April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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OU’s Allen Fagin Retires and Reflects

When Allen Fagin assumed the role of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union in 2014, he never expected to remain there for six years. After a successful decades-long legal career, his original plan was to focus on communal pursuits when he retired from the practice of law at the end of 2013. Very quickly, that plan changed when the former lay leader was tapped to replace the outgoing Rabbi Steven Weil at the OU.

The past six years have seen tremendous growth and change within the Jewish community, the nation and the world, and the OU has responded to each and every challenge presented. Fagin spoke with The Jewish Link in a telephone interview on June 30, the day before his official retirement, and shared some of the highlights, and lowlights, of his OU tenure.

“My time at the OU began with a crisis and ended with a crisis,” Fagin recalled. “Shortly after I began, there was the Gaza war. Many of our summer programs were already in Israel, and others were set to leave. We had to quickly decide what to do and how to keep our young people safe.”

He continued, “My final months have been during the coronavirus pandemic, hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime situation. It tested [the OU’s] ability to pivot from an in-person world to a virtual world in every aspect of our programming.”

In the intervening years, Fagin helped boost the OU’s efforts in a variety of areas, including advocacy, Jewish leadership, professionalism in the industry, kiruv, women’s roles and Torah learning, among others.

“These are the things I look back on with the greatest delight,” he shared.

Regarding the organization’s kiruv efforts, Fagin said, “The OU has always taken its responsibility to increase opportunities for learning and spiritual expression with the greatest seriousness. It is a core mission as we serve shuls and communities. We must make sure the tremendous opportunities we have had to grow as Orthodox Jews are shared with Jews everywhere.”

He spoke proudly of the large numbers of young men and women who “are prepared to go out and engage,” referring to the cohort of young adults who lead NCSY groups and missions, birthright trips, Yachad programs, JLIC groups on college campuses and others, programs that “have a great impact on young people thirsty for Yiddishkeit.”

These individuals are all “enormously Jewishly literate and come at this with zeal and a passion for their Yiddishkeit that is contagious,” he added. “They take profound pleasure in doing this job and seeing the profound impact they make.”

Fagin believes that these are benefits that are not seen in other communities. “We are blessed to have this. It is an opportunity for Jews everywhere to learn and be proud of their Jewish identity.”

Fagin recalled a situation that gave him much joy: “A few years ago we started a mechina track in our Summer Kollel and Michlelet programs. We invited 15 young men and 15 young women, public school kids, to join us. This program greatly impacted and changed their lives. Some initially couldn’t recognize a Hebrew letter or hadn’t had a bar mitzvah.”

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic directly impacted the OU’s summer programming, putting some of these trips and programs in jeopardy. “In early March when it set in, we had 1,700 teens registered for summer programs, half public school kids,” he said. “It became clear that the Israel programs couldn’t run, the travel programs couldn’t run. It is a terrible shame for all of us because our summer programs are so impactful.”

“Project Community will be running,” Fagin shared. “In two dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada, there will be day programs full of chesed and learning… The hope is that we will be back next summer bigger and better.”

He continued by discussing kiruv efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. “How would we keep people engaged? Within days we pivoted from face-to-face programming to virtual.” The OU offered tremendous guidance to communities, organizing online lectures, seminars, webinars, mental health programs, parenting programs specific to COVID-19, shiurim, classes and more in an effort to be a go-to community resource.

“The silver lining has been the enormous expansion of people of every age, level of learning and level of interest who have had the opportunity to participate in Torah learning on different topics,” he reflected. “Having scholars able to disseminate Torah on a nationwide and worldwide basis is an enormously important lesson. Hopefully the habit of making this important will stick with us.”

Fagin then turned to the resurgence of anti-Semitism, which has become more and more prevalent in recent months.

“The enormous resurgence of anti-Semitism pre-COVID has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Vile, ugly anti-Semitism has found a welcome home on social media,” he said. “In addition to the flagrant, anti-Semitic tropes is the ability to disseminate these messages using social media. Now you just have to press a button and you get your message to the world.”

In his opinion, anti-Semitism is a little different for Orthodox Jews than secular Jews. “We have always been unique because we are readily identifiable,” he said, adding, “The issue of attacks directed at Jews and Jewish institutions has had unique consequences for the Orthodox community.”

“There has been a more nuanced form of anti-Semitism, a grey border between political positions that are anti-Israel or contrary to the positions of the Israeli government and those positions that blur into speech and behavior,” Fagin continued. “They do it behind a shield of political conversation and free speech.”

He took note of specific areas that he believes warrant further attention.

“We need to be responsible for our own safety and security. At every level of government we must press for funding and security for our institutions and people,” he emphasized.

“On a broader level, we must continue to highlight, in every way possible, the positive aspects of our Jewish life, the contributions we’ve made to society… these stories need to be told,” he remarked. “In the midst of the pandemic, when it became clear that part of the treatment was the receipt of antibodies, you saw thousands of Orthodox Jews who’d been so hard hit filling locations where donations of blood plasma could be made.”

“For people of goodwill, hearing about our contributions is important,” he said. “It is a perfect storm and breeding ground right now. This won’t eradicate anti-Semitism, but the vast majority of Americans are people of goodwill.”

Fagin then addressed an issue close to the hearts, and wallets, of many in the Orthodox community: day school affordability.

“About six or seven years ago we took a very, very hard look at what we believed was a significant issue facing our community, the cost of yeshiva education,” he began. “How could we meaningfully impact this? Of course cost cutting and philanthropy would be part of the solution, but there would also have to be significant government funding in a fair and equitable manner for yeshivot and day schools.”

