How do you make Israel and Torah relevant to US Jewish kids?

From kosher food to synagogue security to summer programs in Israel - inside OU's efforts to strengthen Jewish identity & fight assimilation

Yoni Kempinski,

Teens at OU summer camp
Teens at OU summer camp
Orthodox Union

Arutz Sheva caught up with Allen Fagin, executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union (OU), on his whirlwind ten-day trip in Israel to visit the Jewish teenagers and young adults participating in the many OU summer programs in Israel.

What are the main goals for all your summer programs for Jewish teens and young adults in Israel?


"The main goals across all our programs are to increase identification with the state of Israel, to increase Jewish identity and to increase Torah learning," Fagin responds. "Each person, each program in their own way appeals to a different kind of audience. Our job is to have a program for every community in the US and Canada which appeals to them - to their level of observance - and that gets them connected to Israel while they're here."

OU summer camp participants Orthodox Union


What is the spectrum of Jewish communities which the OU serves?

"Our programs are designed for the totality of the Jewish people. We have Torah learning programs for young men and women who have learned in Jewish day schools and yeshivot and we have a dozen programs for public school kids who are unaffiliated - with virtually no background in Judaism."

Why do you bring the yeshivah students to Israel? What difference does Israel make if they're already learning Torah in the US?

"There are a lot of differences. One primary difference is 'there's no Torah like the Torah of Israel.' We bring them here - it feels different. They're able to enjoy Israel and go on trips throughout Israel. That can only be done here."

"The second difference is that we create an atmosphere of learning for its own sake. There are no tests, no exams and no grades. The teenagers come for learning sessions at night until 11-12 p.m. because they really want to enjoy learning."

Allen Fagin (third from left, bottom row) at NCSY event Orthodox Union


How do you sell this program without parents saying - 'don't take my child and bring them back observant?'

"There are so many different types of parents and teens. I think many of them realize that there's something that they're missing in their lives. There's a level of spirituality, a level of identification with their own Judaism that they haven't had an opportunity to taste. We go about it in a non-judgmental way, in a way that encourages voluntary participation. We've embedded a mechina (preparatory) program in the NCSY kollel with 20 young men with very little background who are sitting and learning beit medrash (yeshivah study hall) style for six weeks in the summer and they're loving it! They're loving it because no one is pushing them, no one is forcing them. It's a whole world that's opening up to them that they haven't had the benefit of."

"We all take it for granted that we had the privilege, the opportunity to grow up in [Jewish] Orthodox households and be exposed to learning and yeshiva education all our lives. They never had this opportunity and when they get the opportunity they see how rich it is, how enjoyable it is. And they're doing it together with young men and young women who are their peers - the same interests and talking about and enjoying the same things. They play basketball or soccer in the afternoons together with them and they see that [the Jews] are all one unit, one people. The differences all begin to break down and that's how you get rid of these barriers."

What do you do in the OU on a day-to-day basis in the US? Tell us about the huge project of OU kashrut.

"Obviously, an enormous part of what we do and of what people associate the OU with is kashrut. It's an enormous service for North American Jewry. We now certify somewhere in the vicinity of a million products and ingredients all over the world. We have kashrut operations in 80 to 100 countries certifying ingredients and products all across the globe in around 10,000 plants."

That could vary from large companies to a lone sandwich in a gas station. How do you do that?

There are some companies we certify that don't produce products - they produce ingredients such as spices or chemicals that are included in food products. If you take a major company that's producing a wide range of food products, they may have 20 to 30 different ingredients in every one of their hundred different products. At the end of the day, we're talking about thousands of products in order for them to be certified because every one of their suppliers needs to be certified. On any given day we'll have kashrut supervisors out at some remote location three days away from a city somewhere in India or China or South America. It's an unbelievable sacrifice for these kashrut supervisors to go out literally across the globe to be certifying every one of these products and ingredients.

Let's talk about another one of the big challenges that the OU deals with - the price of learning - the high cost of Jewish Orthodox schools and yeshivas. What can be done about it and what are you doing?

