* The following is a summary of the history of NCSY. It does not include all instrumental people and/or events that took place over the past 60 years.
How it all began: 1954-1969
NCSY — the youth movement that would gradually reshape the face of Orthodox Jewish life in America and beyond — began as an effort by rabbis and lay leaders to keep Jewish youth connected to their heritage.
The year was 1954 and Orthodox life in America was in a quiet crisis. As families rushed to declare themselves proud Americans, Jewish heritage and observance began falling by the wayside. Interest in an Orthodox Jewish life was waning. To combat this, New York City attorney Harold Boxer a”h had an idea: create a national Orthodox Jewish youth movement whose goal was to give teens the strength and support to enable them to lead fulfilling Jewish lives.
He detailed the idea for the first time at the 1954 Orthodox Union Convention. The idea wasn’t radical; similar Orthodox youth movements had proven successful in the Midwest, Upstate NY and most notably, the South — in Savannah, GA — under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham I. Rosenberg and Fred Rabhan. Boxer wanted to take these disparate movements and unite them on a national level. The organization would be called National Conference of Synagogue Youth, or NCSY for short.
While the idea was warmly received, success eluded NCSY in its first few years. Disorganization pervaded the movement, which lacked professional leadership, and teenagers just didn’t connect. This changed in 1959 when Rabbi Pinchas Stolper was chosen as NCSY’s first full-time national director.
Rabbi Stolper seemed like the perfect candidate for the job. He was eclectic, having received his rabbinical ordination from Rav Yitzchak Hutner at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, a BA from Brooklyn College and a Master’s degree in social work from The New School. His position prior to becoming NCSY’s national director was as a public relations officer for the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Israel.
Rabbi Stolper strongly believed that Jewish teens were looking for a path to deeper Torah observance, but had no roadmap to follow. Instead of shying away from creating an observant environment, he pushed hard for a ban on mixed dancing and stipulated that mechitzas be erected in shuls hosting NCSY events.
“The map of America could be redrawn if one only had the willpower and stomach to buck the tide,” Rabbi Stolper wrote at the time.
Perhaps most importantly, Rabbi Stolper realized that NCSY could only succeed if teens felt a self-ownership to the organization. He believed that teens were not only willing, but more than able to lead the organization and implement change. And so, he created “officers” in chapters and regions that would allow teens to become empowered through responsibility. In particular, members of NCSY’s national board traveled around the country, building pride in their new youth movement and recognition of their own capabilities.
After implementing Rabbi Stolper’s new ideas, success was almost immediate. Attendance increased at Regional Shabbatons and National Conventions. Rabbi Stolper began recruiting college students as advisors, including many students from Yeshiva University and Stern College for Women, to help guide and inspire the teens.
Despite all the early success, NCSY was still a fledgling organization that faced numerous hurdles from communal pressure to funding issues.
Song has always been an integral part of the NCSY experience, but Rabbi Stolper composed only one song during his leadership that is telling of those early struggles. One Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Stolper envisioned Lulei Toroscho, “Were it not for the sake of Your Torah, I would certainly have succumbed to my affliction.” The song was inspired by the fact that Rabbi Stolper was not sure how NCSY would manage to pay the National Convention hotel bill that weekend. But it seemed that his perseverance paid off. By 1970, NCSY had 670 young men and women in attendance at their annual National Convention.
Combating Challenges: 1970s
NCSY’s second full decade of existence began with both successes and trials. Many of the changes NCSY had insisted upon — mechitzas in Orthodox shuls and a ban on mixed dancing — were becoming regular fixtures in most of America’s Jewish communities. NCSY expanded into regions and chapters throughout the country, and the organization hired its first full-time regional director, Lee Samson, for West Coast NCSY, followed by Rabbi Baruch Taub for Southern NCSY.
In 1973, Lee Samson founded Camp NCSY, a month-long program for pre-teens and teens in Lake Sequoia, California. NCSY saw the value of summer programs, for unlike regular programming, summer camps offered extended opportunities to make valuable impressions on children. Other summer programs, including Israel Summer Seminar (ISS, currently known as ICE Israel) and Camp East (now Camp Sports), were also founded during this time.
The seventies also brought new challenges to Orthodox Jewish communities. Missionary groups, like Jews for Jesus and Hare Krishna, became highly active in proselytizing on college campuses, and many students still figuring out how to chart the course of their lives were susceptible to these outreach efforts.
Realizing what was at stake, Rabbi Stolper recruited an enterprising young physics graduate, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, to help turn the tide against this alarming trend. Rabbi Kaplan penned many works describing the everyday practices of Judaism and how to combat missionary tracts. He also helped train a cadre of advisors and chapter directors to counteract the missionaries.
