The Orthodox Union delivered another impressive lineup for their West Coast Convention on the weekend of December 5th. Great Jewish thinkers from all over the country came together to discuss the topic “Leadership in Challenging Times” in various events that ran Thursday through Sunday.
“The world around us and the Jewish people in particular, are beset with many challenges,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, Director of OU West Coast Region. “But perhaps the greatest challenge that we face in our world today is the lack of leadership. Accordingly, we have decided that this year’s convention will address that very theme, ‘Leadership in Challenging Times.’”
Michael Medved, the keynote speaker, delivered an inspiring keynote address to open the convention Thursday evening. The title of his talk was “Leadership in Troubling Times,” but his message was anything but troubling.
“There is one proposition in which there is astonishing unanimity among the American people…everybody agrees our leadership in this country stinks!” Medved said, to laughter and applause. After laying out the dismal approval ratings of the President and Congress, he noted polls which show that three quarters of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction and that more than half of Americans believe the American dream is dead. He then framed the question of what kind of leadership we need today with another question: Why do eidim have to be shomer Shabbat at a Jewish wedding?
“To help answer that question, let’s take a look at the key missing perspective in American political and cultural life today. That missing element in our perspective is—perspective. We tend not to have any accurate vision of who we are, of where we are, of where we are going. Americans seem to be stumbling around in the dark.” He then described a typical caller to his radio show expounding on how we are in the worst point in American history, how things are terrible, and how the country is headed into doom and destruction.
“By what measure?” he challenged a captivated room. “What’s so terrible about life in America?” He touched on the tragic recent shooting in San Bernadino, and then explained that terrible as these events are, the violent crime rate is currently the lowest it has ever been measured. He cited other statistics about medical care, poverty, and quality of life, all decidedly positive. “So why are we so upset?”
He proposed three basic reasons: a focus on disaster, isolation from one another, and a lack of memory. After detailed explanations of how these social problems developed, he circled back to his original question. “So how does that connect to the question I asked at the beginning? The way to adopt perspective, for Jewish people, is clear. And perspective is the most important quality for leadership: A perspective that sees our place in the continuum of time, a perspective that sees our place in a wider world, a perspective that sees not just the problems but the blessings. All that comes from Shabbat…Shabbat provides perspective. What is a witness? A witness is a leader.”
Other speakers included Allen I. Fagin, Executive Vice President (Chief Professional Officer) of the Orthodox Union; Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Posek (Halachic Decisor) at OU Kosher and Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; Rabbi Dovid Cohen, New York Regional Representative of the Orthodox Union; Nathan Diament, Executive Director of OU Advocacy; Betty Ehrenberg, Executive Director for World Jewish Congress—US and North America; Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director, OU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus; Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Rabbi at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, NJ; Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ; Rabbi Steven Weil, Senior Managing Director of the Orthodox Union; and Rebbetzin Yael Weil, Teacher at Maayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck, NJ.
Friday’s events included a rabbinic enrichment shiur given by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and other speakers who visited many of the local schools to speak to the students. Shabbat morning brought speakers to shuls all around LA as scholars-in-residence. Motzei Shabbat featured a Melave Malka with a talk titled “Political Leadership for Today and Tomorrow—Election 2016.”
The convention concluded Sunday morning with community sessions at Young Israel of Century City, followed by plenary sessions on “Jewish Leadership in Today’s World.” The plenary sessions featured panelists Michael Medved, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and Betty Ehrenberg, and were moderated by Allen Fagin.
The events were well-received and attended by a wide cross-section of the community; a feat that is unsurprising considering that the Orthodox Union is known, regardless of the times, as a bulwark of Jewish leadership.