In the US, yeshiva education can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000 per child per year. It's not unusual for an Orthodox family of four to have spent a million dollars on education before their children even step foot into college. That's an extraordinary burden on parents."

"What we've been fighting for the past several years, with some reasonable degree of success, is to try to encourage state support for private education. That support is starting to get to some very meaningful numbers. In New York state, for example, we have extensive advocacy operations, and NY state is now providing close to $300 million a year for non-profit education, including yeshivot and day schools. Two years ago, we were able to get funding from New York state to begin to pay for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers in private schools including yeshivot and day schools. If we could get funding for that, that would be a game-changer in New York and elsewhere. We're now seeing New Jersey following suit and providing its own STEM funding. It's not full funding yet but all of these programs start small and then expand year after year. In NY we started with a relatively small amount of money and it doubled the following year and it doubled again the year after that. We're hopeful that these kinds of programs will start to reduce this enormous tuition burden on parents and the enormous unfairness of the state subsidizing the education of some children but not for others."

Another financial burden is, of course, the issue of security. That challenge has changed and worsened throughout the years.

It's changed dramatically, certainly given the tragedy in Pittsburgh and the more recent tragedy in Poway, CA. Security has become an enormous focus of every synagogue in our community. Many of our synagogues are very very small. Their membership is small - maybe 50 - 75 families - so the notion of paying for a private security guard is a huge burden. We've been advocating for government funding for this too - to cover the cost of security equipment and security personnel in synagogues, schools, community centers and daycare centers. And now in the summer - this is an enormous, almost under the radar problem - in camps. The camps are wide open and that's a very serious problem. In the last two years, we've brought hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding purely for the security of institutions, including schools and synagogues.

How do you see the latest tensions and headlines between different segments of Jewish society and the way they're looking at Israel these days?

There are enormous tensions. But the tensions are exacerbated by the political tensions that exist in the US. These are not just tensions necessarily between streams. A third of Jews in the US don't belong to any stream - they're so far away from their Judaism that they don't affiliate in any way whatsoever. But there are also significant tensions between the right and left on the political spectrum. There are tensions as they relate to Israel and its policies. But I think that most troubling of all is that there are not only tensions but the tensions are becoming more pronounced and less civil in the discourse being used in explaining our differences and talking through our differences. We're shouting at each other a lot more than talking to each other. And that's a terrible terrible problem. I don't think it's only an American phenomenon - it's becoming almost a global phenomenon - that the polarization of positions creates almost a demonization of everyone else who doesn't agree with your position. The ability to talk, to debate, to try to persuade, to share narratives is becoming virtually a thing of the past. That's a terrible terrible problem and it affects our community enormously."

"The other thing that affects the American Jewish community in particular, is a declining sense - particularly among young people - of affiliation to Israel, of emotional attachment to Israel. That's something we're seeing on [college] campuses, we're seeing it in polls, we're seeing it in political activity and that too is a very troubling trend."

And assimilation of course.

"Assimilation, for sure. Is there an answer? Yes - Jewish identification. Considering oneself to be Jewish in whatever way that means for wherever you're holding on your journey towards greater Jewish identification. That has meaning for these kids. It's something that many many of them are striving for and have never had the privilege of being associated with. Our job is really an educational job. We provide alternatives by teaching. We teach young American Jews that there's a Judaism out there that is beautiful and they should want to be identified with. And many of them do and want to be."

"The problem we have is that there's just insufficient support. There's a limit to how many we could put in the field to run these programs. There's a limited amount of dollars available. If we have 1,700 kids in Israel this summer we could have had 5,000 kids if we had the funds to be able to do it. Instead of bringing 600 public school kids to Israel in the summer we could bring 6,000 and we just don't have the means to do it."

"We have the desire and we have the trained staff to be able to do it. It's just a question of how that relates to the priorities of the funders of the Jewish community. And when we met with the prime minister [of Israel] - this is one of the major issues we raised with him - that ultimately this has to be part of the obligation of the Israeli government. The Israeli government really wants to attack this problem in the United States and views American Jewry as an important asset - not just Judaism worldwide but an important asset for Israel - as a strategic asset for Israel. Israel needs to invest in the education of the Jewish people in America."




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