When Allen Fagin assumed the role of Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union more than six years ago, he considered it a temporary assignment, 18 months at most, following his retirement from 40 years of practicing law. But he stayed on as the organization expanded its programs amid challenges relating to the cost of living, anti-Semitism, and assimilation.
“I thought that I knew the OU pretty well as an active lay leader for over two decades, but then I realized that I only knew a fraction of its work. I thought that I could do more as a professional than as a volunteer,” Fagin said.
The enormity of the OU is its ability to touch on every aspect of Orthodox Jewish life, including its role as the world’s largest kashrus certifier, educational programs for all age groups, advocacy, assistance to olim, support for smaller Orthodox communities across the United States, NCSY organizations for teenagers, and the Yachad organization for people with disabilities, among its many other programs. “That’s over 1,000 employees, outstanding professionals with enormous creativity and skills,” he said.
On the local scene, the OU’s teenage outreach is conducted through the Jewish Student Union, which is active at Forest Hills High School, with its sizable number of Bukharian Jewish students. “It is one of over 200 public school locations where we give a greater sense of Jewish identity. Between 25,000 and 30,000 students each year experience this gateway.” He also noted Bayside High School and the high schools in Great Neck.
With the pandemic keeping people away from in-person events, nearly all OU programs have made the transition to online instructions. “Almost all of our operations are online in virtual classrooms. These include adult education with dozens of shiurim, seminars, to everyone in the country, for every age group, interests, and levels. The Women’s Initiative is enormously creative, and Yachad on demand has been extraordinary in providing to the maximum extent possible online. This summer we are running Project Unity, with numerous opportunities for teens to engage in wholesome activities, recreational, educational, and chesed, such as working with Yachad participants.”
The fastest growing learning program sponsored by the OU is Semichat Chaver, where participants learn practical halachah, test their knowledge with an exam, and celebrate the compilation of their learning at a festive siyum. “It mushroomed in a very short time. It has hundreds of participants and some of the finest magidei shiur,” Fagin said. The Queens shiur is given by Rabbi Shmuel Marcus at the Young Israel of Queens Valley. “It is a model of learning for a lifetime. Each week when a shiur is completed, material is provided for a family table talk. It is a comprehensive endeavor.”
The tight living conditions and physical isolation of the pandemic has inspired many New Yorkers to consider life beyond the city line, where homes are more affordable and spacious. The OU Communities Fair highlights growing Orthodox communities across the United States and Israel with more than 2,000 participants at the last fair looking at tables showcasing 50 communities. “From our 2017 fair, close to 300 family units moved to 30 communities,” Fagin said. “The OU assists communities with preparation for the fair and then follows up with them afterward. Each community can update its profile on our website, where there is a virtual community spotlight each week. It is an expensive effort on our part, and it is a tremendous service to build communities.”
The Community Fairs have an aliyah section with Israeli communities that have sizable English-speaking populations. The OU followed olim from the states by building a familiar infrastructure of programs in their new homeland. “Our center in Jerusalem has been expanding with youth-oriented programs, and across two dozen development towns. There is NCSY for recent olim, Yachad Israel is expanding, and we are cooperating with Nefesh B’Nefesh on the aliyah section at Community Fairs,” Fagin said.
At the time that Fagin was preparing to step down from his duties, welcome news arrived from Washington, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana, ruling that state-based scholarships cannot discriminate against religious schools. “This is a very important decision, particularly in states that had been reluctant, especially those with Blaine Amendments. Their namesake is late 19th century lawmaker James G. Blaine, who encouraged states to legally prohibit public funding for institutions that run on religious principles.
“There is no reasonable basis for a state not to provide STEM funding for nonpublic schools,” Fagin said. “There should be no discrimination for someone who is a member of a faith community.” But the OU has been advocating and succeeding in providing state funding for Jewish schools long before the Espinoza decision, through the Teach NYS Initiative. “In New York State, 16 percent of students attend nonpublic schools, but only one percent of state education funding, goes to these schools. In states where we advocated for funding, a billion dollars in aid has been provided. We are not going to be satisfied until the crushing burden of tuition is relieved. It is the single most important economic issue among Orthodox Jews.”
With Fagin’s retirement, his tasks will be shared by Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph and Rabbi Moshe Hauer in their joint roles as Executive Vice Presidents. “When the Board decided to bifurcate the responsibilities of the executive vice president last year, we had only hoped to find two outstanding individuals like Rabbi Hauer and Rabbi Dr. Joseph to be our new professional leaders, each coming to their posts with specific expertise, but together, forging a powerful team. We could not be more pleased,” said OU President Moishe Bane.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph is a resident of Lawrence, most recently serving as Senior Vice President at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Hauer is a resident of Baltimore, where he serves as the mara d’asra of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue.
The disruption of life patterns by the coronavirus pandemic is expected to leave a generational impact.
“I find it hard to imagine that the extraordinary dislocation, anxiety, loss of life, prolonged isolation, crises of this magnitude will not have a lasting consequence. We learned to make do with a simpler way of life and hope that the good parts of this will stay with us,” Fagin said. “Our sense of how much we appreciate shuls as a central pillar of our existence, our appreciation for one another, and our responsibility for one another have been enhanced by this isolation. These lessons will stay with us. It is about a shared responsibility.”
By Sergey Kadinsky