Working for the Klal: A Conversation with the Outgoing President of the OU Martin Nachimson
The Orthodox Union (OU) began this year with a new president, Mark Bane, who assumed this position in January. At Jewish Home LA, we spoke with the outgoing president, Martin Nachimson, who lives in the San Fernando Valley.
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Mr. Nachimson moved to California with his family about forty years ago. A CPA by profession, he relocated due to his work. His children attended Emek Hebrew Academy and, later, YULA High School.
At the time, the West Coast OU office consisted mainly of “a fledging NCSY [youth group] operation,” says Mr. Nachimson. He got involved, initially serving on the youth commission. Eventually, he became president of the West Coast region.
On his frequent business trips to New York, Mr. Nachimson met and developed relationships with the OU leaders in the national office. “The key people on the national level realized that the OU required a strong West Coast presence,” explains Mr. Nachimson. “My responsibilities evolved to forming a fully functional office and bringing the full range of OU services to the West Coast.” To that end, over twenty years ago the OU hired Rabbi Alan Kalinsky as its OU West Coast Director, and under his leadership the West Coast office became a model for other regional OU offices.
The OU services include synagogue and community services, advocacy, Yachad (the National Jewish Council for Disabilities), NCSY (a youth group connecting Jewish teenagers), JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus), and Birthright trips to Israel. “People don’t realize the full extent of the OU services,” says Mr. Nachimson. “Each of our programs on a standalone basis is a full organization.”
Over the course of his presidency, Mr. Nachimson sought to revamp OU’s management structure on the national level in order to significantly expand the services OU provides. “We realized that we needed a person with management skills, along with a commitment to serving the klal,” explains Mr. Nachimson.
The OU hired a new executive vice president, Allen Fagin, a retired attorney, whose skills enabled the OU to expand each one of its programs. For example, two summers ago, 700 young adults participated in the OU summer programs in Israel, while this year, about 1500 people participated, both from public high schools and from day schools. The JLIC campus program added five more campuses in the US and Canada.
OU’s Birthright program not only increased in the number of participants, but also added a follow up program, organizing reunions and other events that keep former participants involved in Jewish programs after they return from Israel.
In an effort to deal with the tuition crisis, the OU has increased its presence in securing government grants. Mr. Nachimson is “cautiously optimistic” that the new administration would improve the current situation. “It’s an uphill battle,” he says. “But it can be a game changer for parents. The OU cannot remain passive. We hired lobbyists who are involved in discussions with government personalities.”
One of the highlights of Mr. Nachimson’s presidency, a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netaniyahu, came about through the OU’s advocacy program. “The OU took a very strong position in opposition to the Iran deal, and it was appreciated by the State of Israel,” says Mr. Nachimson. The Israeli government invited the OU leadership to a meeting, where the prime minister thanked them for their support. “It was an awesome experience,” says Mr. Nachimson, “that showed the role we can play in deepening our relationship with the Israeli government.”
At the meeting, Mr. Nachimson explained the OU’s approach. He says, “The OU does not believe that it is appropriate for American organizations to interfere in matters of Israeli foreign affairs, national security, and religious integrity as these are best left to the democratic State of Israel and its institutions to decide. We do not condition our support to Israel on its compromising these matters.”
Another highlight of Mr. Nachimson’s presidency also took place in Israel, where he participated in a gathering of young adults spending their summer in Israel though the OU programs. “It was amazing to see the ruach, the celebration, their reaction to being in Israel,” says Mr. Nachimson. “It’s something I wish all people could experience.”
Overall, the OU presidency was a powerful and rewarding experience for Mr. Nachimson. “I cannot imagine anything in life to be more meaningful than being president of the OU and serving the klal,” he says. “Working for the klal does more for me than I do for them.”
We asked Mr. Nachimson what advice he would give to aspiring leaders. “Just do it,” he says. “The opportunities are always there. The more you get involved the more you want to be involved.”