“You will not win hearts to Torah by trying to convince people that the claims of Christianity are false,” Rabbi Kaplan wrote in the early 1970s. “Spend your time learning, teaching and explaining the meaning of the Torah and its mitzvot… Better still invite a person who is in search of religious value to a Shabbaton, or to your home for Shabbat. Let the truth and beauty of Torah and its way of life restore people to the right path.” This attitude would color the way NCSY staff reached out to potential and current members.
NCSY continued to gain support throughout the Orthodox community. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l wrote a strong letter on behalf of NCSY, calling NCSY “an organization dear to me and vital to the furtherance of Torah Judaism.” The Rav was the keynote speaker at NCSY’s 1972 National Convention and many prominent Roshei Yeshiva, including his brother Rav Ahron Soloveichik z”tl of Brisk, Rav Mordechai Gifter z”tl of Telshe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”tl of Ner Yisrael and Rav Henoch Leibowitz z”tl of Chofetz Chaim, spoke at NCSY events and urged their students to become NCSY advisors.
Staying Relevant: 1980s-90s
To stay relevant to Jewish life in the 1980s, NCSY had to change.
Beginning in the late 70s and the early 80s, Orthodox life in America had begun to shift. Talmud Torahs, the after-school Jewish learning programs that had sent countless teens to NCSY programming, began closing down. Parents felt that the institutions weren’t working and together with communal leaders, pushed to send children to full-fledged Jewish day schools and yeshivot.
The new kids that NCSY now needed to attract were public school teens who knew nothing about their heritage. Conversely, NCSY leaders also realized that there was an essential aspect missing from Jewish day school education: inspiration. And so, NCSY began to take these two approaches — outreach for public school students and chizuk and inspiration for the teens inside the Jewish school system.
This period also saw the launch of Michlelet and NCSY Kollel, two NCSY summer programs that provided intensive learning opportunities for yeshiva students in Israel. The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), NCSY’s most ambitious summer program, was launched in 1998. The trip took public school teens on an affordable trip through Israel and it quickly became one of NCSY’s most popular summer programs for public school teens.
The Rise of JSU Clubs: 2000s
In 2002, several public school students at a Beverly Hills high school emailed the Gush Etzion Yeshiva in Israel with a strange request: they wanted someone to help them start a Jewish club during the school’s club hour. They found the yeshiva by randomly googling Jewish terms. Gush Etzion, in turn, forwarded the email to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was down the block from the new office of West Coast NCSY. Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, brought the letter to the West Coast NCSY office.
The letter was a revelation for then-West Coast NCSY regional director Rabbi Steven Burg. “The main issue people have with unaffiliated Jews is we simply can’t find them,” he said. “They’re not in temples; they’re not in JCCs. It was right then that we realized that we know where 99 percent of Jews between the ages of 13-17, Mondays through Fridays, are.” And so, building on the idea of New York NCSY’s Jewish culture clubs in the public high schools, a Jewish Student Union (JSU) club was born.
The success of the club was almost immediate. Dozens of unaffiliated Jewish teens spent their lunch hour eating free kosher pizza and learning about Judaism and their rich heritage.
Within just a few years, hundreds of JSU clubs were set up throughout the United States and Canada. More important than the actual hour of learning was the connection formed between the teens and NCSY advisors. The advisors encouraged them to come on Shabbatons and other NCSY programs, including summer programs. This tied directly into the popularity of NCSY’s flagship summer program, The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ). Last summer, more than 978 teens participated in one of NCSY’s 12 unique summer programs, whether it was taking a gondola ride in Venice, exploring Jewish history in Poland or hiking Masada in Israel.
Additionally, as Orthodox life thrived, NCSY ceased being an acronym for National Conference of Synagogue Youth. While the synagogue would always be central to Jewish life, most NCSY programs stopped taking place in the synagogues. Thus, NCSY, which had established its presence across America, became known simply as NCSY.
NCSY Today – Better than Ever
More than 250,000 Jewish teens have been impacted by some form of NCSY programming — be it NCSY Summer, Shabbatons, Regional Conventions, weekly events or JSU clubs. Principals in Jewish schools across the country incorporate techniques pioneered by NCSY into their curriculum — and many yeshiva and day school principals are themselves products of NCSY. NCSY operates more than 200 chapters across three continents. After 60 years, NCSY has become part of the very fabric of Orthodox Jewish communities. Many school administrations, board of directors, and synagogue boards have NCSY alumni their forefront.
However, despite all the changes the last 60 years have seen, from the invention of the internet to electric cars, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. NCSY still remains the same organization it always was, adapting to the environment around it to ensure that Jewish teenagers will always be able to discover and re-discover the timeless vitality of their Jewish traditions. The number of observant Jewish homes founded through the NCSY experience is astounding.
“What were the pillars then are the pillars now,” explained Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY. “The inspiration from a Shabbaton is unchangeable. The hunger in our teens for meaning and spirituality is always there. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who built this organization and we look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary of empowering Jewish teenagers to create a better future for themselves and the greater Jewish community.”