Orthodox Union lay leaders mission shows OU’s critical impact

OU board members are inspired by resilience of Israeli citizens and leaders they met during their recent mission.

Nova music festival survivor Asaf Aharon shares his story at Nova with mission participants. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.
Nova music festival survivor Asaf Aharon shares his story at Nova with mission participants. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

Since the horrific atrocities of Oct. 7, OU Israel has served as a leading source of physical, emotional and spiritual chizuk, strength, for thousands of traumatized Israelis of all ages.

From citizens who have tragically lost loved ones, to evacuees forced to flee their homes, to families with members in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces), to olim experiencing war for the first time, to youth from underprivileged towns in Israel’s periphery, OU Israel is unwavering in its commitment to provide front-line care to all of these populations and more.

In solidarity with the State of Israel, its citizens, and OU Israel leadership and staff, 21 Orthodox Union board members recently participated in a four-day, lay-leadership mission to Israel. The trip presented an opportunity for them to connect with, and offer chizuk to, those directly impacted by the war; to gain meaningful insight into the conflict and its post-war implications; to exchange ideas with Israeli leadership; to draw
inspiration from gedolim (religious leaders), politicians, activists, Israeli citizens and chayalim; and to experience and observe OU activities in Israel and connect with staff and constituents.

A chayelet addresses mission participants at Har Herzl’s Heichal HaZikaron, National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

“Since Oct. 7, the OU leadership’s continual visits, including this most recent mission, have warmed the hearts of all of the OU Israel staff,” says OU Israel executive director Rabbi Avi Berman. “Having OU New York’s backing empowers us to act and to be successful in our areas of expertise. On a national level, the OU’s professional and lay leaders’ repeated trips to Israel are noticed and respected by Israeli politicians. They underscore that, as an organization, we’re not simply sitting on the other side of the Atlantic, voicing our opinions during a time of war. We’re here, we’re acting, and we’re making a major impact.”

OU President Mitch Aeder said the mission was designed to offer OU leadership a more personal and profound understanding of Israel’s wartime landscape and the complex issues it faces.

“By curating a diverse lineup of speakers and activities, we aimed to provide a multifaceted experience that would challenge perspectives, foster empathy, and inspire action,” he says. “We wanted our participants to engage in meaningful conversations with changemakers, grapple with the realities on the ground, and ultimately, leave with a deeper appreciation of Israel’s complexities and a renewed sense of purpose in their roles as advocates and leaders within the OU community. At the same time, we wanted to expose the group to the range of OU programs in Israel and the passionate professionals who lead them.”

OU National Vice President Esti Kaminetzky participated in the mission with her husband, Binyamin. The Kaminetzkys were in Israel on when Hamas attacked on Simchat Torah, and this was their second trip back since Oct. 7. Esti Kaminetzky says they were truly astounded by the scope of OU’s work in Israel.

“OU Israel does far more than we could possibly have imagined,” she says. “The team runs an array of programming geared to help youth, current refugees, seniors and others. The mission enabled us to actually meet the OU Israel staff—including the therapists and counselors—behind the programs, and to see their passion, dedication and achievements firsthand.”

Organized by OU Israel and OU headquarters in New York, the wide-ranging itinerary included a tour of Har Herzl’s Heichal HaZikaron National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen and Machlaka Chadasha (new division), led by World Zionist Organization chairman Yaakov Hagoel; a visit with wounded soldiers at Ra’anana’s Loewenstein Hospital, Israel’s largest rehab center; an art activity with families of Lod’s Kitat Konnenut (local rapid-response team); and a stop at the tomb of the Rambam in Tiberias to daven mincha, the afternoon prayers. In Tiberias, the contingent also ran a carnival for evacuated children, sponsored by OU National Vice President Eli and Raizy Levitin.

Participants of the OU Lay Leadership Mission to Israel with President Isaac Herzog. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

In the south of Israel, participants met with Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi and Minister of Knesset Hili Tropper; visited Sderot’s police station and chamal (situation room); and toured the Nova music festival site, where they heard the harrowing story of Asaf Aharon, a 26-year-old security guard from Beit Shemesh, who miraculously survived the massacre.

“Each person we met made the experience beyond memorable and was inspirational in their own right,” says Kaminetzky. “Mayor Davidi described the horrible events of Oct. 7 and his current efforts to continue to serve his constituents who are now dispersed as refugees throughout Israel. He also casually mentioned that he learns Daf Yomi and five perakim of Tanach (chapters of the Bible) daily, and completes Tehillim (Psalms) three times weekly. I was awed by the fact that he makes time for so many of these holy pursuits amid his incredibly overwhelming schedule.”

A day trip to the North included a visit to Tziporit, one of two Tzahal bases in Israel that specialize in maintaining the standards of kavod ha’met, respect for the dead, for fallen soldiers.

“The strength of the Tziporit soldiers at the ‘chevrah kadisha of the North’, remains with me when I go to sleep and wake up,” says Kaminetzky. “They are proudly doing Hashem’s work, b’simcha (with joy). Experiences like these fill me with hakaras hatov (gratitude)t o be part of the OU leadership and to have participated in this mission.”

