The Faithful Youth of NCSY: Quantifying the Dream

By Nina Ackerman Indig

“In its unique ability to sink ‘grass roots’ in America’s great backyard, NCSY has demonstrated that American youth is in search of Torah.”

These words were penned in 1969 by the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Pinchas Stolper in a Jewish Life article assessing the impact of the organization’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth over the ten years since its inception in 1959.

Today, nearly 30 years later, Rabbi Stolper’s optimistic, somewhat prophetic vision of the then impending teshuvah movement and the positive influence of an Orthodox youth movement has been borne out by the results of a $382,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the largest private foundation in America.  This independent report, titled Faithful Youth:  A Study of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, is based on an exhaustive survey of more than 1,000 former members of NCSY.  In it, a strong correlation is drawn between increased (or, at the least, not decreased) religious affiliation, observance and outlook, and membership (especially active involvement) in NCSY.

[Adolescence] is the age of turmoil, challenge and potential danger.  There is no other stage in life where the possibilities of finding one’s self and the threat of losing one’s self loom so large.  This is the age in which boys and girls define themselves vis-à-vis their environment, religion, and society; the time for developing a self-image; a time to answer the all-important questions:  Who am I?  What am I?  What will I be?

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, “What Does Jewish Youth Really Want?” Jewish Life, 1963

The NCSY questionnaire asked the equivalent of:  Who are you?  What are you?  Where are you coming from, and where are you going?  What influenced you to be what you are today?

In Faithful Youth, Dr. Nathalie Friedman, the principal investigator for the Lilly Study, discusses the background and methodology of the survey.  She describes the extensive efforts made to locate alumni/ae due to the lack of an official NCSY membership roster.  Lists were obtained from the Orthodox Union and NCSY offices in the United States and Israel, NCSY regional directors and chapter advisors, and synagogue rabbis.  Advertisements were placed in various publications and on college campuses, requesting NCSYers to identify themselves.  Questionnaires were mailed to a random sampling, and following an initially disappointing return, a second mailing was undertaken, as well as telephone interviews to some of the non-respondents.  The overall response rate was 27%, or 1,070 responses.

Comparison of the responses of those who had returned the actual questionnaire by mail and those who initially had not, and were subsequently contacted by telephone, revealed significant differences.  The mail respondents tended to be those who were more active in NCSY, had been in the organization over more years, had been members of NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society, and were currently more observant and Jewishly involved.  However, the telephone respondents yielded a larger proportion of younger alumni/ae.

Many variables were examined in the Lilly Survey.  Age, gender, type of high school attended, post-high-school Jewish and secular education and the perceived effects of same on religious observance, level of observance in the home during the high school years, current level of observance (measured both by asking specific questions regarding ritual observance and by a self-assessment scale of religiosity), visits to Israel, attitudes about specific religious and moral beliefs, opinions about issues such as pluralism, homosexuality, and government aid to non-public schools, and more.  These questions helped establish a portrait of the individual in high school and today.  Then questions about NCSY membership were asked:  length of time respondent “belonged,” level of activity, awards received, membership in the honor society, leadership, modules attended (e.g. Shabbaton, Teen Torah Center, Israel Summer Seminar, National Convention) and opinions of them, chapter size, likes and dislikes (of leaders, peers, rabbis, perceived focus of the organization), opinion of the NCSY experience, among others.  These questions painted a picture of the respondent’s relationship to NCSY.  The personal data and NCSY-related information were processed, arranged and rearranged in many forms, tables and charts to yield valuable information about the possible effects of NCSY on its members, as well as ways to improve or change the organization to increase its efficacy in meeting its goals.

