Multi-Million Dollar Gifts Aim at Engaging Teens and Creating Dynamic Leaders
“I’d been to Israel once before, but my trip with NCSY’s TJJ [The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey] gave me a much greater appreciation of the beauty of the country and my religion,” says Jess Gur, a twelfth grader who attends public school in Toronto. “Before I became part of NCSY, I didn’t know who I was. When I went on TJJ, I became part of NCSY, and I found myself—and, of course, my Judaism.”
Getting kids like Gur to go on a transformative Israel summer program is a fundamental mission of RootOne, an initiative that aims to strengthen Jewish identity among North American Jewish teens. So it’s not surprising that RootOne recently awarded NCSY—which brought more than 1,760 teens to Israel this past summer—a multi-million dollar, multi-year grant.
“NCSY expertly understands the crucial role that Israel travel plays in the formation and strengthening of Jewish identity and pride among Jewish teens, especially among those teens who are under-engaged in Jewish life,” explains Simon Amiel, Executive Director, RootOne at The Jewish Education Project. “They came to us with a smart and ambitious vision to maximize both the number of teens traveling to Israel each summer as well as the impact those experiences have on the teens themselves. RootOne is thrilled to help make that vision a reality.”
The generous grant—the largest NCSY has ever been awarded—will provide vouchers for teens such as Gur to participate in NCSY summer programs in Israel, as well as fund year-round NCSY staff positions focused on Israel education, summer program recruitment and follow-up. Moreover, NCSY and RootOne are in ongoing discussions about how to grow TJJ, NCSY’s flagship summer program that takes public high school students to Israel, by hiring a greater number of Israel educators and by increasing the number of participants.
“We bring more teens to Israel for summer experiences than any other organization in the world. Our partners at RootOne are confident that if they want to grow the number of kids who have these valuable experiences, NCSY is the engine to drive that,” says Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY. “We are known for being an organization with the ability to impact the Jewish future, and for merging vision with execution at a high level.”
NCSY—Uniquely Ambitious and Visionary
Seeded by the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation, RootOne, which began investing in NCSY in 2020, is one of a few major donors who have recently made multi-million-dollar investments in the leading Jewish youth group. In 2021, NCSY was the recipient of a $3 million dollar gift from Becky and Avi Katz of Teaneck, New Jersey, to expand its highly successful JSU (Jewish Student Union) program. Shortly before that, NCSY received a $5 million gift from Felix and Miriam Glaubach of Bal Harbour, Florida, to launch a new, innovative teen leadership initiative.
No question, donors are taking note of NCSY’s uniquely ambitious and visionary approach to engaging Jewish teens. “We see big problems facing the Jewish community and we have the hunger and the solutions to address them,” says Rabbi Greenland. “We make no small plans. That is attractive to major donors.”
When Becky and Avi Katz decided to focus their philanthropy on bolstering Jewish identity in public school teens across the nation, they knew who to turn to. “NCSY’s unique breadth and depth in engaging nearly 30,000 participants each year makes it the go-to address for those seeking to impact and inspire Jewish teens,” says Mr. Katz.
Recognizing the tremendous untapped potential within NCSY’s JSU platform, the Katzes created The Katz Family Initiative. “Sometimes the challenge is to take a great idea and build it from scratch. Here we saw an opportunity to scale an amazing existing platform,” Mr. Katz says.
JSU is NCSY’s extracurricular club for Jewish teens who attend public high schools in the United States and Canada. With more than 300 clubs, JSU reaches some 12,000 teenagers annually, bringing them Jewish life and learning in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. “There’s nothing like JSU in terms of the scope and numbers of teens we reach,” explains Devora Simon, National Director of JSU.
“We can scale,” says Rabbi Greenland. “We have staff almost everywhere in the US and Canada, and that means that in virtually every case, we have an existing operation we can scale up. We are virtually never starting from scratch. That is what appeals to major donors.”
And because the Katzes wanted to hone in on leadership development for teens and young adults, the couple and NCSY were a perfect match. “Teen leadership is an area in which NCSY excels. While leadership development is not unique to NCSY,” says Rabbi Derek Gormin, Regional Director, West Coast NCSY and Dean of JSU Leadership Institute, “NCSY is incredible at it.”
“We are known for being an organization with the ability to impact the Jewish future, and for merging vision with execution at a high level.”
