At the Forefront of the Baal Teshuvah Movement: The Beginnings of NCSY

In September 1959, the leadership of the Orthodox Union charged me with the responsibility of developing a youth movement in American Orthodox synagogues, knowing full well that such a venture had not previously succeeded. The resources available were minuscule: myself, a part-time secretary—little more. 

Few believed that it was at all realistic to expect youngsters in the “hinterlands,” dotted with Orthodox congregations on an assortment of levels—most communities then lacking a day school; where Torah observance was minimal; the Talmud Torah a failure; and where social dancing was the dominant youth activity—to attend a program where halachah was stringently observed and attend Torah study groups. Certainly no one expected them to return a second, third, and fourth time. 

None of the institutions, programs, support systems, special schools for baalei teshuvah or exciting personalities of [the 1990’s] rapidly expanding teshuvah movement then existed. But the work went forward, Progress was marked with notable speed. We were meeting a felt, crucial need. Soon additions were made to the staff.  

By January 1963, I was able to report in Jewish Life magazine:  

In the past two years, more synagogues and more of their young people were participating in youth programs than ever before. The key factor in this development was the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. “NCSY” has grown with unusual speed into a movement truly national in scope. Its chapters and regions function through the length and breadth of this country. The most notable aspect of the sudden response of congregations to this area of activity, however, is not simply numerical growth. Rather, it is the demanding character of the program—and the fact that the drive for its adoption rises from the teenagers themselves. 

The success of the program bears out the contention that teenagers can be true to a positive definition of the meaning and potential of adolescence. 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, kashrut, prayer, and study, and the whole Mitzvah concept, when presented within the context of their teenage sub-society.  

They are our core and leadership group. A substantial portion of the membership of NCSY comes from homes which are not religiously observant. It is among this element that the NCSY concept has met its decisive test.  

Thousands of boys and girls proved through their enthusiastic response that what they really want is a program for Jewish living, an environment of Torah, a path of return to the living traditions their parents in so many cases had forgotten or perhaps had never known. NCSY has grown beyond all dreams and expectations. The plans of yesterday have been attained and exceeded. Hundreds of congregations have established youth programs where none existed before.  

Most significantly, NCSY has become a rallying point for idealists willing to serve youth without compensation. Growth in numbers has been more than matched by NCSY‘s growth in quality and intensity.  

By 1969, NCSY could justifiably be called a “movement” of baalei teshuvah with a contagious, electric quality. Young people, we had found, are prepared to respond when the call is uncompromisingly clear. In its unique ability to sink grass roots in America’s great backyard, NCSY had demonstrated that American youth is in search of Torah.  

By 1980, the stream had grown into a flowing river. By then the teshuvah phenomenon merited broader analysis. The following represents a digest of my article in the Winter 1980-81 issue of Jewish Life:  

The teshuvah movement, still in its earliest stages, demonstrates that this generation has been entrusted with a unique opportunity which generations preceding ours did not enjoy. If our community is unable to adequately respond to the potential of this phenomenon, we are in danger of squandering a moment in history which offers Orthodox Jewry the opportunity to regain its dominant and pre-eminent position within the Jewish People. Once, my mentor, the late Ga‘on Rav Yitzchok Hutner, told me that the teshuvah phenomenon “represents an opportunity which arrives only once in many generations, offering the privilege to accomplish unusual and mighty tasks.”  

A TREND REVERSED  

The teshuvah phenomenon represents a reversal of the trend of disaffection and abandonment of tradition which characterized the past generations since “The Enlightenment.” That trend is now replaced by a new current which has turned the Orthodox Jewish community into a magnet which attracts rather than repels the disaffected and searching to the exclusion of all other ideologies, philosophies, and trends.  

In America, many tradition-minded Jews submitted to the emasculation of halachic practice by the Conservative movement, in the mistaken belief that an Americanized, “de-Europeanized,” Judaism which made fewer demands might be a factor in retaining the loyalties of Jewish youth. They would discover, to their dismay, that the next generation of American Jewish youth would have little appreciation for a watered-down, compromised religion which lacks passion and authenticity and is soft on commitment and consistency.  

Seen in this light, the teshuvah phenomenon is much more than an isolated development which has affected the Torah community during the past thirty years. It is a new, unanticipated major force which has the potential to transform the direction and fortunes of the entire Jewish People.  

