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OU national conference, set for Bergen, to consider costs of observance, other issues

 
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Is it too expensive to be an Orthodox Jew today? What are the keys to a happy marriage? And what about the day-school tuition crisis?

The Orthodox Union will address these and other issues when it convenes its biannual convention next weekend in Bergen County to discuss the future role of Orthodoxy, and the Orthodox Union, in the Jewish community.

“The goal of the convention is to deal with some of the major issues facing our community,” said convention chair Emanuel Adler, a Teaneck resident, “while at the same time utilizing the resources of the Orthodox Union and demonstrating to our constituency that the union deals with various issues and has the resources to do so.”

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David Olivestone Photos Courtesy OU

Following a Shabbat at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton for synagogue presidents and delegates, the biannual convention will begin the evening of Saturday, Jan. 15, at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, with a discussion on the cost of Jewish living moderated by “JM in the AM” radio host Nachum Segal. That Shabbat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Steven Dworken, former vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and his family has dedicated the Saturday evening program in his memory.

“The cost of Jewish living doesn’t just involve the tuition bill,” said David Olivestone, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s senior communications officer. “It’s the cost of a house [near a synagogue], cost of summer camp, food because of yom tov and Shabbat…. You have to be wealthy to be observant. It’s the most talked about topic on everybody’s mind.”

The conference will continue on Sunday at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, with more than 25 seminars in three separate tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Seminars include topics such as making prayer more meaningful, Israel’s conversion controversy, dating, and fund-raising.

“It’s a chance to convene the greater Orthodox community to address the issues that we all wrestle with and to hear from those who’ve accomplished facts on the ground in the different areas that concern us all,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s executive vice president.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, the OU’s executive vice president emeritus, will lead a plenary session on the Mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition and its role in the modern Jewish community. A second plenary, moderated by Weil, will discuss the Orthodox role in the wider Jewish community. The panel will include Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman.

“We’re trying to open up a topic for everyone,” Olivestone said.

The convention is an opportunity for OU leaders to vote on resolutions that will guide the organization through the next two years, including electing the OU’s board, he said. Saturday night’s program and Sunday’s sessions are open to the public, while voting will take place Sunday during separate closed meetings.

Many people think of the OU as only a kashrut organization, Adler said. He pointed to such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and other services that the OU constituency and the wider community may not be aware of.

Adler, who also chaired the convention in 1994, ‘96, and ‘98, does not expect solutions to all of the issues facing the Jewish community to emerge from it, but said the conference would be considered a success if it sparks discussions and raises awareness of the Jewish community’s challenges and the role the OU plays in meeting them.

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Rabbi Steven Weil

The past three conferences have been held in Israel, when the OU decided to boost an Israeli economy and tourism industry battered by the Palestinian intifada. With Israeli tourism reaching record numbers this year, the leadership decided to bring the convention back to the United States and chose Bergen County because of its centrality to the metropolitan area, where a large portion of the U.S. Orthodox Jewish population lives.

“This time we felt a lot more people are traveling to Israel on their own and we wanted to bring [the convention] within reach of everybody,” Olivestone said.

Weil also pointed to the Hilton and its ability to accommodate the hundreds of expected attendees and observe Shabbat restrictions as a drawing point for Bergen County. While none of the organizers offered exact estimates, they said they expect several hundred to attend Sunday’s sessions.

The conference is typically held in even years on Thanksgiving weekend. Organizers decided that bringing the conference back to the United States on that weekend would present too many logistical problems, however, and moved it to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The next conference is planned for late 2012 or early 2013, although no location has been chosen.

For more information on the OU conference, including a list of speakers and topics, visit www.ou.org/convention.

 
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