By Allison Josephs, founder and director of Jew in the City (and NCSY alumna)
A stretch limo, a gorgeous dress, the guy of my dreams by my side, and a night of dancing with my closest friends as we celebrate the culmination of high school.
That was how I always imagined my senior prom would go.
Instead, it was a bumpy bus ride to the mountains, a tzniut outfit, only girls by my side, and a night of dancing with three hundred strangers as we celebrated Shabbos. That was my senior prom weekend when I attended my first NCSY event: Spring Regional 1997.
I had been observing nearly every Shabbos alone in the months leading up to my prom (which was scheduled for a Friday night). I was newly religious and had no Jewish community to speak of. I had met a handful of Orthodox Jews a few months earlier and lamented the fact that I was planning on being alone for yet another Shabbos when all my friends would be dancing at prom. They suggested I go to this thing called “Spring Regional” by this group called “NCSY” that was taking place at the same time. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Upon exiting the bus that fateful Thursday afternoon and finding myself surrounded by three hundred skirts and yarmulkes, I felt like Dorothy emerging from the twister-flung house as she stepped into Oz. (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more!”)
Besides for not wanting to be alone that weekend, I had a second secret reason for why I made the trip: I was hoping to hate everything about it. I had been dabbling with observance for half-a-year at that point—much to the chagrin of every person who loved me—and had been attempting to corral my former Hebrew school classmates to attend the regular Shabbat dinners that I organized. But I was beginning to realize that no one from my Conservative synagogue wanted to take the Jewish stuff as seriously as I did, and part of me knew that crossing into the Orthodox camp would be the only way to find religious compatriots.
But I didn’t really want to do that. Where I came from Orthodox Jews were not the kind of people you were supposed to associate with, let alone be. And so I spent much of spring regional trying to find all the things I hated about those NCSY people so I could know, once and for all, that I would never be Orthodox.
But the NCSYers were so friendly. And sincere. They were already inviting me to spend Shabbos with them once the weekend was over. Little did they know that I was planning on having none of it.
But then by seuda shlishit they got me. See, I had been on a journey to bring Hashem into my life. That was how all this religious stuff began for me. And during seuda shlishit after an entire weekend of one insightful, moving d’var Torah after another, it suddenly occurred to me that these people were Hashem people too, which meant that they were my people.
The moment I realized this, I burst out hysterically crying because I didn’t know how I could do it; how I could become one of them. Not why. I knew the “why” already, but the practical “how-to’s” felt terrifying as I sobbed outside the dining hall as the sun set. I was afraid that no one from the world I had come from would understand why I’d want to switch over to this new world and that no one in this new world would understand who I had been before I got there.
But those NCSY people were more understanding than I imagined. They followed up on those Shabbos invites that they made and provided me with the first religious Jewish community I ever knew. One of those NCSYers became, and still is, one of my closest friends. A rabbi from that weekend recited one of the sheva brachos under my chuppah. And one of the advisors I saw performing on the spring regional “Thursday Night Live” stage seventeen years ago is now my rabbi.
Years later, I continue to be a Hashem person and work tirelessly at Jew in the City to break down those same stereotypes about religious Jews that I and many other Jews are raised with.
A Jewish girl in high school wrote to me on YouTube a few years ago after seeing one of our videos. “Isn’t it so hard to keep kosher?” she wondered. She and I got to chatting about kashrus and a slew of other issues and after getting more comfortable with me she admitted, “I used to think they [Orthodox Jews] were so much different.”
She saw that *I* was normal, but I was just one person on the internet, living very far away. She needed a community. So I connected her with her local NCSY chapter. She started going to events, and I told her she should give NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) summer program a try.
We lost touch for a bit, but then I got a message from her at the end of the summer. Apparently, she had taken my advice to go on TJJ: “Allison!” she wrote, “I just got back yesterday from Israel! I can say without a doubt it was the best summer and trip and experience of my entire life! I’ve never had more fun and I’ve actually become semi-religious! I pray everyday! I keep Shabbat! I’m trying to keep kosher. I used to think they [Orthodox Jews] were so scary and that they all hated me, when in fact, I’ve never met nicer people [than the people at NCSY].” Indeed.
Friendship, Torah, warmth and community. That’s what NCSY means to me and countless Jews around the world. Happy 60th!
Allison Josephs is the founder and director of Jew in the City.
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