manhattan Jewish Experience, an outreach program for young professionals. Before that, he was director of the Boca Raton Community Kollel in Florida and rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue West.

He and his wife, Shira — now assistant director for professional development at the Yeshiva University School Partnership — were Torah educators in the OU’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Boston University, from which Rabbi Heller received his B.A. in international relations. He holds rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in Bible from YU’s Bernard Revel School of Graduate Studies.

“Our goal is a stronger connection with our synagogues, and that’s hard to do with a small national staff,” Rabbi Heller said. “This regional model will allow us to do that. For the next six months, I’ll be meeting rabbis, presidents, board members, youth directors, and youth leaders to establish face-to-face relationships between us and between them and the OU. There are a lot of OU services available that we want them to know about.”

Rabbi Judah Isaacs of Teaneck, director of the OU’s Department of Community and Synagogue Services, said that member synagogues typically contact the OU for guidance on such key issues as security, leadership succession, and financial accountability.

“We can offer support in a lot of those areas by gleaning information from other member shuls in terms of best practices,” he said. “The OU aims to bring to the entire network of Orthodox synagogues and communities positive vitality, shared resources, programming ideas, and solutions to varied challenges.”

Our goal is a stronger connection with our synagogues, and that’s hard to do with a small national staff. This regional model will allow us
to do that.

Rabbi Isaacs said that Rabbi Heller “certainly understands the demands, needs, and challenges of synagogue rabbinic and lay leaders. His work will also enhance the crucial role of the shul as the gateway to the broad range of OU programs and services.”

Rabbi Heller said that the Orthodox synagogues in the region vary tremendously, some with communities of hundreds of member families and others with as few as 50.

“Making personal contact with Orthodox synagogue and community leaders is the first step, but the strategic plan is to connect all these synagogues so there can be give and take regionally and nationally,” he said. “We’ll create a broader vision for how synagogues can thrive across the country.”

Though he was raised in Texas, spent much of his professional career in Massachusetts and Florida, and lives in Manhattan, Rabbi Heller said that he is familiar with the New Jersey and Rockland communities.

“I spent a lot of time in New Jersey as a kid, because my mom and my grandmother are from New Jersey, and I met many people from the area when I was at YU,” he said. “At the same time, it can be a blessing to come in with fresh eyes.

“One of the strengths I bring is my ability to be a good listener and connect on personal level. I am passionate about teaching and inspiring Jews of all kinds wherever they are. Synagogues are an integral way in which Jewish communities gather to not only learn and pray together, but to draw inspiration and to share a vision of Jewish life.

“There is an incredibly thriving and robust synagogue community in New Jersey and in Rockland County, and I hope to bring together, grow and leverage this network of shuls to strengthen them individually and as a whole under the OU umbrella.”

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