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The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UOJCA), more popularly known[Notes 1] as the Orthodox Union (OU), is one of the oldest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States. It is best known for its kosher certification service. Its circled-U symbol, Ⓤ, a hechsher mark, is found on the labels of many kosher 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. Conservative Judaism created its own competing synagogue movement in 1913 with the formation of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). While not holding strictly to traditional Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, Conservative synagogues still maintained much of the "look and feel" of the Orthodox synagogue, but did away with the strict gender separation during prayer services which was observed in Orthodox synagogues as a religious obligation. The USCJ actively competed with the OU for synagogue members and succeeded in recruiting many formerly Orthodox congregations, especially during the post-World War II years, when many of those congregations moved away from inner-city Jewish neighborhoods into the newly established suburban Jewish communities.
Conservative Talmudic scholars sought to find justifications in the rabbinic literature for these and other compromises in Jewish law halacha which they instituted over time in synagogue practices and other mitzvah observances which widened its theological differences with the Orthodox establishment. One of the clearest breaks between Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism was the "Sabbath decision of 1949". This unprecedented decision, which emerged from the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, allowing Jews to drive to synagogue (shul) on the Sabbath if they lived too far to walk, made untenable any claim that both camps adhered to the same principles of defining halacha. However, because the OU had no means of enforcing specific religious standards upon its member synagogues, Some of them took down the mechitza (separating barrier) between the men's and women's sections during prayer services, while still calling themselves Orthodox and maintaining their membership in the OU. Similarly, it was common during the era for Jews who were not Orthodox in practice to retain their membership in an Orthodox synagogue, motivated by family loyalty, convenience, nostalgia, social obligation or politics.
During the early decades of its existence, the Orthodox Union was closely associated with and was a supporter of the development of Yeshiva University into a major Jewish educational institution producing English-speaking, university-trained American rabbis for the pulpits of OU synagogues. Some Orthodox rabbis viewed the nascent OU and the rabbis of its synagogues as too "modern" in outlook, and thus did not participate in it, instead setting up their own more stringent rabbinical organizations.
Nevertheless, the idea for a national Orthodox congregational body took hold. The OU was soon acknowledged within the American Jewish establishment as the main, but not exclusive spokesman for the American Orthodox community. Representatives of 150 Orthodox congregations, with an estimated membership of 50,000, participated in the OU's 1919 national convention. The OU became more active in broader American Jewish policy issues after 1924, when Rabbi Dr. Herbert S. Goldstein, the innovative spiritual leader of the West Side Institutional Synagogue of Manhattan became the president of the OU. Under Goldstein, the OU and its Rabbinical Council (a forerunner of today's Rabbinical Council of America, became a founding member of the Synagogue Council of America, along with representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbinic affiliates.
The OU played an active role in advocating for public policies important to Orthodox practice, such as advocating for the five-day work week and defending the right to kosher slaughter. It was also involved in efforts to serve the religious needs of American Jewish soldiers as well as relief for European Jewry.
In the 1920s the OU started its Kashruth division, establishing the concept of community-sponsored, not-for-profit kashruth supervision. In 1923, the H. J. Heinz Company's Vegetarian Beans became the first product to be kosher certified by the OU. The OU's kashruth program was heavily influenced by Abraham Goldstein, a chemist who used his knowledge of food science to determine the kosher status of various products. (In 1935, Goldstein left the OU and started his own organization, Organized Kashruth Laboratories, the OK.) The wide acceptance of OU kashruth supervision rested largely upon the outstanding reputation of its rabbinic administrator, Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg. He and his staff established effective kashruth supervision standards for modern food production technology which made possible the explosion in the availability of OU certified packaged kosher products across the US since the 1950s.
The OU Women's Branch was also organized during the 1920s to encourage the formation and support of active sisterhoods in OU synagogue's. Women's Branch took on a number of special products, typically related to women's Jewish education and support for Yeshiva University.
OU operations became more efficient with the appointment in 1939 of Leo S. Hilsenrad as its first full-time professional executive director. Its services were further expanded in 1946, with the addition of Saul Bernstein to the professional staff. Bernstein became the founding editor, in 1951, of Jewish Life the OU's popular publication for Orthodox laymen. Bernstein also succeeded Hilsenrad as the OU's administrator.
