Friday, January 03, 2003

The OU, Revisited

The OU, Revisited
By Gary Rosenblatt
The Jewish Week - Jan 3, 2003

Gary Rosenblatt is the editor and Publisher of the New York Jewish Week.

I was more than a little apprehensive about attending the biennial national convention of the Orthodox Union at the Rye Town Hilton this past weekend. I told friends maybe I should have first gone through the witness protection program.

After all, the last time the group met, in the midst of the Baruch Lanner scandal, I was persona non grata at the OU conference, booed by many in attendance for, in their eyes, damaging the reputation of a vital organization by exposing the longtime youth leader’s three-decade history of abusing teens in his charge.

In the last two years, though, much has happened. Rabbi Lanner has been convicted of sexual abuse and sentenced to jail, though he is out on appeal.

And the OU has gone about the business of trying to restore its good name. A year ago it hired a new chief executive, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who is given high marks for his integrity, outlook and tireless travels around the country to drum up support for the OU. And the organization has followed some of the key recommendations of the blue-ribbon commission it created when the Lanner episode broke, namely establishing new guidelines, standards and procedures to train youth advisers working with teens and calling for more parental supervision of its National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) events.

Clearly, the OU has the potential to play a critical role in the changing Orthodoxy of the 21st century, highlighted by ongoing tensions between the religious left and right and the ascendancy of Richard Joel as president of Yeshiva University. Will the OU, the largest movement of its kind, serving 1,000 synagogues in North America, regain its role as the voice of mainstream Orthodoxy? Or will it continue to look over its right shoulder at the vigorous growth of the haredi community, led by the Agudath Israel of America, and cede religious authority to this more fundamentalist group?

Personal concerns aside, I felt it was important to see and hear what was on the OU’s agenda. And after more than three days of attending sessions, talking to delegates and interviewing the leadership, I came away hopeful that convention chairman Elliott Gibber’s proclamation to the participants that “the OU has turned the corner” was more than wishful thinking.

It is true, as OU leaders admit, that serious internal issues remain to be resolved, including matters of bureaucratic structure, financing and staffing. There is still no chief financial officer in place. But there is a push to make the organization’s work more relevant and helpful to a broader constituency in terms of age, gender and geographical setting. More young blood is needed; the OU remains too New York-centric; and there are woefully too few women in positions of leadership. These points were addressed head-on in sessions that challenged the OU leadership, and which the leadership welcomed.

Most notably, a woman was invited to give the keynote address Saturday night, seen within the OU as a major symbolic step. Karen Bacon, dean of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, in a respectful but forceful address, urged that “women’s voices” be “solicited and listened to on all levels” of the OU. She pointed out the vulnerability of the family unit in Jewish life and suggested that women have an important role to play in helping to achieve balance among career, family and spiritual needs.

Praising Bacon’s participation and her message, Rabbi Weinreb reminded the “Town Hall” audience Saturday night that “the theme of this convention is really about us listening to you.” He and OU president Harvey Blitz, who have been refreshingly open in articulating the group’s challenges and goals, emphasized their commitment to bring more women into positions of leadership.

It hasn’t happened yet, though. None of the top 70 OU officers elected this week are female. (Officials complained privately that a number of women who were asked to join the OU board declined, skeptical about how much clout they would have.) That suggests the OU will have to prove it not only means well but is prepared to carry through on its promises.

For good or for bad, the Lanner scandal was never mentioned publicly during the convention, though it continued to hang over the proceedings. (I should note, gratefully, that a number of people approached me to offer words of encouragement, though a few lay leaders steered clear.)

Some critics say the NCSY reforms have been too little, too late; they complain that the culture of the OU has not changed, that it continues to be driven by a handful of older men who still don’t “get it.” But some of the organization’s defenders say they are well past the Lanner chapter, that it has hurt them communally and financially, and it is time for the community to let the wounds heal and appreciate and support all the good work NCSY does in reaching out to teens and inspiring many of them to lead more observant lives.

The OU has an ambitious list of planned programs. It has played a pivotal role in providing moral support to Israel, involved in arranging dozens of synagogue and other missions in the past year, and has increased the activities of its Israel Action Center in Jerusalem to include work with youngsters traumatized by the violence. It hopes to respond to the pressing need of singles in the Orthodox community, from sponsoring programs to addressing the excesses of shidduch arrangements. It intends to expand
services to Jewish collegiates, create a young leadership training program for men and women in their 30s, and provide more education about kashrut, for which it is best known, and on and on.

It remains to be seen how successful the OU will be in these and other areas, but it is on the road toward progress. Now is the time for those would-be advocates and activists in the Orthodox community who have watched from the sidelines these last two years, with varying degrees of skepticism, to step forward. They should put the OU to the test by offering their participation. If they do, I will be very surprised if they are not embraced, and encouraged to share their ideas about how to restore and advance the OU and its mission.

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