By now, the teshuvah phenomenon has become the property of all of Klal Yisrael. Few believed me when I returned from NCSY events in the early ‘60s and told stories of young people from Upstate New York, Virginia, Texas, Chicago, the South, and Midwest and Western cities like Peoria, Kansas City, and Denver who had begun to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, were forming local Torah learning groups and wished to study in yeshivot. For years afterwards, despite the fact that the ten events of 1959 had become sixty events in 1962 and eighty in 1964, touching the lives of thousands of young people, there were still some who did not believe the stories, and perhaps to this day do not believe them. In time, there emerged entire communities of baalei teshuvah—as in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Providence, Memphis, and elsewhere. Suddenly, yeshivot began filling with baalei teshuvah and new yeshivot were created for them: in the United States, Yeshiva University’s James Striar School and Yeshiva She’or Yoshuv; and in Israel, Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, D’var Yerushalayim, Darchei Noam, Diaspora Yeshiva, N’vei Yerushalayim and others. Today, a large proportion of the students at Yeshiva University and as many as sixty percent at Touro College are baalei teshuvah. At Einstein Medical College there is a Talmud shiur attended mostly by baalei teshuvah. Educators often say, “I wish I could work exclusively with baalei teshuvah—they are so responsive, so quick, so receptive and so eager.”  

Entire communities have begun to feel the impact of the enthusiasm and devotion of the baalei teshuvah to learning and mitzvot. In becoming part of mainstream Orthodoxy, baalei teshuvah have injected a new vitality into the very community which encouraged and absorbed them. A fresh ferment of spiritual searching spearheaded by baalei teshuvah in our midst has shaken complacency and hopefully portends a process of renewal.  

STARTING THE PROCESS: PRINCIPLES OF REDIRECTING OUR YOUTH  

What were the educational principles, methods and goals which allowed for the success of the NCSY concept? The aim is to build within youth a resolve to reject that which is false in society and to identify with the Torah community through a commitment to the mitzvah life in practice and ideal. In this sense, the approach promotes and is associated with the natural rebelliousness of youth. Since their surrounding society is not religious, a healthy manifestation of the maturing process is channeled in favor of religious ideals and goals. Educationally, it functions as an all-encompassing youth society that seeks to capture the total person intellectually and emotionally, and to evoke the crucial decision to identify with Jewish life.  

Emphasis on experience, identification, peers, and environment has worked not only with young people from secular or indifferent home and school backgrounds, but also with yeshivah students, many of whom have admitted that they first became “religious” in NCSY.  

Intellectual probing is one of the few weapons that are of value to a youth society that disdains arbitrary and unreasoned dogmatism. It is for this reason that many “yeshivah dropouts” have “found themselves” Jewishly in NCSY, where thinking and questioning are encouraged instead of avoided. The Rebbe-Talmid, mentor-disciple principle, views the rebbe in loco parentis, charged not simply with imparting information to his pupil, but with educating him in the full sense—molding his character and his mind. He is not restricted to texts; all the world is his text. He is a living example; he teaches through deed, conduct, and attitude. He sets a tone; his actions are determiners of values. He represents the “do as I do, live as I live” philosophy. He is a text person, not a textbook.  

A second educational principle is that of experience and environment. Lacking a Jewish environment at home or in the street, parents send their children to a Jewish school. All too often, this is a weekday experience, in contrast to the historical pattern of Jewish life and Jewish schooling, where both environment and school related to the student during every day of the year. If education fails to reflect life, its joys and sorrows, ups and downs, of what value is it? Chumash and siddur have minimal force in the life of the young person who never shed a tear on Tisha B’Av or was freilich on Purim.  

A third, and possibly, overriding principle is the fellowship of one’s peers. Many of life’s strongest impressions are formulated in the presence of young friends. One dynamic, articulate, and popular adolescent can influence more young people than a roomful of rabbis.  

Why does one weekend in such a setting often evoke so powerful a response from young people?  

Adolescents—especially Jewish adolescents—tend to be passionate and uncompromising. Possessed of a penetrating intuition, they are quick to sense what is sham or hypocrisy. They recognize the genuine article. Our young Jews are searchers after truth, and with their newly discovered sense of Jewish purpose are capable of pursuing truth. Teenagers are often intensely mystical. They are willing to emulate a good adult model, but primarily look to outstanding peers for leadership. Above all, their growing maturity and independence make them respecters and pursuers of competence, of ability, of work, and of responsibility. The teenager is not yet set in his ways. He can be molded, influenced, inspired, taught and directed.  

Our premise here is that the Jewish teenager is hungry for Torah, unaware of this though he—and his elders—may be. But will young people actually accept a program of maximum commitment to Jewish belief and observance?  

