Shoshana Polakoff – Orthodox Union
When the Orthodox Union moved several blocks from its old New York City headquarters, the organization had a chance to start over.
With the vision and direction of the executive vice presidents, Shoshana Polakoff and her colleague took a cavernous, bare-bones space with random wood planks and wires lying about and turned it into a sleek, sunlight-soaked, collaborative hub that opened in May 2022. The 70,000-square-foot, two-story headquarters now bustles with activity—all the better to carry out OU’s mission of enhancing Jewish life.
From kosher certification to summer camps to social action and public policy initiatives, OU serves Jewish communities across the world. And Polakoff, the organization’s director of facilities management and logistics, was eager and ready to help shepherd its workforce into 21st-century facilities.
“I’ve always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes things,” says Polakoff, who has been involved in OU since her teenage days, when she participated in the organization’s youth programming and found she loved the sense of community. “When I was in school, I enjoyed being on the tech crew. And operations always piqued my interest.”
In 2020, OU leadership changed, and Polakoff says those two executive vice presidents, Rabbi Moshe Hauer and Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, have ushered in an employee-focused era that spurred the organization to “jump 20 years” into the future with the move to its new location.
Putting her workstation where her values are
That focus on collaboration became the driving force behind much of what they did with the new headquarters. Working with their architect and designers, Polakoff and her design team completely overhauled the spatial approach over eight months with guidance from OU Chief of Staff Yoni Cohen, who oversaw the entire process.
Polakoff was tasked with creating spaces that would encourage “accidental collaboration” as per Rabbi Joseph’s vision. Spaces that would enable people to see each other while getting coffee and say, “Oh, I remember I have to ask you a question.” The goal was to create spaces that enable those kinds of moments to happen organically, she says.
Instead of putting solid-walled offices around the external perimeter, thus blocking off sunlight, Polakoff helped design open, communal workspaces where everyone can enjoy the light streaming in. Meanwhile, the interior glass-walled offices are smaller—80 square feet—and don’t block the flow of natural light. Huddle rooms and phone rooms were added for people who need focused or private time during the day.
For her part, Polakoff has chosen to work at a workstation rather than in an office.
“I felt it was much better as a facilities director to be in the thick of it,” she says. “It’s created a much better workflow for our department. Coming from over a decade in an office, I was not expecting to, but I love it. Instead of having to knock on a door, people just stop by.”
A lovely place to be
The design team also upgraded the cafe, transforming it from a tiny pantry space into a spacious multi-section area.
Walking into the headquarters, visitors are welcomed by a central reception desk leading to a seating space for guests. Behind that is a collaborative area for employees and visitors and the cafe, which features seating at counters, tables and sofas. All of it is outfitted in a mixture of finished birch wood, blue and white walls and an exposed ceiling, lending an airy feel.
Polakoff upgraded the coffee machine, which now dispenses lattes and flavored coffees, and installed a seltzer water tap. She also added a commercial ice machine, a favorite among the staff.
“The cafe is a lovely place for a coffee break, lunch with colleagues and even meetings,” she says. “It’s large, open and provides a pleasant atmosphere.”
Another change was to put the mailroom at the center of the building. This underscored its vital function within the OU.
“They are the organizational backbone of the operation,” Polakoff says. “Anything that anybody is doing involves that team—whether it’s printing, mailing, receiving packages, getting supplies out, ordering specialty items or event management. All of that, plus maintenance.”
Finding a calling that runs in her blood
Polakoff, whose mother works in a facilities and development role in the nonprofit sector, likes to say that real estate development and nonprofit work run in her blood.
A graduate of Yeshiva University, where she earned a degree in Jewish Studies, and New York University, where she earned her master’s degree in nonprofit management, she started her career at NCSY, a teen program of the OU in late 2003. She joined the OU management team in 2009 as its associate director of operations. She assumed her current role in 2011.
Along the way, she’s benefited from the mentoring of OU’s previous COO and the previous international director of NCSY. Polakoff credits them with inviting her to meetings and encouraging her to participate in projects that were geared toward the C suite, allowing her every opportunity to learn and ask questions.
Today, Polakoff says everything she’s accomplished has been a team effort.
“As Rabbi Joseph often says, it’s all about the 3 C’s: communication, coordination and collaboration,” she says.
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2023 Edition here.
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