Twenty years ago, Mitch Aeder was asked by a friend to help him with a new adult-education program that the Orthodox Union was creating called Pardes. It was his introduction to the inner workings of the organization many know for its kosher-food certification and programs like NCSY.
Now that longtime friend, Moishe Bane, the immediate past president of the OU, is turning over the reins of the organization to Aeder as the new lay leader and president of the Orthodox Union.
“It is an extreme honor not only to succeed him but also to be president of such an important and vibrant communal institution,” said Aeder.
“When I brought Mitch in on that particular project … it was not at all with the mindset that he would become president,” said Bane. “I brought him in because he’s an intelligent and compassionate Jew and I thought he would be valuable to the project.”
Over the years, though, Aeder has excelled and “evolved” into the leadership role, said Bane. He stressed that the OU lay and professional leadership have been particularly impressed by Aeder’s good judgement, which is the most-important characteristic for a Jewish communal leader; a strong sense of objectivity and selflessness; and his passion for Judaism and Torah.
Aeder called it an “extreme honor not only to succeed” his old friend and mentor, “but also to be president of such an important and vibrant communal institution.”
Since his early days as a lay leader at the Orthodox Union, Aeder has certainly gotten a hands-on education into its various departments, as he was chairman of both Yachad and NCSY which, he says, “really gives me a window into two of our largest programs from both the operations and strategic perspectives.”
“To be part of the team” behind the scenes, “has been very impactful on me and my family,” he says. “Yachad runs an annual family Shabbaton and it’s an opportunity for families of Yachad members to get together and build a community to learn about issues they have in common, financial issues, questions about therapies, and a whole gamut of programs and things that are available to them.
“I had never really had an experience with Yachad, so that first year on the board of Yachad, we attended the Shabbaton with my wife and two youngest sons and it was eye-opening,” Aeder continues, explaining that by being there and talking with the families he was able to learn about their “struggles” and “triumphs.”
It was also an opportunity to see the way Jews of different practices come together as there were some men wearing with “kippah srugim,” knitted yarmulkas, and some in full Chassidish Shabbat dress.
After Shabbat, he asked his youngest son who was maybe 12 at the time what he thought, and “he said ‘every person should once in their life go to the Shabbaton and feel the struggles and real life of other Jews in different circumstances,’ and I think that idea has played out in many ways in my involvement in the OU.”
Aeder was born in New Jersey and raised in Upper Saddle River. His family were members of a Conservative shul in Ramsey, N.J.,and he attended Northern Highlands Regional High School. Practicing Judaism was deeply engrained in Aeder from an early age. “We kept kosher, went to shul every Shabbat and I was putting on tefillin from the time of my bar mitzvah. It was a very traditional kind of Judaism.”
“As I moved through high school and college, I was both influenced by some mentors and just had a tug toward a more traditional Judaism. When I arrived at Brown University, that first Friday night there were three different minyanim-Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. I went to the Orthodox one because that’s where I felt I belonged.”
After college, Aeder went spent two years studying at Yeshiva Darchei Noam. He also graduated New York University Law School and eventually became a senior partner at PriceswaterhouseCoopers.
While a student at Brown, Aeder met his future wife, Lita, who is a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Brookdale Hospital. They have seven children—ranging in age from 38 to 20—three of whom have made aliyah. The two will be, God willing, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in June. Residents of Kew Garden Hills, Queens, Aeder says they are affiliated with several shuls in the neighborhood, but primarily with Congregation Ahavas Yisroel.
Looking ahead to some of the things that will need to be addressed in the coming years at the OU, Aeder notes the need for more “talented, passionate, idealistic people to go into Jewish communal work,” a need that isn’t exclusive to the OU but for the larger Jewish community.
Also, its kashrut department needs to stay ahead of all the technology changes in the food industry, something, he said, “we are very, very focused on.”
He also notes that the OU is “very vigilant” when it comes to behavioral standards across the board and “enforcing those standards, and reporting and dealing with situations when there are breaches of those codes.”
“The OU is a very big tent,” Aeder said, “we service a wide range of communities, and we live in an environment where there is a lot of polarization, both within and outside our community. Finding ways to keep people talking to each other and working together is both a challenge and focus we have.”
By Faygie Holt