Gone are the days of saddle shoes, jukeboxes, love beads and disco. Ultimately, even Facebook will suffer the same fate. Teenagers grow up; rages fade. With one exception. NCSY.
Six decades strong, NCSY continues to make traditional Judaism inspiring and relevant to teens, no matter what era.
Back in the 1950s, when many American synagogues were filled with Jewishly uninspired baby boomers, OU National Secretary Harold Boxer and his wife, Enid, encouraged the OU to embark upon a bold endeavor: the creation of a national Orthodox synagogue youth movement. Fred Rabhan and Rabbi Abraham Rosenberg, communal leaders from Savannah, Georgia, attended the 1954 OU Convention to help promote the idea. At the convention, a resolution was passed to launch NCSY. And so, a new movement was born that would change Jewish teens forever.
In October of 1955, Savannah welcomed NCSY’s initial chapter. For the first time, public school and yeshivah students came together to connect to the joys of Judaism in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Over time, more chapters were created, as were more regions. Thanks to the vision, genius and resolve of Harold Boxer, Jewish teens from struggling Jewish communities across the nation began to meet other teens from similar communities with similar challenges. Together, through NCSY, they imbibed the words of Torah and grew spiritually, well beyond anyone’s—perhaps even Harold Boxer’s—expectations.
“The American Jewish community was coming of age; the question was how affiliated was it going to be,” says Rabbi Moshe Krupka, who held senior positions within the OU and NCSY and is currently Touro College’s executive vice president for college affairs. Back then, says Rabbi Krupka, many of the kids were yearning or more meaningful religious experiences and ended up forging a new spiritual path not only for themselves, but oftentimes for their families as well. “There was a whole new generation of kids who didn’t want to be just ‘Yom Kippur Jews.’” For these kids, NCSY was a godsend.
Making do on a shoestring budget, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, NCSY’s first national director (whose proposed annual salary was $7,500), began his pioneering work with a secretary and a team of volunteers. Across the country, shul rabbis and rebbetzins served as the NCSY advisors. “If you were lucky, you had a frum teenager who could lead a chapter,” says Vivian Luchins, who joined New York’s Woodridge Chapter in the Sullivan/Ulster Region in 1961. (She now serves as vice chair of the OU’s Youth Commission, which oversees NCSY.) The success of the fledgling movement depended entirely on the devotion and determination of small community rabbis and youth directors in the Midwest, Southern and Upstate New York Regions.
The initial NCSY chapters began reaching out to Jewish youth who attended public school. Kids with day school backgrounds also joined. To all of them, NCSY was home.
“[In those days], your best friend wasn’t the kid next door,” says Yaakov Kornreich, then a member of the Southern Region’s Miami Beach Chapter. “It was the kid you met at NCSY events who lived a few states away. [Shabbatons] were an opportunity to connect with other NCSYers from all over and experience the ruach of Shabbos together. For us, it was me’ein Olam Haba.”
At Rabbi Stolper’s urging, the teens took on leadership roles, and were responsible for planning all the programs, such as bowling and picnic get-togethers, as well as Shabbatons and regional and national events.
“The Jewish leaders who have emerged from NCSY are countless,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Marchuck, director of Alumni Connections at the OU. “These leaders received their training during their high school years as chapter board members in NCSY.”
“If NCSY has demonstrated anything over the past six decades, it’s the ability to adapt.”
In the early years, the majority of the participants—both frum and unaffiliated—attended public school, yet they all belonged to Orthodox synagogues. NCSY’s chapters were synagogue-based; Shabbatons were held and the shuls assisted by providing food and arranging housing. “In its formative years, the primary unit of organization was the synagogue,” says Allen Fagin, chairman of the OU’s Youth Commission. “That’s where you found Jewish teens.”
How does NCSY manage to speak to teens from diverse backgrounds? How does it stay relevant? Below are some of the key elements that have made the movement the phenomenal success it is.
The critical role of advisors. Advisors are young religious men and women, mostly college age, whom the teens can relate to and admire.
“In life, people need role models in order to understand who they can become,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY from 2005 to 2012 and the current eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “That’s a crucial role the collegiate volunteers have played throughout the years.”