The portrait that emerges of the NCSY alumni/ae is of relatively young (mean age:  26), stable, educated, gainfully employed, religiously affiliated, Zionistic and civic-minded people.  Not only does the former NCSYer tend to rank higher in matters of religious observance, perception and affiliation, but he or she also portrays many other qualities that are considered positive by American society as a whole.  To help understand the implications of the responses, statistics were provided in the report comparing responses of the NCSY alumni/ae to those obtained from a sampling of Jews from the general American population (1990-91 National Jewish Population Study/ NJPS).  A comparison of some of the findings is startling:

  • 92% of NCSY alumni/ae (compared to 38% of NJPS sample) said they were affiliated with a synagogue.
  • 72% of alumni and 48% of alumnae (compared to 9% of NJPS men and 6% of women) attend services once a week or more. Only 4% of NCSY respondents (compared to 26% of NJPS men and 23% of women) rarely or never attend synagogue.
  • 74% of the total NCSY sample considers itself Orthodox, with a significant shift to stricter observance since high school. (58% of former NCSYers say they are more observant than the way they were raised; 27% the same; 15% less.)  Of those claiming to have been Orthodox in high school, 94% are Orthodox today, 3% Conservative.  In contrast, among the NJPS sample the religious fall-off rate is much higher.  Of those raised Orthodox, only 30% say they are presently Orthodox, 40% Conservative and 18% Reform.
  • Of those NCSY members considering themselves Conservative in high school, 21% now consider themselves Orthodox, as do 10% of former Reform or Reconstructionist Jews. Two-thirds of the other Conservatives remained Conservative.  In contrast, among the NJPS sample, only 1% of those raised Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist identified as Orthodox when the survey was taken.
  • 6% of former NCSY members made aliyah, compared to 1.7% of the NJPS respondents.

Although many of the alumni are still single, among those who ever married, the divorce rate is an astonishingly low:  3% compared to13% in a corresponding age group in the NJPS survey (which, in turn, has a low rate compared to the general American population).  Many of the alumni are still full- or part-time students, but among the older alumni/ae, a high level of education has been attained, with 90% having completed college, one in three possessing graduate degrees, and at least one in five acquiring professional degrees.  One in three is working in a Jewish field, but most alumni/ae work in the secular world and more than half belong to, or are active in, secular organizations.  (The percentage of members in Jewish organizations is even higher.)  Although the more religious alumni/ae tend to socialize within a relatively small circle of people who are of similar religious status as themselves, in no way can it be inferred that the NCSY alumni/ae are insulated from the modern world.  They may live different lives from many other Jews, but they are firmly rooted in the general North American community.

Young people will accept and are accepting a program of maximum commitment to Jewish belief and observance, to the demands of the laws of Sabbath, Kashruth, prayer and study, when presented within the context of their teenage sub-society.

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, ibid.,1963

In 1959, it was considered a ludicrous idea that an Orthodox youth organization stressing Torah values such as modesty, Shabbat observance and Torah learning would appeal to Jewish teenagers coming from non-observant or minimally observant backgrounds.  Jewish youth groups abounded, but they were not run under Orthodox auspices.  Consequently, in many a synagogue, youth groups sponsored activities not based on Torah values and halachah.  In a bold, revolutionary move, NCSY was established as an organization which would not compromise on Shabbat, kashrut, modesty and others matters of halachah.  Contrary to the expectations of many synagogue leaders (adults who expected resistance from the teenagers), the youngsters bought into the new experience.  The rest, as they say, is history, and today NCSY is one of the largest Jewish youth movements in America.

Over the years, copious anecdotal material pointed to the success of the movement.  The Lilly Survey provides the facts and figures to support NCSY’s claims of effectiveness in attracting Jewishly at-risk youth to Orthodox Judaism, as well as strengthening the religious identity of youngsters from more observant backgrounds.

The Lilly Report cannot state conclusively that membership in NCSY is the overriding factor leading to increased Jewish observance, but it does indicate a strong correlation.  Other studies have also cited a strong correlation between membership in youth groups and an increased awareness of Jewish identity.  One such recent survey is the one conducted for Young Judaea, Hadassah’s youth organization,[1] to show how membership in Young Judaea, a non-denominational Zionist youth group, has a high correlation to Jewish awareness and in-marriage relative to the general Jewish population.  For its own purposes, the Young Judaea survey compared the results of its survey to weighted data obtained from the 1997 National Survey of American Jews[2] – which, in turn, was conducted to show that members of a Jewish Community Center showed more Jewish awareness than did the general population not affiliated with a JCC.

