Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, who assumed the role of executive vice president and chief operating officer of the 400-synagogue strong Orthodox Union this fall, has deep and formative memories of the OU’s first monumental impact on his life.
Now tasked with managing a wide-ranging portfolio—including the national youth outreach programs NCSY, Yachad and JLIC for college-aged students, as well as the Teach Network lobbying advocacy initiative, the OU Press, digital services including the AllDaf app, a synagogue services division, a women’s outreach division and many Israel programs for teens— Joseph comprises the second half of a new two-person executive team, paired with Rabbi Moshe Hauer. They will collaborate to replace organizational powerhouse Allen Fagin, who retired as executive vice president at the conclusion of the summer, after spending six years at the OU’s helm. Practically the only OU program not under Joseph/Hauer management is OU Kosher’s kashrut supervision division, which will continue to operate distinctly.
Though he is the son of an Orthodox rabbi who served for 40 years at Canada’s oldest and most historic shul—the vaunted Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Montreal, originally established in 1768—Joseph was an academic prodigy who didn’t rush to follow his father into the rabbinate. He graduated high school at 16 and planned to study diplomatic history at the University of Pennsylvania, with no professional plans for a career directly tied to Jewish life.
Joseph told The Jewish Link he was “not that excited” to go to Israel when he finished high school, but that all changed when he joined an NCSY Israel summer program geared toward leadership development, called JOLT; it affected him so deeply that he decided to stay in Israel for the coming school year, learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He described making that phone call at the end of the summer to his parents, on a crackly overseas phone line, telling them he was thinking about staying; he described having met beforehand with Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, zt”l, about the learning opportunities his yeshiva was offering in Israel.
After college, Joseph returned to “the Gush,” spending three additional years there. His last year there was his first year of marriage to Julie. They have now been married for 24 years. Their three children, Zach, Ozzie and Marsha, were raised in Lawrence, New York, and they are currently all enrolled in Jewish institutions—Zach is at Yeshiva University, and Ozzie and Marsha are currently studying in post-high school programs in Israel.
So, to say that NCSY disrupted and deeply affected the course of his life would be an understatement. Returning to America with Julie in 1996, he began and completed semicha and a master’s in Jewish philosophy at YU, eventually returning to Penn for a doctorate in higher education management.
“When the OU board decided to bifurcate the responsibilities of the executive vice president last year, we had only hoped to find two outstanding individuals like Rabbi Hauer and Rabbi Dr. Joseph to be our new professional leaders, each coming to their posts with specific expertise, but together forging a powerful team. We could not be more pleased,” said Orthodox Union President Moishe Bane. “Rabbi Dr. Joseph is one of North America’s foremost dynamic Jewish communal leaders who brings vision, leadership and a new energy to the role of chief professional officer. We are thrilled to have him on our team.”
Working in various roles at Yeshiva University, including as senior vice president at YU and chief of staff to its president, Joseph has now been working in the upper echelons of non-profit Jewish communal leadership for close to two decades, at what many might call one of the OU’s sister institutions. There is a considerable amount of carryover in the leaderships of the two organizations. And yet, as he completed his own internal 30-day review of his new job, he said he appreciated most its people—its staff, lay leadership, program heads and quiet changemakers, often operating outside the public eye. Most notably, in its people, projects and activities, Joseph saw a potential gap in identifying one of the OU’s most underutilized strengths.
“So many of these professionals are superstars. The OU can have a huge role in the pipeline for Jewish leadership for the future. When I look back at certain key moments of my life, there was an OU counselor or rabbi in one place, in another place, that helped shape key moments. Those are key moments that we can capture and identify what can be magic moments,” Joseph told The Jewish Link.
These magic moments, Joseph described—what others might call “a-ha moments,” or pivotal, transitional experiences—are not unlike the moment when one steps into Disneyland for the first time; a mixture of fear, excitement, realization of dreams, trepidation all at the same time. These are moments of realizing what Judaism is and how it can apply to one’s life. They are central to Joseph’s experience on JOLT Israel, what he describes as one of his “origin stories.”
Speaking to his colleagues in the initial first weeks at the OU, he related a similar “origin story,” of his daughter Marsha’s experience participating last summer in the Israel summer program NCSY Rescue with Hatzalah.