Moreover, there is no substitute for the personal relationships formed between advisors and NCSYers. “There’s no shortcut when it comes to outreach,” says Allen Fagin, chairman of the OU’s Youth Commission. “Outreach is a one-on-one activity.”
The NCSY Shabbatons. These weekends offer a unique combination of fun, ruach and spiritual connection. At the same time, they provide a space for teens to express their Judaism in a warm and tolerant atmosphere. They also get to interact with teens from diverse Jewish backgrounds in an open and accepting environment.
“Any Jewish experience we give them, they experience without heavy-handedness,” says Rabbi Micah Greenland, current international director of NCSY. “They can incorporate whatever aspects [of Judaism that] resonate with them, without feeling they’ll be judged for what they do or don’t do.”
Making Religion Cool. NCSY makes keeping Torah cool. “Someone could get up [at a Shabbaton] and talk about the experience of wearing tzitzis or keeping Shabbos for the first time and be cheered, not heckled for it,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, former international director of NCSY from 2005 to 2012. “At NCSY, what makes you cool is excelling in spirituality.”
The Power of Torah Study. One cannot overestimate the effect of pure, unadulterated Torah study. For thousands of years, traditional Judaism has been about learning and connecting to Torah. “NCSY provides multiple touchpoints for teens to experience the beauty of Torah,” says Rabbi Moshe Krupka, who held senior positions within the OU and NCSY and is currently Touro College’s executive vice president for college affairs.
Respecting Teens. Teens are given significant leadership roles in NCSY, enabling them to essentially “run” the organization. “Teens want to be treated like mature decision makers,” says Rabbi Greenland. “That’s been the commonality throughout the different decades and eras. We respect teens, and that’s been the key to their growth.”
“There were cities we used to go to on Wednesdays and make a mock Shabbaton,” says Rabbi Krupka. “It was practically impossible to hold a Shabbaton on Shabbos itself [in those cities] because the chillul Shabbos was rampant. There was no place to stay; there was not a single shomer Shabbos family in the whole community. Some of the teens from those events, however, are rashei yeshivah today.”
Those “Wednesday Shabbatons” were powerful. “There were kids who became shomer Shabbos, went on to learn in yeshivos and are being mashpia today countless future generations because of a Shabbaton that took place on a Wednesday night,” says Rabbi Krupka. “Once the kids got inspired, they wanted the real thing.”
Moving Away from the Synagogue
Noting the dearth of Jewish literature for the English-reading public, NCSY began publishing books by famed thinker Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and also came out with The NCSY Bencher, which has been translated into numerous languages including Russian, Hungarian and German. To date, The NCSY Bencher, edited and translated by David Olivestone, has sold well over two million copies, making it one of the best-selling Judaica publications of all time.
As Jews began moving to the suburbs, the synagogues started emptying out. Young people could no longer be found in shul. NCSY had to look elsewhere to find new recruits.
So NCSY went where the unaffiliated Jewish teens could be found, launching Jewish culture clubs (now known as JSU, Jewish Student Union) in the eighties. With more than 200 clubs, JSU offers thousands of unaffiliated teens a great way to enjoy Jewish camaraderie, free pizza and an opening to other NCSY programs.
“If NCSY has demonstrated anything over the past six decades, it’s the ability to adapt,” says Fagin. Indeed, the ability to shift focus and change directions has been one of the secrets behind NCSY’s extraordinary success.
It moved its programming from synagogues to more neutral, less threatening coffee shops for “Latte and Learning” Torah sessions. And when it became apparent that summer experiences could have much more of an impact than Shabbatons, NCSY shifted gears once again and began beefing up its array of summer programs. “If you can get a kid for five or six uninterrupted weeks as opposed to seventy-two hours at a Shabbaton, it is so much more impactful,” says Rabbi Steven Burg, who served as international director of NCSY from 2005 to 2012 and is currently the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Israel in and of itself has a tremendous power to affect someone spirituality.” This summer, NCSY hopes to bring around 1,000 teenagers to Israel.