During the postwar years, there was considerable overlap in the lay leadership of the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University. The Orthodox Union expanded its operations following the election in 1954 of Moses I. Feuerstein as its president. Its leadership ranks were augmented by a talented group of lay leaders including Joseph Karasick, Harold M. Jacobs and Julius Berman, who would guide the OU's growth over the next several decades.
Another major development was the appointment, in 1959, of Rabbi Pinchas Stolper as director of the Orthodox Union's youth group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). By inspiring thousands of public-school educated high school youth across North America to become more observant, NCSY played a major role in launching the Baal Teshuva movement, a widespread spiritual re-awakening among Jewish youth which followed the 1967 Six Day War. 
By the mid- to late-20th century, most synagogues affiliated with the Orthodox Union were under the leadership of rabbis trained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at 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 American Orthodoxy's trending toward Haredi Judaism.
OU's board of directors has had female members since the mid-1970s.
In 2014, the first women were elected as national officers of the OU; specifically, three female national vice presidents and two female associate vice presidents were elected.
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. Many OU synagogues support the concepts of Religious Zionism, which teaches that the existence of the State of Israel is a step towards the arrival of the Messiah and the eventual return of all Jews around the world to live in the ancient national Jewish homeland. 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 tend to be more politically conservative than the rest of the Jewish community. They daven (recite prayers) in Hebrew, using the same traditional text of the siddur (prayer book) that has been used in Ashkenazi and Sphard Jewish communities for the last few centuries. Until recently the most popular English translation of the prayer book used in OU synagogues has been Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem edited by Philip Birnbaum. In recent years the most popular translated siddur has been the Rabbinical Council of America edition of the Artscroll siddur. 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.
The international youth movement of the OU, (NCSY), was founded in the early 1950s. After a few false starts, NCSY first achieved success under Rabbi Pinchas Stolper by reaching out to public school educated Jewish youth with a message of Orthodox Jewish religious inspiration. It has now expanded its reach to include many already religious mostly Modern Orthodox children attending Jewish day schools. Many marriages have resulted from the social interaction. NCSY boasts that 95% of their members marry other 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.)
The Orthodox Union has been involved in multiple abuse scandals:
1. The OU retained Baruch Lanner as Director of Regions of its National Conference of Synagogue Youth movement facilitating his access to children despite numerous reports of his abusive behavior. (Lanner was ultimately convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse and imprisoned.) A study found the Orthodox Union leadership responsible.
2. The OU provided kosher supervisory services for Agriprocessors. The OU is alleged to have ignored multiple claims by PETA of animal abuse at the plant. Likewise, at the time of the Postville Raid of the plant the Orthodox Union had numerous rabbis working on premises, yet none reported child workers working illegally at the plant or the abusive conditions workers faced on site. Even after the raid, the OU opposed minimum moral standards in order for products to be certified as kosher.
3. The OU retained Yisroel Belsky in a senior consulting position even after he publicly supported a sexual abuser, intimidated a child who had been sexually abused and his family in order to prevent the abuser from being brought to justice, and publicly stated that abuse victims may not go to the police. Many rabbis, including many of the OU's own members, criticized the OU for supporting Belsky. Upon Belsky’s death in 2016 the Orthodox Union honored Belsky with a cover story in its Jewish Action magazine.
- The Orthodox Union has been known by several names, sometimes simultaneously. It has been called the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of America. It was originally called the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. In the early 20th century, Jews were often called Hebrews; the Reform counterpart to the Orthodox Union was originally called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This caused occasional erroneous substitution of Hebrew for Jewish in the Orthodox Union's name.
The formal title was typically shortened to Orthodox Union or OU. This was so common that many never realized that this was not the official name. In addition, as the OU's scope expanded, synagogue services became an increasingly smaller part of its focus, and the formal name no longer made sense. The name was officially changed to just Orthodox Union in the early 21st century.
- "Israel Center (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America)". WorldCat Identities. OCLC. Retrieved 12 Dec 2015.
- 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.
- Saul Bernstein (1997) "The Orthodox Union Story: A Centenary Portrayal." Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ and Jerusalem
- "O.U. acts to increase funding for schools and votes first women to national posts".
- "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" (PDF). Orthodox Union. 2005. Retrieved 2009-02-20.
- "goveg.com". Archived from the original on May 25, 2006. Retrieved January 15, 2010.
- "New York Times article".
- "New York Times article".
- "Forward article".
- "Jewish Week article".
- "Jewish Action article".
- 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.