Written by Batya (Beth Spiegelman) Medad, Blogger and NCSY Alumna
The title of this says it all, or it says nothing. And it’s certainly not unique. Even here in Shiloh, so far from North America, I have quite a few neighbors who also have NCSY stories.
All those decades ago, yes, half a century plus, as I danced and sang those Torah tunes at every chance I had, my feet pounded on the floors, and the vibrations can still be felt here the other side of the world a half a century later.
The fact that NCSY changed my life shouldn’t be such a surprise to anyone who knew me or NCSY in the 1960’s. The surprise was that I ended up in NCSY. An Orthodox Jewish Youth Organization was not the sort of place I’d be expected to join. From infancy until the age of thirteen we lived in Bayside, NY, and my parents were founding members of the Oakland Jewish Center, which was Conservative. In terms of religious observance our home was pretty far removed from the norms of Conservative Judaism of the time or even Reform. There wasn’t any Shabbat observance besides occasional candle-lighting and chicken soup. I never heard Kiddush, and “Shabbat” wasn’t weekly.
When we moved to Great Neck in 1962, my parents ended up joining the Great Neck Synagogue for reasons far removed from Jewish commitment and rituals. Rabbi Wolf offered a membership deal my parents could afford.
I hated living in Great Neck. I just couldn’t connect to the prevailing customs, values and materialism of Great Neck North. After being there a few months, my father noticed that I didn’t have many, if any, friends and decided to take action. One Saturday night, as I remember, late December, 1962, he forced me into the old, small, dark second-hand car with the holey floor he had bought from a former neighbor and announced that he was taking me to the shul.
“They have a Teen Club. I read about it in their bulletin, and you’re going to join it, and you’re going to like it, and you’re going to make friends whether you like it or not!”
You could say that the joke was on him, because he was the one most upset with my transformation.
At first I didn’t really notice anything odd or religious about the group. There certainly was no pressure on me to adopt any religious observance. We just did regular teenage things like play Ping-Pong, talk and on occasion go to bigger events run by a youth organization called NCSY. I liked the people, and they seemed to like me. Meetings were mostly on Sundays, which didn’t interfere with the rest of my life. Nobody ever told me to change the way I dressed or asked what food my mother served at home. The boys wore kippot, but they did that at the Oakland Jewish Center, too.
Before I knew it, these activities became the center of my life, and that included going to NCSY Shabbatonim, National and more. I just lived for the events. When my parents wouldn’t give me the money to pay, I used my babysitting money. At the same time I was learning about Shabbat and Jewish Law, I was also running the best dances in Great Neck for teens. They were in the shul as our big fundraising events. You must know that in those days even Orthodox shuls had “dinner dances,” so for us teens to have a dance was not a rebellion. I was on the committee to audition the band, and kids came from all over Great Neck to attend.
I was elected to chapter and regional office. I dreamt of being a National Officer, but I still ate traif and was mechalel Shabbat. I didn’t see the irony. I was just happy that in NCSY I was accepted. In NCSY I was popular. I loved NCSY even more than NSCY loved me. This was not quite what my father had envisioned that winter night, but in actuality it was exactly what he had demanded of me. I did have lots of friends in NCSY and I’m still friends with many people I first met in NCSY.
How did NCSY succeed in changing me? That’s a good question. Rabbis Stolper and Wasserman created an atmosphere and organization that used so many different methods and techniques simultaneously on so many teenagers, that it’s hard to say what worked on whom. This wasn’t a very organized chemistry experiment.
Part of it was the singing, the dancing, the sessions, the talking, the fun, the friends, the being away from parents and school.
NCSY of the sixties suited the sixties, and it suited me in particular. I just can’t imagine living any life other than the Torah life I learned about in NCSY. And not for the first time, I wish to thank all who were part of inventing that great Jewish youth organization.
Batya has lived in Shiloh with her family since 1981. She has been a writer for various publications and has her own blog called Shiloh Musings. Batya is also the initiator of Women’s Rosh Chodesh Prayers at Tel Shiloh.
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