“JOLT [Jewish Overseas Leadership Training] was cool in the eighties,” says Rabbi Krupka about NCSY’s summer program that brings young people to Eastern Europe. “In those days it wasn’t so common for kids to travel overseas for the summer, and it was novel to go to a hotel [for Yarchei Kallah, NCSY’s weeklong Torah study program that takes place over winter break]; today it’s routine.”
NCSY has continued to evolve in other ways as well, especially with regard to its professionalism. Once led by volunteers, the largest and most effective Jewish youth organization in the world currently boasts a staff of approximately 150 with a volunteer staff of roughly 500, who run programs in 200 cities throughout North America.
“The expectations that people have of NCSY, the communication, accountability and quality of programming are all much greater today,” says Rabbi Micah Greenland, current international director of NCSY who was a former NCSY national president. “That’s a direct outgrowth of having full-time paid staff running the programs.”
In recent years, sustaining and strengthening the connection to NCSY alumni has become a priority. Now, when teens graduate from NCSY, the OU stays in close touch and links them to authentic Jewish programs on and off college campuses. “Leaving high school and entering college can be a very confusing time,” says Rabbi Marchuck. “We work with kids in the twelfth grade and their freshman year of college to help connect them to programs on the campuses [they choose to attend] so that they will have that anchor to Judaism.”
Learning From Your Mistakes
Sixty years don’t go by without some hard-earned lessons. A newspaper report in 2000 revealed that years of complaints of inappropriate, abusive behavior by an NCSY employee had not been adequately addressed and a number of teens suffered as a result. An extensive internal investigation followed, concluding that profound errors in judgment had been made over a period of years, and complaints and warning signs had been ignored. The report proposed numerous changes in policies, guidelines and procedures. Several top NCSY and OU leaders were forced to leave the organization.
Today, almost fourteen years later, the heightened sensitivity born out of those events continues unabated. The OU’s top priority is the safety and well-being of all students, volunteers and staff and all program participants are empowered and encouraged to anonymously report suspected misconduct. Noted therapists and other prominent professionals regularly train staff and advisors for NCSY, Yachad—The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, our Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) and other programs. They cover topics such as preventing and reporting sexual abuse. Strict guidelines for proper behavior are published online and updated regularly and, even more importantly, are strictly enforced.
OU programs today are a model for proper compliance practices and zero-tolerance for inappropriate behavior by anyone interacting with our youth.
Determined to remain cutting edge, NCSY will be changing focus once again, putting a lot more resources into enhancing its online presence. “Kids are online and [NCSY] has to go where they are,” says Rabbi Burg.
“There was a period of time when sports was the opening [that attracted kids]. Now it’s technology,” says Rabbi Marchuck. “NCSY talks to teens where they are at.”
Setting ambitious goals to reach the iPad Generation, NCSY hopes to develop engaging and Jewishly compelling online videos that speak to teens as well as online games that award points or rewards to users while bringing them closer to their Jewish roots. “The Jewish community as a whole has become irrelevant on that platform,” says Rabbi Greenland. “We need to become relevant in this arena, using mechanisms that reach kids.”
Elements of Success
Much has changed since the first NCSY chapter opened in Savannah almost six decades ago, but certain core elements of NCSY still remain, and perhaps always will.
“Teens today are seeking the same things that teenagers sought in the fifties, and they’re finding it at NCSY,” says Luchins.
While their methods of communicating with one another are markedly different today, teens continue to share the same essential need: to feel accepted and to experience a sense of belonging. The barriers to reaching teens haven’t changed much either.
“The challenge is the same, no matter what era,” says Rabbi Krupka. “It’s to professionally, with integrity, relate to a teenager so he can think about very mature subjects, like who he is, what is his connection to a larger people? The ultimate challenge is, how do you inspire a generation of youth that has so many other things vying for their attention and their allegiance?”
But NCSY has proven over and over that it excels at what it originally set out to do: to instill within young people a profound love and enthusiasm for Torah and mesorah.
Rabbi Krupka recently attended the NCSY Yarchei Kallah. “I saw Rabbi Micah Greenland [interacting with the kids] and I can tell you that the spirit, the motivation, the mission and the objective of NCSY is alive, well and thriving.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.