The answer is yes—if the program is presented within the context of their own teenage world. Yes—if programming is keyed to the highest, not the lowest, denominator, refusing to treat youth like children, respecting their maturity, their questioning and inquiring minds. Thousands of boys and girls have proved through their intense response that this was precisely what they were looking for. The year-round mitzvah and Torah study programs which are so central a part of the NCSY concept, together with the much-remarked appeal of the movement’s many local, regional, and national get-togethers, have won a response which warrants much reflection. The setting is warm, friendly, invigorating. The faculty eats, sings, prays, and dances with the young people. They let their hair down, open their collars and relate as real people. Shabbat is lived, not only taught. Hundreds of teenagers have responded to this moving experience with, “I never knew Shabbat could be like this.”  

The entire experience promotes a sense of belonging and identification. The participant is involved on every level—rarely is he a spectator. Shiurim and discussions, “What It’s All About” and “What To Do—And How” sessions, soul-stirring and exhilarating dancing, thoughtful tales and contemplation and introspection to bring a sense of self discovery, awakening—and the “Jewish decision.” Seudah Shlishit and Havdalah are emotional high points that leave indelible impressions. Here they find the dynamic, fast-moving joy of youthfulness. Here exciting themes, bursting with Jewish values, interpenetrate the pattern of daily life. Here, in this coming together in a world of their own, is found that inexpressible ruach which bespeaks an inner universe discovered.  

The emphasis is on informal discussion groups, on searching, probing questions and answers. No questions are ever barred. Very often the answer is in itself less important than the realization that answers do exist. At our “Ask the Rabbi” sessions, participants are encouraged to ask any question in writing without signing their names. Generally we shun sermonizing and preaching; the emphasis is on environment and free, open discussion, discussion that brings understanding and knowledge, not guilt.  

The younger advisers, older than the participants by but a few years, concern themselves with asking questions, creating friendships, showing that they care. They listen to problems whether in the group or individual setting. Faculty and advisers are always accessible and available.  

Lest it be supposed that by the late 1960s the undertaking had been of no more than test-tube size, it should be noted that in one year, over seventy events of two-to-fourteen days duration were conducted for a total of 10,000 young people. Each boy donned tefillin at weekday morning services, and each participant, boy or girl, joined in Shacharit, Minchah, and Maariv services; fervently recited the Grace after Meals; attended study sessions; laved hands before meals; scrupulously observed the Sabbath; and participated in exuberant, soul-piercing, ruachdik social events—all marked by the absence of social dancing, beach parties, or the type of public social intimacy that American teenagers often take for granted. The aim is for the whole person; the appeal is to mind and soul, to intellect and emotion alike.  

If the average person were asked in September of ’59, “What one factor would make an American Orthodox youth program most likely to fail?” he would point to one word: tzniut. Over the earlier years, strenuous objections were repeatedly expressed in some quarters to NCSY’s emphasis on tzniut—a strictly enforced ban on social dancing or mixed swimming at regional or national events. In the early years, there were cases of stormy meetings of adult leaders who were sure that an American Orthodox youth program would fail if it adhered to high standards of tzniut. In a few instances, the adults, unable to decide whether or not to continue affiliation with NCSY, left the question to the kids, who invariably—and to the utter amazement of some—voted in favor of the policies of NCSY. This may reflect youth’s instinctive feeling that social dancing, with its sensuous overtones, is out of place in a Jewish religious setting, for few of them would have had much insight into the halachic rationales for this position. This policy, like others, is now accepted and observed as a matter of course in every one of NCSY’s hundreds of regional events.  

Someday it may be possible to fully document this dramatic story. It would be replete with examples of lives revolutionized, of communities brought to new life; of non-mechitzah synagogues whose NCSY chapters sponsor regular minyanim in the beit midrash annex with a mechitzah, and young people struggle against all odds to become Jews, while in the main sanctuary sit a few elderly persons, trying their best to be real Americans. Well may one ponder the future of these synagogues where we can envisage the picture of “Vena‘ar katan noheg bo”—“A lad will lead the elders.”  

The classic example is that of a sixteen-year-old Philadelphia girl whom I overheard tell a fellow NCSYer: “I went to Talmud Torah and learned many things, but they never taught me any religion. I never bentshed once, before I came to NCSY.” 

During the past four decades, NCSY has continued to refine its methods. There is greater emphasis on formal education, and an elaborate complex of specialized educational programs and modules has been developed—all based on the initial insight that when properly challenged, youth will respond.  

Rabbi Pinchas Stopler, zt”l, was executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. 

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This article was featured in the Fall 1994 issue of Jewish Action.
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