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The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America , more popularly known as the Orthodox Union, or OU, is one of the oldest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States. It is best known for its kosher supervision service, with the circled-U symbol found on the labels of many commercial and consumer food products.
The OU suports a network of synagogues, youth programs, Jewish and Religious Zionist advocacy, programs for the disabled, localized religious stufy programs, and some international units with locations in Israel and Ukraine.
This organization should not be confused with the Union of Orthodox Rabbis , a distinct Haredi rabbinical group with a similar name that preceded the founding of the OU.
The UOJCA was founded in 1898, and today serves over 800 congregations of varying size. 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 the great value in eastblishing the early Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
It has been suggested that perhaps the initial idea for this organization came from rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), in Manhattan, NY. At that time, many of the rabbis at the JTS were Orthoox Jews as well and worked for the common cause of Orthodox Judaism by promoting the idea of a unified American Jewish community, with a central rabbinic seminary and a central congregational body. In this era, the lines between modern Jewish denominations were not clearly drawn. However, many of the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox rabbinate would have anything to do with rabbis at JTS at all; JTS allowed its teachers and students to use the tools of critical-historical scholarship as well as traditional forms of Jewish Torah study, and this practice was seen as heretical.
Some Orthodox rabbis viewed the nascent UOJCA 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 UOJCA that exists today. The UOJCA grew slowly until the 1950s, when it then began increasing the number of affiliated congregations (most of them small, but many of them of a large size.)
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 Theologiacal Seminary. These rabbis were ideologically Modern Orthodox.
The UOJCA plays a significant role in supervising kosher foods; the "OU" symbol signifying that a food has been certified as kosher is the most well known and widely accepted heksher (mark of kashrut) in North America.
The UOJCA holds all member synagogues to 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. UOJCA synagogues follow Religious Zionism, meaning that they support the existence of the State of Israel. The laws of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Kashrut are stressed. Members of UOJCA synagogues have a wide political background, varying from progressive to Democrat to Republican to conservative. Orthodox Jews are somewhat more politically conservative than those in Reform and Conservative congregations.
Prayer is done exclusively, or almost exclusively in Hebrew, using the same traditional text of the siddur (prayer book) that has been used in Ashkenazic Jewish communities for the last few centuries. Until recently the most common prayerbook used in UOJCA synagogues have been Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem edited by Philip Birnbaum. In recent years the most common siddur has been the RCA edition of the Artscroll siddur, a prayerbook that is identical to the siddur used in Haredi synagogues, but for the addition of a new preface, and prayers for the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. Until recently the most common Torah commentary has been the Pentateuch and Haftarahs, edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz . In recent years the most common Torah commentary has been The Chumash: The Stone Edition, also known as the Artscroll Torah.
The official youth program of the UOJCA is the National Conference of Synagogue Youth known as NCSY. It sponsors the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.
For many years the UOJCA worked with the larger Jewish community in the Synagogue Council of America, along with its related rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical 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 patrilienal descent as an option for defining Jewishness. (See Jew.)
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