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The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UOJCA), more popularly known as the Orthodox Union (OU), is one of the oldest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States. It is best known for its kosher food preparation supervision service. Its circled-U symbol, Ⓤ, a hechsher, is found on the labels of many commercial and consumer food products.
The OU supports a network of synagogues, youth programs, Jewish and Religious Zionist advocacy, programs for the disabled, localized religious study programs, and some international units with locations in Israel and formerly in Ukraine.
The OU was founded in 1898 by Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, and it serves today about 1,000 synagogues and congregations of varying sizes. The need for a national Jewish Orthodox rabbinical organization in the early twentieth century was recognized by a number of groups. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis was the most powerful rabbinical body at that time and many of its members saw great value in establishing the early Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Originally, the OU was formed by the same rabbis who created JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. JTS started as an Orthodox institution to combat the hegemony of the Reform movement. At the time, there was no Conservative movement by name, though there was a range of liberalism within Orthodox Jewry. Cracks between the OU and JTS first formed in 1902, shortly after Solomon Schechter's recruitment from Great Britain to head JTS. Schechter "liberalized" the institution and its approach to Torah study. Most of JTS's original founders, backers, and staff disavowed the changes, seeing it as headed toward the very philosophy JTS had been intended to hedge against. Exactly 100 days after Schechter's arrival, they formed a new Orthodox group, Agudath Harabonim, which refused to recognize the rabbinical credentials (Semicha) of those ordained at JTS, though Agudath explicitly wrote that the pre-Schechter graduates of JTS were fine rabbis and welcome.
Without their support, Schechter broke away from Orthodoxy to create the Conservative movement, with JTS as its predominant agency. However, the OU still had some ties to JTS until the 1950s. Conservative Judaism, while not holding as strictly to traditional Jewish law as Orthodoxy, still maintained a halachic orientation somewhat compatible in appearance with the Orthodox. The break between Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism became complete with the "Sabbath decision of 1949". This unprecedented decision by the Conservative court, allowing Jews to drive to synagogue (shul) on the sabbath if they lived too far to walk, made untenable any claim that both camps were on the same path of halacha. Even after the formal organizational division, many Jews in the 1950s and beyond continued to identify themselves as Orthodox even while driving on the Sabbath, and many Jews were members of synagogues of both Conservative and Orthodox persuasions, sometimes out of family loyalty, convenience, nostalgia, or politics.
Some Orthodox rabbis viewed the nascent OU as insufficiently Orthodox, and thus did not participate in it, instead setting up their own more stringent rabbinical organizations. However, the idea for a national Orthodox congregational body took hold, and soon developed into the OU that exists today. The OU grew slowly until the 1950s, when it then began increasing the number of affiliated congregations including both small and large memberships.
Starting in the mid- to late-20th century, most synagogues affiliated with the Orthodox Union were under the leadership of rabbis trained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and alumni from Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. These rabbis were ideologically Modern Orthodox. By the 1990s and early 21st century, the OU's general philosophy and levels of observance may be seen to have shifted towards stricter interpretations and halachic practices. This change has not necessarily affected individual member congregations, but has impacted many Orthodox Jewish communities across America. The general trend toward stricter practices among Orthodox Union congregations reflects the Orthodox world's trending toward Haredi Judaism.
The Orthodox Union's Kosher Division headed by CEO Menachem Genack, is the world's largest kosher certification agency. As of 2010, it supervises more than 400,000 products in 8,000 plants in 80 different countries. It employs approximately 1,000 supervisors, mashgichim in Hebrew, and about 50 rabbinic coordinators. The supervision process involves sending a mashgiach to the production facility to ensure that the product complies with halacha (Jewish law). The mashgiach supervises both the ingredients and the production process.
In 2005, an undercover video purportedly showed cruel treatment of animals in an OU-certified slaughterhouse. The story was featured many times in national newspapers and in Jewish media. The OU defended its limited scope of supervision, while studying changes to its policy. In 2006, the OU's response was the subject of a video narrated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Irving Greenberg, and David Wolpe.
The OU requires that all member synagogues follow Orthodox Jewish interpretations of Jewish law and tradition. Men and women are seated separately, and nearly always are separated by a mechitza, a physical divider between the men's and women's section of the synagogue. OU synagogues follow Religious Zionism, meaning that they support the existence of the State of Israel. The laws of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Kashrut (dietary laws) are stressed. Members of OU synagogues have a diverse political background, and are not necessarily members of any one political party. Orthodox Jews are somewhat more politically conservative than less- or non-observant Jews. They daven (recite prayers) exclusively in Hebrew, using the same traditional text of the siddur (prayer book) that has been used in Ashkenazi Jewish communities for the last few centuries. Until recently the most common prayer book used in OU synagogues has been Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem edited by Philip Birnbaum. In recent years the most common siddur has been the Rabbinical Council of America edition of the Artscroll siddur, a prayer book that is identical to the regular Artscroll siddur, but for the addition of a new preface, and the inclusion of prayers for the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. Until recently the most common Hebrew-English Humash (Five Books of Moses) used has been the Pentateuch and Haftarahs, edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz; in recent years this has been supplanted by The Chumash: The Stone Edition, also known as the Artscroll Chumash.
National Conference of Synagogue Youth
The official youth program of the OU is the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). It sponsors the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. NCSY was founded by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper in the 1950s. NCSY was originally created to reach out to young non-orthodox Jews, and has now expanded its reach to include many already religious mostly Modern Orthodox children from Jewish day schools. Many marriages have resulted from the social interaction. NCSY boasts that 95% of their members marry Jews.
Alliance with the Rabbinical Council of America
For many years the OU, along with its related rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Council of America, worked with the larger Jewish community in the Synagogue Council of America. In this group Orthodox, Conservative and Reform groups worked together on many issues of joint concern. The group became defunct in 1994, mainly over the objections of the Orthodox groups to Reform Judaism's official acceptance of patrilineal descent as an option for defining Jewishness. (See Who is a Jew.)
- Jonathan Sarna (2005). American Judaism: A History. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300109764.
- "Heinz to Be Honored for Being First Company to Debut Kosher Symbol". Orthodox Union. May 25, 1999. Archived from the original on September 9, 1999. Retrieved 2011-03-23.
- "OU Announces Rabbi Steven Weil of Beverly Hills as Next Executive Vice President". Orthodox Union. May 6, 2008. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
- Sue Fishkoff (2010). Kosher Nation. Schocken Books, New York. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-8052-4265-2.
- "Observing the Passover Holiday". Orthodox Union. 2005. Retrieved 2009-02-20.
- "goveg.com". Archived from the original on April 5, 2006. Retrieved January 15, 2010.
- Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Encyclopædia Britannica
- Branches of Orthodox Judaism Jewish Virtual Library
- Official website of the Orthodox Union
- Official website of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division
- Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America Records; I-66; American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY.