1. NCSY Bencher
NCSY’s iconic bencher is largely the work of one man: the Orthodox Union’s former director of communications, David Olivestone.
In 1983, NCSY asked Olivestone to redesign and expand its bencher. The goal of the redesign was simple: make a bencher that would include all the prayers and table songs needed for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal, as well the songs that were most often sung during NCSY Shabbatons. Olivestone re-edited the entire text, translated it into a graceful and readable English, and designed the layout. A typesetter then created a program that transliterated it all.
The bencher also benefited from clear organization, with all the prayers and songs put in order from Friday night dinner to Havdallah, followed by the benching itself, various life cycle ceremonies and the songs. The aim was to make kiddush, benching, and the whole Shabbat and Yom Tov experience as easy as possible for NCSYers to participate in and understand.
The response was almost immediate. The new NCSY bencher took off, becoming popular not only for NCSY Shabbatons, but also at weddings and bar/bat-mitzvahs throughout the world. In the 30 years since it first appeared, the bencher has gone through three revisions and scores of printings. It has been published in German, Hungarian, Russian, and Spanish editions, as well as a version with the transliteration in Israeli-accented Hebrew.
The covers of the three editions also have their own story, with each successive edition mirroring part of the Shabbat meal, from lighting the candles to kiddush to cutting the challah.
As NCSY celebrates its 60th anniversary, the NCSY Bencher is celebrating its very own milestone. This January marked the printing of the two millionth copy of the bencher.
Endings don’t always have to be so sad.
As NCSY Shabbatons wind down, the inspiration reaches its peak. If you’ve ever been at an NCSY Shabbaton, you know that the pinnacle of the Shabbaton occurs with the Havdallah ceremony. The lights are shut off as teens and advisors begin the experience that celebrates the completion of another Shabbat. Teens sing and chant while swaying together in the dark.
“NCSY is all about transitions,” explained Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, former director of education for International NCSY. “We, as NCSY, exist in a period of time within the lives of these teens when they are making major choices in what direction their lives are going to take… Havdallah is the bridge a teen takes to internalize everything they’ve just experienced.”
Instead of Shabbat finishing with a harsh divide, the Havdallah ceremony enables teens to take the experience of Shabbat and let its majestic spirituality fill the mundane parts of their week. As teens sing and dance with the light from the Havdallah flame, the songs herald a brighter future and the eventual end of galut, exile, as well.
3. Torah Fund Tzedakah Box
For more than 40 years, the ubiquitous white tzedakah boxes were found in houses and Jewish stores all over America. NCSY chapters were tasked with raising money before every major regional. Proceeds from the pushkas helped provide scholarships for other teens to engage in NCSY programming and events. For a long while, the required amount was $9.36 per registered member. It may seem like an odd number but nine was half of chai, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for life, and 36 was double chai. Additionally, the number was broken down to 18 cents per week, a relatively modest amount. More important than the actual amount raised was the effect it had on NCSYers who learned that through their efforts they could help make a difference in the lives of other teens.
“I felt great that I was raising money so someone else can experience NCSY,” explained Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, founding director of NCSY Alumni. “It was empowering. Here I’m being helped in NCSY, and now I’m raising money to help others.”
While the pushkas were discontinued in the 1990s, they foreshadowed later initiatives, like the fundraising efforts of NCSY Alumni and the Ben Zakkai dinner, which together raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to enable teens to participate in NCSY programming. The scope and the amount of money may have changed, but the idea remains the same: teens helping other teens.
4. NCSY Welcome Banner
National Conventions have been a staple through most of NCSY’s existence, ever since the first one was held in 1956. The banner itself was wrapped, unfurled and dusted each year in honor of the occasion. Teens came from all over the United States to the convention: by bus, train and airplane. The convention itself ensured that teens knew that no matter how desolate it seemed to be the only Jew in their town, there were Jewish teens just like them all over the country. No matter how alone you felt in your small part of America, you were a part of the Jewish nation, something far greater than yourself.
While there are no more National Conventions as the regions have grown large enough to now host their own regional conventions, the idea of national programming evolved into other programming like National Yarchei Kallah, NCSY summer programs and Leadership Boot Camp. NCSY also developed a national board, where the top teen leaders are selected to help define NCSY’s agenda for the year and provide inspiration to their fellow NCSYers across North America.
5. NCSY Summer T-shirt
NCSY summer programs have provided countless teens with inspiration and a connection to their heritage beginning with Camp NCSY on the West Coast, Camp East (now Camp Sports) on the East Coast, and Israel Summer Seminar (currently ICE Israel) in Israel. Based on the success of the early programs, NCSY staff began thinking out of the box and figuring out how to deliver the most to Jewish teens who had eight weeks of free time before the grind of the school year began again. The Jewish Overseas Learning Training Program (JOLT) began in the late 80s, and NCSY Kollel and Michlelet, two intense learning programs in Israel, began in the early 90s, among others.
In 1998, NCSY launched The Jerusalem Journey, an inexpensive trip to Israel for public school teens. Participants visit the Kotel on Friday night and hike Masada at dawn. A four-week program enables teens to internalize the inspiration.
The program took off and since its inception, more than 2,000 public school teens have visited Israel on TJJ. In 2006, all of NCSY Summer came under the direction of David Cutler. NCSY Summer expanded into 12 unique programs including GIVE and GIVE USA for girls and BILT for boys — all while participants for each program continued to rise. Last year, 978 Jewish teens spent their summer with NCSY, and this year, more than 1,100 teens will share their summer with NCSY.
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