Over the last decade, scientific studies have revealed that humans are enjoying longer lifespans and increased vivacity in their later years. Thanks to regular exercise, balanced diets and healthier living environments, these days, individuals approaching age 60 are more likely planning their next adventures than their retirement.
Owing to strong, spirited leadership, consistent innovation and a warm and welcoming atmosphere, NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s consortium of trailblazing Jewish leadership and identity building programs for high school youth, is showing similar signs of vitality and longevity in its milestone 60th year.
The brainchild of New York City attorney Harold Boxer, NCSY was established as a support system for Jewish teens struggling with their religious identities in 1950s America. In 1954, Boxer persuaded several successful Orthodox youth movements in the Midwest, Upstate New York and the South to merge – under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham I. Rosenberg and Fred Rabhan – into a united national operation that would encourage synagogue involvement and develop Jewish enrichment programming for high school students across the country.
Citing the urgency with which Jewish connectivity programming needed to be established, numerous rabbis and lay leaders lent their support to the initiative and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth was born.
Following the installment of NCSY’s first full-time national director, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, in 1959, the organization took off, quickly becoming a household name and the premier Jewish youth organization in North America.
“Rabbi Stolper understood that NCSY would only succeed if teens felt like partners in the organization, if they could take on leadership roles and control their own destinies,” explains Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY.
“Empowerment and inclusion remain core components of the NCSY formula and are among the main reasons why we have been so successful inspiring teens from across the religious spectrum to celebrate their Jewishness.”
Over the last six decades, NCSY has provided more than 250,000 Jewish teens with opportunities to explore their heritage and connect with Jewish life in a warm and welcoming environment, including Shabbatons, Regional Conventions, Jewish Student Union clubs and a host of summer programs.
“The NCSY experience transforms teens into thoughtful, educated and passionate Jews, and provides them with quality role models, a network of friends with whom to forge lifetime relationships, and a strong link to Jewish history,” says Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the OU and a regional NCSY advisor in Upstate New York from 1984-89.
Now an international operation with a broader mission, NCSY runs 200 chapters across three continents and develops programming for two separate but equally important groups: unconnected public school students and teens within the Jewish school system. Through innovative social and recreational programs, NCSY helps both groups develop positive Jewish identities and become passionately committed to serving their Jewish communities.
“Only NCSY comprehensively addresses the unparalleled spiritual challenges facing our people, reaching both of these critical populations. We reach thousands of unaffiliated and under-affiliated Jewish kids across America with innovative Torah-learning programs and offer a wide range of summertime opportunities that appeal to teens at every level of observance,” adds Rabbi Greenland.
“We see the Jewish commitment of every single Jewish child as if is our responsibility — because, ultimately, it is.”
In recent years, NCSY has expanded its mandate even further, educating high school students about anti-Israel activity on college campuses so they will know how to respond when they are confronted with the issues firsthand.
In addition, the organization has developed social action programming that involves Jewish teens in charitable and service learning activities, such as natural disaster response, graveyard beautification programs, toy drives, and food distribution initiatives in an effort to teach them about core Jewish values and lay the foundation for a lifetime of community service and philanthropic giving.
Over the last 60 years, NCSY has inspired the careers of a multitude of educators, Jewish communal professionals and philanthropists. Additionally, scores of medical professionals, lawyers and entrepreneurs credit NCSY for everything from their Jewish observance to their leadership and public speaking skills.
“The ease I gained in interacting with people from a wide variety of backgrounds was really because of my NCSY experience. NCSY is not only a formative time in a young person’s life in the traditional respects, but can help positively influence your career down the line, as it did for me,” says Sarah Hofstetter, Global CEO of advertising agency 360i and a former Far Rockaway chapter NCSYer.
Marc Rohatiner, a partner at the law firm of Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin, who became active in West Coast NCSY in 1971, echoes the sentiment.
“I am a community activist, member of the AIPAC national council and Los Angeles Federation’s board, and president of my synagogue. NCSY was my first exposure to lay leadership, and I definitely got excellent training there. On a personal level, it’s where I made most of my long-lasting friends. It also introduced me to an Orthodox lifestyle. It wouldn’t have become my lifestyle if it wasn’t for NCSY.”
NCSY has become such an influential force in Orthodox Jewish life that even those who have never experienced a Shabbaton or a summer program can be sure that NCSY has touched their lives in some way.
Principals in Jewish schools across North America, many of them products of NCSY, incorporate techniques pioneered by NCSY into their curriculum. With over two million copies in print, the iconic NCSY Bencher has graced Shabbat tables across the country and is a staple at weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. And countless Jewish learning programs and resources have roots in NCSY.
Though NCSY’s stated mission is to “connect, inspire and empower Jewish teens,” it is clear that the organization has truly had an impact on us all.
“It is our hope that this 60th anniversary year will serve not only as an opportunity to reflect on the past six decades with pride and nostalgia, but also as an opportunity to set NCSY on a solid trajectory to even greater success in the future,” commented Allen Fagin, the Chairman of NCSY, former senior vice president of the Orthodox Union and former member of the Board of Directors of Lawyers Alliance of New York.
“Our community and the teens we seek to challenge and inspire deserve no less.”