By Martin Nachimson
This year we celebrate a momentous occasion: the sixtieth anniversary of NCSY. To truly appreciate the enormous contribution NCSY has made to strengthening Orthodox life in America, we must take a trip back in time, to America in 1954, the year of NCSY’s birth.
In the 1950s, Orthodoxy in America was fragile. In many cases, children came from homes where the parents were Holocaust survivors, traumatized immigrants struggling to find their way in a strange land. They were eager to Americanize, and had difficulty conveying the significance of religious life to their American-as-apple-pie children. Across the country, the decline of Orthodox Judaism was apparent, especially among the youth.
What will become of Judaism? This was the question leaders of the Orthodox Union asked back in the 1950s. (Sadly, this same question haunts us sixty years later, as the recent Pew Report indicated. But that’s for a different article.)
At the OU convention in 1954, a resolution was passed that would, over time, address the escalating assimilation among the youth: the creation of a national youth movement. And so, due to the vision and persistence of OU National Secretary Harold Boxer and his wife, Enid, NCSY was born; and for those fortunate Jewish teens who have been touched by NCSY, their lives have never been the same.
Who needed to be reached? Certainly the unaffiliated teens. But there were also young people who had knowledge of Judaism but no passion for it. There was an emerging day school movement, but informal Jewish education was virtually nonexistent. NCSY realized it needed to teach kids about Judaism, but more important, it needed to teach kids to love Judaism. The fledgling youth movement introduced the “NCSY Shabbaton”—an incredibly impactful weekend where kids would experience Shabbat as they never had before. It introduced teams of advisors, inspired young adults who could serve as role models, as well as the innovative idea that the movement should be run for and by the kids. Teens would lead the minyanim at Shabbatons, they would decide the programming, they would be given the reigns to make NCSY their organization.
But despite these forward-thinking ideas, the new movement faced many challenges. It had to remain firm and uphold halachic standards in the face of opposition. NCSY leaders refused to host events that would feature social dancing or include services without a mechitzah. Shul members were skeptical: would the young people come if there was no social dancing? If there was a mechitzah?
They came. By the hundreds. Eventually, by the thousands.
Despite the fact that NCSY was run mostly by volunteers and had an extremely limited budget, the movement exploded. NCSY entered shuls across the country, and slowly but surely transformed families, congregations and entire communities.
“There is hardly a major yeshivah in the country that doesn’t have its dorm room of former NCSYers,” stated an article in the OU magazine Jewish Life in 1969. What would we say today—decades and thousands of teenagers later? NCSY graduates are at the forefront of Orthodox Jewish life today. Many are respected talmidei chachamim, rabbanim and community activists who have changed the American Jewish landscape in profound ways.
NCSY blazed a new trail, helping to spur the teshuvah movement and guide others in the nascent kiruv world. Look around, and take note: quite a few of the heads of kiruv organizations have their roots in NCSY.
The impact this organization has had on frum life is inestimable. I do not say this boastfully. We cannot take the credit for NCSY’s extraordinary success, or for the fact that it reaches more than 20,000 teens annually in the US, Canada, Israel, Chile, Argentina and Germany through its diverse array of programming. Baruch Hashem, OU leaders had the foresight and vision to realize the pressing need for a youth movement and to create one. But credit must be given to the teens themselves, who, despite significant obstacles, sacrificed and persevered. With the support of their peers and advisors at NCSY, these courageous teens began keeping Shabbat and kashrut, exhibiting remarkable spiritual fortitude and determination.
The story of young people returning to their roots occurs in NCSY chapters throughout the country over and over again; amazingly, it’s a story that never grows stale. For with each teen who decides to embrace a religious lifestyle, we can be assured that a new Torah home will be established and new generations of Torah Jews will have NCSY to thank.
We at the OU are honored and privileged to continue to carry on the NCSY torch and to ignite the hearts of teens throughout the world.