The demographics of these studies vary, and the results, therefore, cannot be directly compared with statistical accuracy.  For example, the NCSY study deals with a relatively young population, many of whom considered themselves Orthodox in high school.  Although many of these teenagers attended public schools, their synagogue affiliation, level of ritual observance in the home, or NCSY influence in their high school years made them describe themselves as Orthodox.  Former members of Young Judaea come from various backgrounds and include a contingent of older people.  Also, the organization considers itself to be pluralistic as regards affiliation with any particular “stream” of Judaism, and stresses Zionism rather than religion as the prism through which all matters Jewish are seen.

With the above caveat in place, the following chart indicates that affiliation with a Jewish group or youth group is correlated to higher levels of Jewish awareness and identity, even in-marriage and certain rituals.  However, membership – especially active membership – in NCSY , an Orthodox Jewish youth group, has been shown to closely predict not only Jewish awareness, affinity to Israel, and a tendency to socialize with (and marry) Jews, but also higher levels of ritual observance than in any of the other studies, as well as greater personal religious growth.

 

 

 

NCSY

 

YOUNG JUDAEA

 

1990-91 NATIONAL JEWISH POPULATION SURVEY

 

1997 NATIONAL SURVEY OF AMERICAN JEWS

 

Married Jews   98%   95% (91% of alumni under age 40)   48%   77% (Only 60% agreed that “Jews should marry Jews”)  
                   
Use separate meat and dairy dishes

 

  84%

 

 

 

 

  44%

 

 

 

 

  16%

 

 

 

 

  15%

 

 

 

 

 
                   
Belong to synagogue   92%   79%

 

  38%   43%  
                   
Attend services   75% at least monthly (72% men, 48% women, at least once a week)   58% at least monthly   27% at least monthly (9% men, 6% women, weekly)   21% (monthly)  
                   
Someone in household lights candles for Shabbat   81%   59%   20% (usually or always)   24%  
                   
Members of Jewish organization   69%   63%   17%   31%  
                   
Engage in regular Jewish learning   65% weekly   61% (no frequency noted)   ?   27% (no frequency noted)  
                   
Never visited Israel   15%   8%   69%   61%  
                   
More likely to have Jewish friends   nearly 60% say most of their close friends are Orthodox. (73-98% of Orthodox claim this)   64%   45% say most or all of their friends are Jewish   46%  
                   
  Children attend Jewish day school   60%: single-sex yeshivahs; 49%: coed day school; 10% Hebrew or Sunday school, or private lessons   36%   20-28%   12%
                   

…[Youngsters from observant homes]…are our core and leadership group.  The fact is, however, that a substantial portion of the membership of NCSY come from homes which are not religiously observant.  It is among this element that the NCSY concept has met its decisive test.

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, ibid.,1963

In 1963, Rabbi Stolper wrote about the power of NCSY to reach youth from non-observant homes.  In 1998, the Lilly study produced the following information about its older members,[3] those aged 26 or older, of whom 55% attended a public or non-denominational high school:

  • 89% are affiliated with a synagogue.
  • 73% are more observant today than while they were in high school.
  • 68% spend time each week furthering their Jewish knowledge.
  • 91% agree that religious faith is important in their lives.
  • 96% fast on Yom Kippur.
  • 78% have been to Israel.
  • 67% of males and 42% of females attend synagogue at least once a week.

It is no longer news that among committed Jews, children are often more observant – more intensely Jewish, observing the law with greater fervor and vigor than their elders…This rule, I contend, could and does apply to the as yet unreached masses of American Jewish youth who are in the suggestible years.  Much more than recreational games and fun, they seek a behavioral framework, an answer to the question of being Jewish, a formula for growing into Jewish adulthood in a society which has no ideological goals but is busy breaking down the “old moralities.”

