Why Orthodoxy needs both — OU congregations and Young Israel shuls
by Rabbi Dov Fischer
It is a question that Orthodoxy laity often ask: “Why can’t Young Israel and OU just merge? Why the double overhead?” I even am asked this by people who miraculously comprehend the electoral landscape of a country that has at least nine different Orthodox-associated political parties (Bayit Yehudi, Ichud Leumi, Otzma Yehudit, New Right, Zehut, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yachad (Rav Eli Yishai), and the Rabbi Nachman Party) running for Knesset and competing against each other.
I have been answering that question for decades, but the recent very public withdrawal of the Toco Hills congregation of Georgia from National Council of Young Israel has made the distinction between Young Israel shuls and OU congregations more clear than ever. We absolutely must have both because, despite similarities, the differences are stark.
First, it is important to know that the Orthodox Union division of kashrut supervision is a completely separate and distinctly different entity from the congregations that bear the “OU” name, even though they all operate under the same roof as part of a larger infrastructure with a shared budget.
When it comes to food kashrut, there is no peer that even remotely approaches the OU Gold Standard. The Orthodox Union kashrut division is uniformly comprised of and led by G-d fearing Torah scholars, Gedolei Yisrael (Torah giants). They do not compromise on halakhic standards. They do not “play games” with Torah Judaism and its interlocking Mesorah (Orthodox Judaic tradition).
The rabbis of OU Kashrut know they are the Gold Standard on whom so much of world Jewry depends. Their kashrut division takes that responsibility beyond seriously. I always am amazed when I see a bottle of wine that has three or even five different kashrut certifications all over the label. All I care about is the “U” inside that “O.” That tells me and every Torah-observant Jew all we need to know: it meets the Orthodox Gold Standard. End of story.
It is commonly reported that the kashrut division is the major money-making profit center within the OU that funds and powers so much else of OU programming. A 1967 American movie created a meme that, to make money, a young college graduate needed to remember just one word: “Plastics.” (Ironically, now, half a century later, California and other such Left-dominated polities are trying to ban everything from plastic bags to plastic straws.) In the same way, within Orthodoxy, there is “just one word” for financing a broad-based and diverse Orthodox community institution: “Hashgachah” (kosher-foods supervision). With the money from kashrut certification, the Orthodox Union does a fabulous job impacting teens’ lives with its legendary NCSY program. They have another wonderful program, Yachad, for people with special needs. Likewise, their JLIC does amazing work on college campuses.
So… Wow! Thank you, Heinz Vegetarian Baked Beans!
Paradoxically, the one challenging division within OU is — of all things! — their congregations. To mix metaphors, the fabric therein is rather nuanced. Many of them are easy to designate as “synagogues” or “shuls.” Just the most wonderful of Torah institutions. Contrarily, others among their houses of worship are best called “congregations.” Unquestionably, the vast majority of OU places to worship indeed are shuls.
However, it is no secret that some of the other OU — uh, congregations — are places that many normative mainstream middle-of-the-road Orthodox Jews would not enter. Or would leave after they realize their mistake. Thus, to use the terminology of kosher-food certification, when it comes to their congregations, the OU might be described as “pareve.” Some of those congregations have rabbis who are so-called “Open Orthodox” and defiantly challenge the standards of mainstream normative Orthodox practice, even as set forth by the Poskim (authoritative religious decisors) of the OU.
Indeed, some of them even have women rabbis. (Some “Open Orthodox” women rabbis call themselves “Rabbi.” Some “Rabba.” Some “Maharat.” Some “Rabbanit,” even when their husbands are not themselves rabbis.) Despite the Psak Halakha (authoritative Judaic religious ruling) that women rabbis are prohibited as OU congregational clergy, it remains an embarrassment within the OUthat women rabbis remain and continue getting hired in several OU pulpits alongside their “Open Orthodox” male clergy counterparts. Even more embarrassing: the headquarters of the Women Rabbis’ seminary is based in an OU congregation.
Not so in a synagogue affiliated with National Council of Young Israel. Never. Inconceivable.
I grew up in a Young Israel (YI) shul. My father z”l (of blessed memory) was a founder of the shul with two other men. As a little boy, all dressed up in sports jacket and tie, I would wear to shul every Shabbat my “Young Israel tie clip” and my “Young Israel cufflinks” that my Daddy had bought for me. Little could he or I imagine then, at the age 10 or so, that one day I would have a career that would include over time being rav of two Young Israel shuls, one in “The Valley” of Southern California’s Los Angeles region, and another thereafter in Orange County, California.
