As I write this piece, on the sixth night of Chanukah, I’m at NCSY’s annual Yarchei Kallah, watching nearly 300 public school teens from across the United States and Canada (joined by a lively contingent of twenty-three NCSY teens from Chile and Argentina) light their menorahs, many for the first time. As I watch the scene, in the warm glow of hundreds of flickering candles, I recognize that I am witnessing a modern-day miracle—a tangible display of Hashem’s providence bazman hazeh.
This year you can read this piece, but next year, you need to witness Yarchei Kallah yourself to experience the pulsating enthusiasm, to hear the sounds of Torah being learned by hundreds who have never before experienced its depth and relevance and to sense the transformations unfolding in front of your eyes. It is a remarkable event that brings joy and optimism for the Jewish future.
Each year, NCSY brings together hundreds of public school teens for a week of Torah learning. These teens give up their winter vacation to participate in a dazzling array of shiurim and chaburah learning opportunities—most encountering the serious study of Jewish texts for the first time in their lives. This year, hundreds gathered at a hotel in New Jersey, some from places where maintaining a Jewish identity is far from easy—places like Glen Allen, Virginia; Frisco, Texas; Solon, Ohio; Owings Mills, Maryland; West Mifflin, Massachusetts and Kelso, Washington.
They came for one reason: to learn Torah.
Each participant began a new encounter with a few of the essential texts of Jewish learning, texts that have maintained our identity as a people for millennia. This year’s offerings included Talmud Berachot; Chumash Bereishit; Sefer Yehoshua; Mesillat Yesharim and Derech Hashem. Amazingly, many of the teens managed to complete the entire Pirkei Avot during the week of Yarchei Kallah.
The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) explains that a unique feature of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles is that not only does the individual lighting the menorah make a berachah (“asher kidshanu”), but there is a special berachah even for those who merely see the light of the Chanukah candles (“she’asa nissim”). Generally no berachah is required when one merely watches someone else perform a mitzvah. We don’t make a berachah when we see someone eat matzah, or eat in a sukkah or put on tefillin. Only on Chanukah is there a requirement for those who do not light the candles themselves, but just watch the candles, to recite a berachah of their own.
There are thus two aspects to the Chanukah candles: the hadlakah—the active mitzvah of lighting the candles and the reiyah—witnessing the light of the candles, and recognizing what they represent. Both are equally important and equally holy.
It struck me that we all can participate in the holy work of NCSY, each in our own way. There are those—the remarkable, dedicated professional staff of NCSY, supported by hundreds of our finest young men and women who serve as NCSY advisors—who directly light the flames of Yiddishkeit in teens who have lost all contact with their Jewish identities.
Recently, a young NCSYer from the Midwest wrote:
When I was young, Judaism was something to which I simply was never exposed. I was never given the opportunity to encounter the traditions that even secular young Jews [know about]. Instead, we would go to my father’s family for meals on Christmas and Easter, and make multiple trips to Sunday Mass at our local church as well. I was well aware that my mother was Jewish, but my father was Christian and his religious commitment took precedence at home.
I went to Israel for the first time on an NCSY Summer program called TJJ. While on TJJ, I got to explore Israel and learn new concepts like kashrut and tzeniut. Soon thereafter, I decided to start keeping kosher, and began dressing in accordance with Jewish law.
I decided that public school might not be the ideal place for me. A lot of my friends from TJJ studied at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago and with the help of my grandparents and NCSY, I spent my last two years of high school at Ida Crown.
To understand the true miracle of Yarchei Kallah, some context is required. Recently, noted sociologist Dr. Steven M. Cohen authored an article entitled “Which of Our Grandchildren Will Be Jewish in This Age of Intermarriage?” (The Forward, October 24, 2016). The article referenced the Pew Research Center’s report of the current intermarriage rate of 58 percent, and an even higher level of intermarriage—72 percent—if Orthodox Jews were excluded from the data. After studying the data, Professor Cohen concluded that for the intermarried adult children of intermarried parents, a mere 5 percent are raising Jews-by-religion children. Fully 68 percent of these third-generation children are being raised as non-Jews. In practical effect, over two thirds of the third generation of intermarriage are lost to the Jewish people. Professor Cohen concludes:
American Jews are trying to overcome overwhelming odds. We do ourselves no favors by minimizing, if not denying, the indisputable adverse impact of intermarriage on the demographic future of Jewry outside of Orthodoxy…
Not surprisingly, Professor Cohen’s detailed study of demographic data led to a follow-up article where he states:
The overall American Jewish population size is stable and growing, but its character is shifting dramatically. The Orthodox population is exploding. The non-Orthodox are in sharp decline . . . The growth of the Orthodox and the decline of the others means that the Orthodox “market share” has been soaring. Among the oldest generation, they rise to 5% of all Jews. Among the middle generation, they rise to 15%. And among children, the Orthodox are home to 27% of the total. Within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the Jewish population has more than quintupled. And it continues to grow (“Dramatic Orthodox Growth Is Transforming the American Jewish Community,” The Forward, December 19, 2016).
The results of this decline among the non-Orthodox Jewish population is startling: there are 461,000 non-Orthodox synagogue congregants among those ages 57 to 73. Among those ages 28 to 45, the number drops to 204,000—less than half. Among the non-Orthodox ages 56 to 73, there are 466,000 who report an emotional attachment to Israel. For the non-Orthodox ages 28 to 45, the number drops to 198,000. Similar declines are evident in virtually every other measure of Jewish identification—participation in Jewish organizations, enrollment in congregational schools, and so on.
I write this with no sense of triumphalism, but with enormous pain and sadness. Much as our co-religionists may seek to gloss over the inexorable, frightening implications of the data, they are real, and they make manifest the devastating impact of the tectonic forces of assimilation and intermarriage on our people.
Yet against this devastating backdrop, NCSY’s programming for unaffiliated public school teens stands as a bulwark, enhancing and inspiring Jewish teenagers’ sense of Jewish belonging, Jewish literacy, commitment and activity. Our Anne Samson z”l Teen Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), our signature summer program in Israel for public school teens, has achieved impressive results in encouraging young people from non-observant homes to undertake several features of traditional religious commitment and observance, and in fostering a genuine Jewish identity. For example, a recent study of ten years of TJJ participants noted that 61 percent of TJJ alumni participate in Jewish learning activities at least weekly. Ninety-three percent of the program’s alumni said that it was very important to them to date only other Jews; 76 percent said that it was very important to marry someone Jewish. More than 8 in 10 TJJ alumni stated that it was very important for them to raise their children as Jewish. When compared to the data on the overall non-Orthodox Jewish population presented earlier, these results are nothing short of extraordinary.
The story is told of a man who sued a railroad because his car was crushed by an oncoming train and the flagman, whose job it was to warn away motorists, had failed to do so. The flagman, however, testified during the trial that he had waved the lantern at the crossing, and the railroad was, on the basis of his testimony, acquitted of any liability. After the trial, the railroad’s attorney asked the flagman why he had been so nervous and jittery during his testimony, since everything appeared so clear and so obviously favored the company. The flagman replied, “Because I was afraid they were going to ask me if the lantern was lit!”
We needn’t share the concern of the flagman. Our candles are lit for tens of thousands of NCSYers each year. As one Yarchei Kallah participant summed up his reaction to the week: “I love being Jewish, and I love the Jewish people.” So we all need to make a second berachah— she’asa nissim l’avoteinu, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh—as we watch the light of our collective efforts shine, as we witness the miracles being achieved each day. Every one of us shares in these miracles. We enable them. We contribute to them. We make them possible.