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, “Youth’s Positive Revolt,” Jewish Life, 1969

It is possible… that NCSY provides an environment that not only encourages greater adherence to ritual observance, but also emphasizes religious faith and Torah values that include attitudes toward such issues as homosexuality, sexual mores, and the like.

Dr. Nathalie Friedman, “Faithful Youth,” 1998

Even after all the interviews are completed, numbers crunched and reports written, questions remain.  For example, Dr. Friedman points out that:  “It may well be that teenagers who are most influenced religiously by the NCSY experience are those who tend to be particularly drawn to a religious atmosphere and to the emphasis on religious learning that NCSY seeks to provide for its participants during the high school years.”

She also discusses other factors which probably contribute to religious growth, such as parental influence and attending single-sex yeshivot which reinforce the NCSY teachings.  For the teenager from the public school, “The data strongly suggest that it is a high level of activity plus a strong cadre of close friends that predict the strongest impact of the NCSY experience.”

Dr. Perry Davis, whose firm managed the survey, was one of the speakers at the Professional Conference on November 11, 1998, at which the survey was presented.  He referred to NCSY as “an energizer that seems to lead to other Jewish identification activities after the NCSY years end…an important catalyst in maintaining and preserving Jewish continuity.”

The lessons learned from this survey can be applied not only to NCSY, not only to other Jewish organizations, but to youth organizations of other religions as well.  In a congratulatory letter from Christopher Coble, Program Director (Religion) of the Lilly Endowment, upon completion of the report, Mr. Coble states that “the findings about the importance of travel and retreat-type experiences in fostering religious commitment, for example, will help other organizations rethink their priorities and activities.”

It seems that the NCSY dream was not rooted in fantasy, but in a prescient understanding of the realities of mid-century American Judaism and the desire to avoid the downward religious spiral that seemed to be accepted by many as unavoidable.

“If we see to it that the dominant moving force in the Jewish teenage sub-society is Torah, if the NCSY program is given the top priority it merits, entire communities of youth will be able to weather the ‘storm of adolescence’ strengthened and prepared for tomorrow’s leadership tasks.  Otherwise we shall have abdicated our historic responsibilities to the omnipresent processes of assimilation and decay.”

Rabbi Stolper’s words of 35 years ago ring as true today as they did before the numbers pinned down the shape of that dream.

Nina Ackerman Indig is a freelance writer and editor from Far Rockaway, New York.

To obtain a copy of the full “Faithful Youth” Report and Statistics, send $10 to NCSY, c/o Orthodox Union, 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001.  A copy of the Executive Summary is available free of charge.  Contact ncsy@ou.org or call (212) 613-8289.

About Lilly Endowment, Inc.

America’s largest philanthropic foundation, Lilly Endowment, Inc. is based in Indianapolis, Ind. and is funded by the Eli Lilly family.  It gives annual grants totaling over $100,000 to support religion, education and community development, with special concentration on programs that benefit youth, develop leadership, promote public policy research, and help non-profit organizations become more self-sustaining.

Recollections: The Early Years

“He who speaks to but one generation speaks to the dead.”

By Rabbi Pinchas Stolper

The year was 1959:  I had just been appointed the new director of the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth.  My salary was $7,500.  I had a part-time secretary; there was no budget and no staff.  No one had a clue as to how to climb this tremendous mountain or how to level it.

At my first attempt at a National Convention following some ten months of events, Shabbatons and programs, 85 teens showed up.  Most of the small number of directors of  Orthodox synagogue youth programs around the country refused to cooperate.  On Thursday evening of that first convention in June of 1960, I met with the small group of synagogue youth directors who accompanied their delegations to inform them that NCSY would follow halachic religious standards:  mechitzot at every service, no mixed swimming, no mixed dancing; none of the cuddly socializing that was so typical of American teenage youth groups.  There was open rebellion.  Pandemonium.  The directors said that the kids will walk out.  The directors themselves threatened to pack up and take their kids home, rather than risk losing them.  I pleaded with them, “Please, give it a try our way, just once.”  It was already Thursday night, too late for them to leave.  They asked dubiously, “What will you tell the kids?”