As a member of the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) Rabbis, I learned quickly that, unlike OU congregations, Young Israel requires that the shul president be Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath-observant). Having been a rabbi at shuls with non-observant Presidents, I know first-hand the night-and-day difference behind the scenes when the Shul President is Torah-observant.
Young Israel shuls that have parking lots are uniformly prohibited from leaving them open on Shabbat.
Having also been a rabbi at OU congregations, I still recall the many times that I would be pulled against my will by two or three lay leaders to attend an ad hoc “mini impromptu Board Meeting” after Shabbat morning services, held in the congregational parking lot, with one of the Board officers sitting in his car, engine running, with his door open and the chime of his open car door sounding constantly throughout the “Board Meeting.”
I still remember that congregation, where the non-observant and utterly bereft woman Board President once wrote a jingle, a four-stanza ditty to be sung to the Woody Guthrie tune of “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Your Land,” about how great it is to be a member of that OU congregation. She proudly wrote the lyrics, photocopied them, set a copy of her song on every chair in the sanctuary, and then she personally led the entire congregation in singing her song (“This Shul Is My Shul, This Shul is Your Shul”) — on Yom Kippur night, barely moments after Kol Nidre was chanted.
As the rabbi, I was sitting on the bimah (sanctuary platform), facing the congregants, understanding that one renounces vows at “Kol Nidre” but still promising myself b’li neder (without making a vow) that I would be starting my own new shul and leaving that place before the next Yom Kippur. (I did.) Do you remember the scene in “The Producers” when the stunned and bemused theater audience sees the performers singing and dancing “Springtime for Hitler”? Those were the same exact facial expressions I saw that Kol Nidre night at the OU congregation. There is no way on G-d’s earth that a Young Israel shul ever would accept such a mockery of a Kol Nidre service or the staffing of a woman rabbi.
NCYI reviews proposed rabbinic hires, and — exactly like the Agudath Israel, like the nearly 1,000-member Iggud HaRabbonim (Rabbinical Alliance of America), and like the nearly 1,000-member Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) — Young Israel does not recognize the determinative validity of an “ordination certificate” from “Yeshivat Maharat” (the “Open Orthodox” Women’s Rabbinical Seminary) or “Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT)” (the men’s branch, based in the same Bronx OU congregation as the Women’s branch).
Against this backdrop, there had been an outlier YI congregation in Toco Hills, Georgia, unique among the more than 130 Young Israel shuls. That congregation’s rabbi became known to some readers of my writings when he blatantly violated a central tenet of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA Code of Conduct, Section VIII) by smearing me personally and attacking me ad hominem on mass social media after I published a very well received series of articles in this and other religiously sensitive publications, and even in anti-Orthodox secular organs, in which I defended the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for refusing to recognize dubious “conversions” conducted by certain “Open Orthodox” American rabbis whose rabbinic legitimacy and “conversions” even we American rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) do not recognize.
(Readers emailed me “screenshots” of his Facebook post. Like other public personalities, I chose not to address the matter because such ad hominem potshots alas are an occupational hazard that accompanies a career in the public light.)
Thus, there are “Open Orthodox” rabbis who fly to disparate regions in North and South America, doing “Orthodox conversions” that are not recognized by the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox rabbonim in the United States, as they even openly brag about conducting “conversions” of homosexual non-Jews, as if that private personal challenge and even tragedy is something to celebrate on Twitter or Facebook.
Other “Open Orthodox” rabbis celebrate homosexual engagements to marry. Or publish that they now will be officiating at homosexual marriages. Or themselves make a public spectacle of their own homosexual engagements to “marry” their own same-sex “spouse.” There are “Open Orthodox” rabbis married to wives who shamelessly tell newspaper interviewers that they personally do not believe in G-d.
Others who Jewish community agencies — with their “Open Orthodox” blessings — to serve non-kosher food at their public programs if that is what the agencies want to do, or who urge a re-thinking of Orthodoxy’s resistance to intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews.
Others equate activism for Homosexual Marriage with the heroism of Maccabees fighting the Greeks to save Judaism and to liberate and re-sanctify the Holy Temple.
