The OU – or more formally, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – is one of the oldest and most widely known Jewish organizations in the United States.
Founded in 1898, the OU today consists of numerous departments servicing Orthodox Jews in a variety of ways. Its most famous department is its Kashruth Division, which certifies 800,000 products and ingredients in 8,000 plants across 92 countries. But the OU also, for example, lobbies on behalf of Orthodox Jews through its Advocacy Center; helps adults find employment through its Job Board; organizes programs for teenagers through NCSY; and publishes books through OU Press.
Currently heading all these divisions is Allen Fagin, OU’s new executive vice president. Formerly an attorney at the prestigious law firm Proskauer Rose for 40 years – six of those years as its chairman – Fagin holds degrees from both Columbia and Harvard Universities. He retired in 2013 to devote more time to the Jewish community.
Appointed in April, Fagin is the first non-rabbi to serve as OU’s executive vice president.
The Jewish Press: Did the decision to appoint a layman to head the OU cause any controversy?
Fagin: I don’t think so. I don’t think the focus, frankly, was on having a rabbinic figure or a non-rabbinic figure. I think the focus was on finding someone who knew and understood the community and who also had significant management background.
What’s your vision for the OU?
My vision is to try to expand the resources that are available to the OU in carrying out the multiple missions it has within the frum community.
Can you be more specific?
Sure, I think those missions include our kashrus activities; our kiruv activities; our service to our shuls and the communities in which they function; and our significant advocacy efforts both at the federal level and at the state and local level.
Those are all core missions of the OU, and they all require enormous resources. So a large part of my job is to see to it that those resources are available, to make certain that those programs and activities are functioning cohesively with one another, that we stay true to our mission, that we pay attention to being as cost-effective as we can be, and that we pay attention to the development of our professional staff and the ways in which we deliver services to our communities.
In Rabbi Berel Wein’s recently published autobiography, he recalls his days as the OU’s executive vice president in the 1970s. After listing the OU’s main departments at the time, he writes, “In theory, I was to coordinate and administer these divisions so they would form a harmonious whole. In practice, this proved impossible, since each operated as an independent fiefdom supported by different personalities and forces within the OU.” Have things changed at all since the 1970s?
I think things have changed very substantially. We see, daily, terrific examples of inter-departmental cooperation.
Let me give you some examples. Just recently, there were sweeping changes within the New York City Department of Education for families with children with special needs. The OU was at the forefront in fighting for those changes both in Albany and at the municipal level. This was a joint effort between OU Advocacy, which is our political action arm, and Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
Another example: Last month we sponsored a rally in front of the Israeli consulate here in New York in support of the three teens in Israel who were kidnapped. That rally was spearheaded by NCSY, the publicity for that rally was orchestrated in large measure by our web department, and the many political figures who came to the rally were there at the invitation of our advocacy arm.