The Katz Family Initiative funds strategies designed to deepen the degree of engagement of JSU participants, including a JSU Presidents’ Conference, which brings teen leaders together for a national conference, and a teen leadership program that provides coaching and mentorship opportunities for club leaders.
Sharing a similar vision, Drs. Miriam and Felix Glaubach, originally from Great Neck, New York, aim to cultivate teen leaders in the Jewish world. Their generous gift of $5 million over five years established the Shevet Glaubach Fellowship, which empowers college-aged NCSY advisors to explore their roles as leaders in the larger Jewish community.
“Miriam and I feel that a gift to support NCSY in their work will help educate and train our Jewish youth,” says Dr. Felix Glaubach. “This is the best investment we can make to continue and perpetuate Jewish traditions.”
“For funders who are serious about driving Jewish impact, NCSY has become known as the place to invest,” says Rabbi Greenland. “With the generosity of visionary supporters, we dream big and can enact substantive change.”
Taking NCSY’s advisor engagement to the next level, the Shevet Glaubach Fellowship has Fellows working in small cohorts and partners them with communities across the United States. The young men and women collaborate within their teams to develop meaningful Jewish programming that acknowledges and addresses the particular needs of each community. Over the past four years, despite the pandemic—and a rigorous application process—the fellowship has grown from an initial group of fifty to the current cohort of 138 young adults.
But it’s not just NCSY’s expertise in teen engagement and leadership that attracts donors. The “secret sauce” that keeps the nearly seventy-year-old youth movement fresh and relevant to teens, according to Rabbi Greenland, is the organization’s impressive cadre of staff. “We have a massive platform of professionals across the country, with full-time staff in every major North American city,” he says of his team of 200 employees. “They are highly qualified, well trained and well managed. No other Jewish youth movement has that combination of quantity and quality.”
“Our staff is really well educated Jewishly, almost always coming with fourteen to eighteen years of formal Jewish education behind them, and really understands how to inspire teens,” says Rabbi Greenland. “We hire people who can build authentic relationships that educate and inspire, and then we plug them into a system filled with others who do the same. If a donor wants to make a difference to Jewish teens, these are the kinds of professionals they want to work with,” says Rabbi Greenland.
Rabbi Gormin concurs, stressing that a significant strength of NCSY is the connections it fosters. “Relationships are at the heart of everything we do,” he says. “The staff develops real relationships with students—and even their parents—getting to know the teens so we can best help guide them on their Jewish journeys.”
It’s the power of these authentic relationships that motivates staff to devote their careers to NCSY, and it’s also what attracts the investments of philanthropists looking to stem the tide of assimilation and to grow Jewish leadership for the future. Above all, it’s what speaks most profoundly to the teens themselves and keeps them coming back.
Thanks to the investments of changemakers like RootOne, the Katz family and the Glaubach family—alongside sustaining donors from around the country—thousands of teens like Gur are finding a place for themselves as proud members and leaders of Klal Yisrael.
Eli Raphael, the current NCSY National President, began his journey with NCSY as a student leader in his Dallas public school. “My original interest in starting a Jewish Student Union (JSU) club in my high school was almost selfish,” he recalls. “Of the few Jewish kids, none had much of a sense of Jewish pride or identity. They were hanging out at the Christian youth group because that’s what their friends were doing. I needed a safety net so that wouldn’t become me too.”
Now a high school senior, Raphael served on the Dallas NCSY Chapter Board and spent two summers in Israel on NCSY programs. He participated in JSU National Leadership Conferences and was instrumental in the formation of the first JSU Student Executive Board. After graduation in the spring, he’s planning to head back to Israel to learn in a yeshivah.
Raphael is proud to have helped grow and strengthen the community of Jewish teens in the Dallas area through creative programs and large-scale chesed projects he helped organize. He credits the guidance and support of the NCSY staff and advisors for encouraging him to follow his passion.
“From the beginning, NCSY made it okay to take risks,” he says. “The staff encouraged me to go the extra mile even though it was outside my comfort zone. Now I can see it’s not just about me anymore. I know I’m helping to build something special. The guidance and support and also inspiration I’ve found in NCSY has been instrumental in who I am today,” adds Raphael. “It’s the same for so many teens—and not only the leaders. I’m grateful for the resources NCSY provides teens to live their Judaism, to practice Judaism, and most of all, to love it.”