“Trust me.”

On Friday morning after breakfast, I stood on a chair and made an announcement to the kids, nonchalantly inferring the separate gender activities:  “At 10:00, the boys will play baseball and the girls will go swimming.  Then after lunch, the boys will have a swim and the girls will play volley ball.”  There was a dead silence in the room.  I asked, “Any questions?”  No one said a word.  “OK, then,” I boomed,  “let’s all go to our first activity!”  It was in that moment of holy silence that NCSY was born.

In those early days, the one thing I heard most from rabbis, teachers, youth directors and professionals in the South, Midwest, West Coast and Eastern Seaboard was, “Rabbi, you’re a New Yorker; you don’t know what out-of-town is really like.  New York Orthodoxy won’t wash here.  What you’re attempting is impossible.”*

The Lilly Study has now chronicled how the impossible became eminently and excitingly workable.  After reviewing the full Report and the Executive Summary for the umpteenth time, the cumulative statistic of  the total percentage of NCSY graduates who continued or began their Jewish education during their college years is probably the most  telling and amazing statistic to emerge from the entire study.  82% of the total group of 1,070 who were questioned either began or continued their Jewish education following high school graduation.  But of the 26- to 44-year-olds, 86% continued or began their Jewish education following graduation from high school.  When the 26 and older group is divided into those who attended yeshivah high schools as opposed to those who attended public high schools or non-Orthodox private high schools, we find that 94% of the yeshivah high school students continued their Jewish education while, amazingly, 80% of the public high school graduates began their Jewish education either at Yeshiva University, Stern College or Touro College, a yeshivah in Israel, and for some, at the beit midrash programs that now dot the university scene in many outstanding colleges such as Columbia, Penn, Brandeis and Boston, where young people spend two, three, four or more hours in serious daily Torah study.

No other statistic tells the NCSY story better. The Master of nature and history had decided at that moment that the return to Judaism among our youth was to begin in earnest.

What is most fascinating is that it was the adult leadership of our synagogues and communities who were frightened, negative or doubtful and not without good reason.  The youth, however, knew nothing of their reservations, doubts, concerns or problems.  Teens came in ever growing numbers and had a wonderful time.  They came week after week, Shabbat after Shabbat, to event after event.  They yearned for leadership, for spirituality, for a joyful and spirited environment of Torah.  They wanted to take their Judaism authentic and unadulterated. In NCSY, we actually talked about God, insisting that Divine creation, revelation, salvation, providence and accountability are real.  I would often tell new NCSYers, “Either the Torah is true or it is a lie — there is no possible or acceptable middle ground.  Either we’re right or wrong.  And the most serious and important challenge of life is to determine in your own mind what the truth really is.”

What took place, without here chronicling the joy and suffering, without the hundreds of stories of youthful struggle and heroism,  statistically at least, is to be found in the Lilly report.

*Interestingly, while the smaller cities and communities were the first to abandon Orthodoxy, today we see that in many of those very same cities, creative solutions have been adopted:  a thriving day school, an NCSY chapter and a Modern Orthodoxy which retain its full commitment to Jewish law and observance.  The small city has for many become the ideal locale for the growth of authentic Orthodoxy and outreach.  A significant conclusion drawn from the Lilly Study is the need to be more sensitive to emphasize outreach in smaller communities and to continue to build NCSY infrastructure in small cities throughout the continent.

NCSY Today!

