O.U. Leader Being Pushed Out

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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The country’s largest Orthodox organization has begun searching for a new chief executive, despite the fact that the man currently filling the role has no desire to step down.

“Obviously, a decision was made either not to renew my contract, or to reconsider my role at the organization,” said the current executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “All I can really say is that I have a contract that expires in 2008, and I intend to serve to the best of my ability up until that point.”

The volunteer president of the Orthodox Union, Steven Savitsky, sent an e-mail board members in late November 2006, announcing the creation of a search committee to find a new executive vice president. So far, the organization is giving no public explanation for why it is seeking to replace Weinreb, who was brought in five years ago to help the O.U. overcome a major sexual abuse scandal. When asked why the organization had commenced the search, Savitsky would only say that “his contract is expiring, and we have an active search committee.”

Weinreb, a rabbi and psychotherapist, began at the O.U. in 2002 and was looked to as a calming figure after the organization was rocked by a scandal involving Baruch Lanner, its former youth division director. Lanner resigned in 2000, in response to a report in the New York Jewish Week alleging that he had abused teenagers over several decades and that O.U. officials had covered up his transgressions. Eventually he was convicted of abusing two teenage girls, and the O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler, resigned, paving the way for Weinreb.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, who was serving as president of the O.U. at the time that the Lanner scandal erupted, said the new search indicates that Weinreb had finished his task of reforming the organization.

“The post-Lanner era is over,” said Ganchrow, who served as the O.U.’s president from 1994 to 2000. “The time to heal for the O.U. required the six or seven years that it took. It was done beautifully under a very skillful individual. Now is the time to conquer the next series of problems that faces the Jewish community.”

The O.U. claims to represent about 1,000 Orthodox synagogues, but it generates most of its income from operating the largest kosher certifying agency in the world.

Weinreb said that he is interested in staying on in his position and that he has no intention of retiring. His tenure has been marked by a decidedly therapeutic tenor. In addition to confronting sexual abuse, he has set up programs to teach parenting and to help congregants with drug abuse. He also began a program that has put rabbis on 13 college campuses.

Before coming to the O.U., however, Weinreb had little experience as an administrator. Last year, the organization’s top administrator below Weinreb left after almost 25 years. According to a member of the executive committee, the e-mail describing the search process stated that the O.U. would be looking for a rabbi who has solid fundraising and financial experience, and optimally a master of business administration. The e-mail also said that the O.U. would not use an executive search firm because the pool of applicants is already known.

One likely candidate with an MBA is Rabbi Steven Weil, the young chief rabbi at the largest Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. The Jewish Press recently ran a brief item claiming that Weil already had been chosen for the O.U. position. Savitsky said that the report had “absolutely no merit.”

The search process thus far is drawing fire from some organizational insiders. A former president of the O.U., Julius Berman, said that the organization’s executive committee — of which he is a member — was not consulted before Savitsky announced the creation of a search committee. “I believe, as do many who are heavily involved with the organization, that Weinreb has done a phenomenal job,” Berman said. “As I sit here now, I have no idea whatsoever why we are looking for somebody else.”

Savitsky said he did consult a “good majority” of the O.U.’s leadership before commencing the search. The co-chairs of the search committee are Harvey Blitz, immediate past president and a New York area resident, and Martin Nachimson, a Californian.

“Weinreb has done everything we asked him to do and more,” Nachimson told the Forward. “It’s just, as we go on, the O.U. is a different organization than it was five years ago.”

The search committee’s current goal is to find a new executive vice president by July and to groom him until July 2008, when Weinreb’s contract expires. Savitsky said he hopes that Weinreb will stay on with the O.U. in some capacity.






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