Joseph relayed Marsha’s time at NCSY Rescue through the lens of his own transformation. A “not that excited” student had matured into a “very engaged and blown away” father visiting his daughter in Israel in summer 2019. He spent a day experiencing the “palpable excitement” of Yom NCSY, the special day set aside each summer when all the participants of the dozen-plus NCSY Israel programs meet and mingle. “All these different confluences of people and places created moments of magic all around us in many different ways,” he said.
His daughter, too, had her own moments of magic. Now a student in shana aleph at Machon Mayan in Israel, Marsha was so inspired by her summer with NCSY Rescue that she spent spring 2020 completing training as an EMT. “What is special about these moments is how we carry moments forward and connect us to our calling and our mission in life. It secures our connection to hakadosh baruch hu, and provides a connection to insights in the Torah and rabbinic leadership,” he said.
During his time at Yeshiva University, Joseph and the executive team faced a number of challenges, some of which stemmed from the financial crisis of 2008, which was complicated at YU by the effects of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, which deeply damaged the university’s endowment and financial position. Joseph was part of the leadership team managing many new projects and pivots as a result, including the divestment of properties, including, in 2016, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, by which YU ceded almost half of its $1 billion endowment to the medical school as it entered into an operational agreement with Montefiore Health System. Challenges in recent years have included a leadership transition from Dr. Richard Joel as university president to Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, and moderating various student-led campus protests involving the intersection of Jewish observance and 21st-century modern life, such as LGBTQ concerns. Though he never got to see his beloved YU basketball team compete for a well-deserved NCAA title, Joseph left Yeshiva with the Maccabees entering the Big Dance after their best season ever. Only a worldwide pandemic could stop them in their tracks.
The school was also in a strong position as it successfully managed a move to remote learning during the initial COVID-19 lockdown; the model of collaborative leadership in preventing community spread during the first days of the pandemic was notable.
Fagin told The Jewish Link that Joseph’s experiences at YU will serve him well at the OU. “His portfolio of responsibilities while senior vice president of Yeshiva University mirrors many of the areas that he now oversees at the OU,” he said.
“But, quite apart from his broad background and experience, Josh is an extraordinary leader, adept at strategic planning and team building, and motivating and leading the OU professional staff to even greater levels of achievement. Together with Rabbi Hauer, the OU management team will ensure that our community, and all of klal Yisrael, will benefit enormously in the coming decades,” said Fagin.
Speaking with Joseph about his new role at the OU, which is marked as beginning remotely, during the same pandemic that roiled his last months at YU, he spoke about his responsibility toward the OU’s role in assisting “Generation C,” all of us who will exit the coronavirus pandemic changed and altered in new ways. “There will be long-term effects and also opportunities from corona-experiencers. We’ve learned that doing some things remotely can be very beneficial; but we also are more attuned to the emotional impacts that might have,” he explained.
“The effects of remote learning is not just on students but on all of us, and has led us to question ways in which we can redefine community and reinvigorate institutions though this experience that we have all gone through,” he said, noting that our world became smaller in our interactions but larger in our access to information, speakers, and certain kinds of programs that lend itself well to digital interactions, such as the OU’s AllDaf app and national access to shiurim and other international programs.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the OU has marshalled its resources to help those in the Jewish community by providing an array of new, and in many cases, virtual programming,” he said.
“The OU has an ambitious agenda at a trying time,” said Rabbi Hauer. “Coronavirus, anti-Semitism and racial strife present communal, spiritual and emotional challenges and opportunities that we must be prepared to meet,” he said.
While many would assume that the OU would be, like many nonprofits, strapped financially at this juncture, Joseph shared that the uptick in online programming has led to more online donations. “At the OU, we’ve observed an increase in gifts, more people giving and people giving more frequently to the best of their ability as they want to join our mission in supporting the community with services and programs during this time.”
The OU faces a new role to reinvigorate institutions and brick-and-mortar locations after the coronavirus pandemic. “This experience that we have all gone through has redefined so many things. I have been inspired by my neighbors’ dedication to each other. We have been binding together and becoming each other’s family members in new ways and in support.
“I hope with the return we will be able to maintain the connections we have created in these neighborhood minyanim, these outdoor gatherings,” he said. “And take them back to our institutions.”