The special ruach of the NCSY experience reaches thousands of boys and girls in North America, Israel and Europe through educational events and programs in hundreds of Jewish communities.  Among these are Shabbatonim, seminars, regional and national conventions, leadership programs and special programs.  In addition, OU/NCSY has created:

Halacha Hotline

1-800-SOS-NCSY to learn a halachah a day and for information on regional and national programs

The Schottenstein Youth College

The totality of informal educational programming with a focus on Teen Torah Centers with tuition-free after-school programs of Jewish studies

Jewish Culture Clubs in Public High Schools

A weekly Jewish experience led by an NCSY advisor to encourage teens to identify as Jews and to join NCSY programs

Club NCSY

Local Shabbat experiences at the homes of NCSY friends and alumni

LAVE

Leadership and Values Education – video presentations to inspire Jewish youth to respond to current issues

Junior NCSY

Educational, social and religious programming for 6th-8th graders across North America

Leadership Training Programs

To prepare NCSY officers for their ongoing responsibilities

Yarchei Kallah — Public School/Yeshivah

Week-long intensive Torah study programs, on regional and national levels, for public school/yeshivah students

National Torah Fund Scholarships

Allocations made by National NCSY in support of Torah study for the year, or scholarships for National programs

Ben Zakkai Honor Society

Membership earned by outstanding achievement

Camp Sports NCSY

Learning and sports summer camp in Maryland for boys

Summer Experience for Girls

Learning, recreational and touring program in the Catskills

Israel Summer Experience

A four-week comprehensive co-ed tour of Israel for teens, usually from co-ed Jewish high schools

The Jerusalem Journey

A summer tour in Israel designed for Jewish teens with public school backgrounds

NCSY Summer Kollel in Israel

A learning and sports program for high school boys who wish to increase their commitment to Torah study and the Land of Israel through an intensive six-week educational experience

Michlelet NCSY for Girls in Israel

A learning experience augmented by sports, recreation and touring for high school girls who wish to increase their commitment to Torah study and the Land of Israel through an intensive six-week program

JOLT

Jewish Overseas Leadership Training – a summer experience in Poland, Ukraine and Israel

NCSY Joseph K. Miller Torah Center in Kharkov, Ukraine

Created by the OU Soviet Jewry Commission, the Center provides a yeshivah program for university men; Ulpana Torah study for women; a Sunday School for younger children; Ulpan Hebrew for adults; a Winter Torah Seminar; special holiday events and the Joseph K. Miller Summer Camp, partially staffed by NCSY leaders and JOLT participants.

OU/NCSY Sha’alvim High Schools in Kharkov

Vocational educational guidance

OU/NCSY Israel Center in Jerusalem

Numerous educational and social programs for English-speaking visitors and olim as well as outreach activities and social service programs for Russian olim.  Notable youth activities include Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs for Russian youth; Nitzotz, a vast network of student volunteers who work in a variety of settings with the disadvantaged; and Nesto, for New English-Speaking Teen Olim, to help youth cope with the process of aliyah.

NCSY-in-Israel

Designed to introduce Israeli youth to Jewish values and tradition.  Special programs for English-speaking olim, Russian/Ukranian olim and at risk Israelis youth

Yachad

Programs for youth with developmental disabilities

NCSY/Yachad Yad B’Yad Leadership Tours

Tours in Israel and the United States that combines leadership training and interaction with young adults who have developmental disabilities

Our Way

Program for deaf and hearing-impaired youth

New for Summer 1999

Camp NCSY West

Sports and learning opportunities for 6th -12th grade boys on a camp property in Big Bear, California

Camp NCSY Midwest Sports for Boys

A comprehensive learning, sports and adventure program near Chicago, designed for teens with all types of backgrounds

Canada Experience for Girls

Located in Camp Kennebec (Kingston, Ontario), the program for teens is designed to broaden Jewish awareness and knowledge through sports, learning and creative camp activities

[1] By Alan Ganapol of marketQUEST, Inc., in conjunction with Professor Steven M. Cohen, of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at the Hebrew University.

[2]Cohen for the Florence G. Heller – Jewish Community Centers Association Research Center.

[3]It should be noted that the mean age of respondents is 26.  One in three respondents are under 22 years of age; 43% are between 22 and 30; just 25% are over 30 years of age.

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This article was featured in the Spring 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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