The OU leaders knew that they would need to approach the advocacy process with the same zeal they applied to other significant matters. “We would have to hire professionals, and bring schools, parents and students into the process,” Fagin said. Teach Network, which now operates in New York, New Jersey and several other states, allows the OU to “up the ante in state and local advocacy efforts. With the best professionals within the advocacy arena, we have seen some really extraordinary results.”

The OU and Teach Network operate on the basis of two main arguments. First is the idea of fundamental fairness in state aid and resources to all schools, public and private. “Parents pay taxes for public education, but were getting nothing back for the education of their own children,” noted Fagin.

Second, they promoted the idea that by utilizing private education, families were relieving states of the burden of educating and paying for the education of large groups of students, potentially saving them billions of dollars. The argument was that “our kids” should get some benefit from that savings. The result has been $1 billion in state aid to yeshivas and day schools in states where Teach Network operates.

But, according to Fagin, that is only the beginning. “We will not be satisfied until we make a significant impact. Right now we are holding steady in some cases, but we need to be able to roll back the cost of tuition in a material way, so it is not a crushing burden to families.”

Fagin touted the impact Teach Network has made in the areas of transportation, STEM funding, funding for school nursing services and school security, among others. “We were leading the fight to expand [homeland security grants] to Jewish schools.”

Shifting gears, Fagin turned to the growth in Torah learning that, he said, “has taken off,” and noted that the reasons are twofold: “the receptivity of so many members of our community to setting aside time to make Torah learning a lifelong endeavor,” and “the amount and sophistication of material available today in English,” which “has been nothing short of remarkable.”

“The type and accessibility of learning has skyrocketed,” he said. “There is no excuse for anyone not to find a niche to learn on a regular basis on a topic of interest.”

A point of pride for Fagin was the rollout of the Daf mobile app, All Daf, as the new Daf cycle began earlier this year. “Within two weeks, thousands and thousands of people had signed up to learn the Daf,” he said.

Additionally, the progress in women’s Torah learning has been unprecedented. “Torat Imecha, Nach Yomi, thousands of women signed up to participate,” Fagin noted.

He also addressed the Semicha Project Program, which was created to bring young men together for chabura learning that they could then bring back to their families. “This effort had a thousand people participating around the world overnight,” he said.

“The demand curve for Torah learning is increasing, but so is the supply curve,” Fagin added.

The conversation easily segued into a discussion of Jewish leadership, specifically for women.

“Any organization has, as its most important asset, its people and pool of talent from which it can draw,” he commented. “This has been a major thrust [for the OU] for a number of years, enhancing and broadening our pool of talent. It has had significant impact.”

The OU Women’s Affinity Group ensures women can participate meaningfully in women’s leadership and development. “We redid our compensation system to ensure pay equity at every level,” with a goal of “attracting and retaining talented women on all levels throughout the organization,” Fagin remarked.

Part of the OU’s women’s initiative, he noted, was to “programmatically concentrate on opportunities for women’s leadership throughout the country.”

Fagin went on to discuss the OU statement on the George Floyd murder, which he said concentrated on two fundamental propositions:

First, “Racism is contrary to our Jewish values and needs to be addressed on the basis of our Jewish values as a community,” he said. Second, “When we feel threatened by anti-Semitism it is our expectation that people of goodwill everywhere will stand up and say that conduct is wrong and cannot be tolerated. It is our obligation to do that for others.”

Fagin noted that education for young people on how to start the conversation had already begun in NCSY, and that there will be further opportunities to enhance this education as programming begins again in the fall.

Fagin then discussed the OU’s path forward, in light of ever-changing communal needs and, specifically, the coronavirus pandemic.

“Any organization engaged as broadly as we are in servicing our member synagogues and community must be reevaluating constantly in terms of programs and services,” Fagin emphasized. “We must have balance between continuing programs and evolving as the world changes. This is our mission for the future as we continue the process of evolution.”

According to Fagin, it is the responsibility of the OU to evaluate the needs of its member communities to see which are not being met, or met adequately, and then to find a way to meet those needs.

“Consequences will flow from the pandemic,” he said. “How will we adapt to changes that may be necessitated by the post-COVID world?”

Fagin anticipates “profound financial needs. I don’t expect a V-shaped curve,” where things just bounce back. He expects “untold numbers of people out of work. It will impact our shuls, schools and communities.”

He also focused on the expected mental health consequences of the pandemic. “Enforced loneliness, depression, behavioral issues with kids, consequences of having lost months of school, school-aged kids who have been operating under a different approach will now be getting back to in-school learning”—Fagin views these as vital concerns to be addressed in the immediate future and beyond.

Other issues will likely include the community’s relationship with its shuls, which will look different as people slowly return to their shul buildings.

Fagin believes the profound consequences, implications and impact of COVID-19 will be felt for quite some time, and “we have not yet figured it all out.”

Despite these uncertainties, Fagin has “no doubt that as these needs become apparent, at least with respect to those within our expertise and mission, the OU will be there to help identify the problems and offer solutions.”

As for his personal future, he said, “Six months ago, my wife and I had a list of things we wanted to do together. How much is doable in the short term, given the pandemic, I’m not sure.”

While he plans to remain active in the communal world, Fagin is “looking forward to a real retirement from the professional world.”

He has definitely earned it.

By Jill Kirsch

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