The Los Angeles Times likewise has aired “Open Orthodox” differences from the mainstream of normative Orthodoxy, like their urging Israel to show willingness to negotiate re-dividing Jerusalem. Or reacting to the Jewish return to Hevron by announcing that they will not go back there because the Jewish presence compromises the sensitivities of Hevron’s Arab denizens. In this, the “Open Orthodox” women rabbis and their male clergy colleagues emulate their mentor, the leader of “Open Orthodoxy” who used the New York Times to attack the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Fortunately, no political cartoon accompanied that defamation.
The Georgia rabbi, an acolyte and protégé of the founder of “Open Orthodoxy,” has been extremely public in attacking the RCA publicly on such positions as its historic resolution against “Open Orthodoxy’s” Women Rabbi movement. In one famous case, he posted his “Open Orthodoxy” mentor’s article on the same subject (titled “Why I . . . Support Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage”), side by side with the settled halakhic position adopted by the RCA membership, and then added his own comment: “Compare and Contrast this [article by the mentor] to the RCA’s statement on the same issue linked below in the comments. Which approach do my Orthodox friends, Young Israel Toco Hills congregants and colleagues, feel better represent them?” Indeed.
The presence within National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) of an outlier rabbi attacking the public positions of the Rabbinical Council of America was deeply embarrassing. And what comes around, goes around: two months ago, the same rabbi conducted a public crusade attacking the National Council of Young Israel itself, for its continued policy, unlike OU congregations, of strongly supporting politically conservative positions in America and right-wing political positions in Israel that have benefited both Israel and American Jewry. Although he stated that his concern was that his and other congregations were not consulted first, the reality is that no congregational body polls its congregations before issuing public statements. This is well known. Rabbinical bodies likewise regularly issue statements without consulting their membership first.
The left-oriented Toco Hills congregation wrongly had associated with National Council of Young Israel. Young Israel is uncompromising in its support of Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and will stand by any Israeli government’s action to extend Jewish sovereignty there, whether only in “Area C” or throughout all of Yehudah and Shomron. NCYI stood in support of the technical electoral bloc forged by Likud and “Right Wing” religious Zionist parties during the last election when the leaders of Likud, Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home” party), and Ichud Leumi (“National Union” party) opted to include Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power” party) in a “United Right Wing Parties” (URWP) technical bloc that assured that religious Zionist voices and electoral ballots would not be wasted in the Knesset elections if those parties separately had failed — as did both Naftali Bennett’s Yamin Chadash (“New Right” party) and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (“Identity” party) — to muster the required 3.25% threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset.
When President Trump or his cabinet officers act in ways that support Israel or Orthodox Jewish values, Young Israel does not look over its left shoulder to worry whether to speak forthright words of thanks on the public record, and it does not shrink to back away the next day. At its annual convocations, Young Israel associates openly and proudly with Israel’s supporters on the Republican side, even as YI likewise maintains support for Democrats who unequivocally stand by Israel. When Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor now embroiled in racial tensions in his city, threatened publicly that he would cut American aid to Israel if he becomes President and Israel extends sovereignty to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, Young Israel promptly took him to task for his “stunning ignorance.”
Here are some other forceful Young Israel statements.
On many of these issues, many OU congregations are identical to Young Israel shuls — so much in lockstep that many such shuls maintain membership in both organizations. Indeed, there even are OU congregations and prominent rabbonim that have threatened to leave the OU if it does not separate itself from “Open Orthodoxy.” Nevertheless, there also are OU congregations that are theologically left, with “Open Orthodox” women rabbis and their male counterparts — and even housing in their OU facilities the headquarters of “Open Orthodoxy” and its Women Rabbi seminary and its male counterpart, with rabbis who regularly and brazenly demonstrate their hate for Trump despite his support for Israel and his moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Thus, National Council of Young Israel offers a more consistent vision for Religious Zionists who believe that an Orthodox shul association must follow normative mainstream Orthodoxy and avoid knee-jerk liberalism and leftism.
That is why there are two associations. And that is why Rabbi Adam Starr and his Toco Hills, Georgia congregation publicly announced their withdrawal from National Council of Young Israel but continued affiliation with the OU congregations’ department. May he and his followers find peace in their new path, no longer restricted and circumscribed by Young Israel public policies and by the required standards repugnant to that congregation.
And now you know why Young Israel and OU cannot “just merge.”
Guest contributions do not reflect the opinions of the Editorial Board. This article was first published in Arutz Sheva / Israel National News.