The group also enjoyed a barbecue with the Tziporit soldiers sponsored by OU Senior Vice President Jerry Wolasky and his wife, Sora. The mission was the Wolaskys’ second trip to Israel together since Oct. 7. Jerry Wolansky was particularly touched by the fortitude and courage of bereaved citizens like Hadas Loewenstern of Harish. Her husband, Master Sgt. Rabbi Elisha Loewenstern, fell in battle in December in Gaza, and the mother of six is on a mission to carry on his legacy.

“Her positive attitude, her strength and her chizuk were extremely impactful,” says Wolansky.

Kaminetzky was similarly moved by Loewenstern’s fortitude. “I had read about her and seen videos of her speaking,” she says. “Sitting in her living room was an indescribable experience. She spoke with grace, confidence and true emunah. We saw the boxes that had contained Elisha’s remaining possessions from the army, but were now full of her babies’ toys. She chose life. We did not bring her comfort; she brought us chizuk and filled us with strength to go forward—to be and do more.”

Then there were the parents of hostages. Mission participants met with World Mizrachi Executive Chairman Rabbi Doron Perez, just days before he learned that his son, 22-year-old Cpt. Daniel Perez, had been murdered and his body taken into Gaza on Oct. 7. They also met with Shelly Shem-Tov, whose 21-year-old son Omer was abducted from the Nova music festival. The group met with her at Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hachatufim, Hostage Square, where they also met with organizers of the Hostage and Missing Families Forum.

“You can see it in the media and you can read about it,” says Wolansky. “But the personal connection you develop when you sit with somebody and you see the torment they’re going through, that takes things to a different level.”

Other mission highlights included meetings with Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, Av Beit Din of Ashkelon and Chief Rabbi of Israel candidate Rabbi Meir Kahana, PUAH fertility institute founder and dean Rabbi
Menachem Burstein, Mishpacha Magazine publisher Eli Paley and Kohelet Policy Forum chairman Moshe Koppel.

OU Israel Executive Director Rabbi Avi Berman, OU Executive Vice President and COO Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, and OU National Vice President Eli Levitin dancing with soldiers at Tziporit army base. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

“The goal of the mission was to have OU leadership develop a deeper understanding of the complex situation on the ground in Israel from as many vantage points as possible, while having them also project the voice of our community to Israeli decision makers, activists, and those on the front lines,” says OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer. “This was accomplished through the visits and meetings that our group held with a wide variety of individuals and groups. We emerged from those meetings even more inspired to continue our supportive initiatives in Israel, both on the ground via OU Israel, and in the U.S.”

Equally as meaningful was the extended time spent with OU Israel leadership and staff, which included a Rosh Chodesh “mingler” event in the Jerusalem Forest’s Zippori Center, and a dinner and discussion in Maale Adumim with OU Israel board members, hosted by member Mark Schneider.

A memorable lunch with directors, students and young professionals from OU-JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) communities nationwide enabled mission participants to learn about OU-JLIC’s tremendous impact on students, and its support of Israeli citizens and chayalim since the onset of the war. Speakers included Tel Aviv JLIC Co-director Rabbi Joe Wolfson and Herzliya JLIC Co-director Shiffy Friedman, both of whom highlighted their communities’ extensive outreach to displaced families who had relocated to their regions in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

“I’m very proud to be a supporter of the OU and to be part of the OU leadership,” Wolansky says. “This mission enabled us to see and experience the critical work that we do in Israel, including in these trying times. The incredible leadership of Rabbi Avi Berman and his wonderful team must continue to be supported.”

Kaminetzky adds, “Having just witnessed all of the work and chessed that the OU does in Israel, I am even more proud to be on the board of the OU. I am encouraged and empowered to work harder in North America and in Israel.”

Above all, the mission provided an invaluable opportunity for OU lay leaders to explore additional ways that the Orthodox Union can truly make a difference in Israel.

“If seeing is believing, then experiencing is knowing,” says OU Executive Vice President and COO Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph. “Our experiences mattered to those with whom we engaged, mattered to our organizational purpose, and mattered to us as individuals. We now understand first-hand the power of—and need for—engagement and dialogue to drive positive change. It’s through these immersive experiences that we strengthen our commitment to Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) and deepen our resolve to contribute meaningfully to Israel’s future.”

CONTACT: Hannah Farkas, associate director, Department of Institutional Advancement, (212) 613-8351, hannahf@ou.org.

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
Established 40 years ago OU Israel is the Orthodox Union’s branch in Israel, established in Yerushalayim as its own Israeli nonprofit yet able to receive US charitable donations through OU America with 501c3 Tax Exempt Status. OU Israel’s mission is to promote the unity of the Jewish people by celebrating our shared common Jewish experience and identity as inspired by Torah Judaism/Zionism, to positively impact Israeli society, strengthen its next generation, absorb new immigrants and empower Israel’s periphery while advancing a pro-active commitment to community activism.
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