May 20, 2014

How Four NCSYers made NCSY into a career

For some people, NCSY isn't just part of their youth. It's more of a lifestyle.

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky
St. Louis NCSY Director

Most teenagers in high school try desperately to fit in. For Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, the choice to don a yarmulke in a Texas public school made him stand out, but he was happy to do it.

Rabbi Mike Rovinsky

Just one of five Jewish teens in a student body of over 3,000, Rovinsky’s yarmulke became a source of contention, as hats were officially against school policy. The principal, who was Jewish, wouldn’t allow it, and Rovinsky eventually sued the school district to let him wear his yarmulke.

“The ADL fought the legal battle and NCSY gave me the chizuk to do it,” said Rovinsky. He won both the battle and the respect of his initially dubious peers, some of whom became his fierce protectors and even served as bodyguards to accompany him when he went to the restroom.

After graduating NCSY, Rovinsky spent time learning in yeshivas in Jerusalem, Monsey and Baltimore. In 1984, he returned to NCSY as the assistant director of NCSY Goes to Yeshiva, the forerunner of Camp Sports, while learning in Baltimore.

Decades later, after serving as a rebbe and Judaic studies principal at Akiba Academy of Dallas, Texas, Rovinsky moved to St. Louis to become the executive director of Epstein Hebrew Academy. In 2002, he left to help a former student found a software company, and a year later, he was approached by communal leaders looking for someone to fill a three-month slot at NCSY as an interim city director. “I expected to give it my all for those three months and that would be it,” said Rovinsky. “That was 12 years ago.” In total, Rovinsky has now been a part of NCSY for 28 years.

“Working for NCSY is the greatest job in the world because you have the ability to impact individuals and generations to come,” explained Rovinsky. “To be able to turn a teen onto yiddishkeit is a humbling, yet invigorating, experience. My fellow staff members and I always hope to help NCSYers grow, but in truth, it is we who are continually motivated by those we seek to serve.”


Karen Steinberg
Chief Operating Officer, Southern NCSY

Karen Steinberg grew up in a traditional family in Brooklyn and attended a modern, diverse Jewish day school. But when she enrolled in a religious all-girls high school, she found the atmosphere a little daunting.“I was one of the only students not keeping Shabbat, and I felt a little out of place,” she recalled.

Steinberg, Karen

Karen Steinberg

She joined NCSY for the moderate and co-ed atmosphere, and she enjoyed the environment, despite not yet committed to be fully observant. On a lark, while in ninth grade, she accepted an invitation to a Regional Shabbaton in Queens despite not knowing anyone else on the program. That proved to be the tipping point. “Seeing teens from so many different backgrounds was amazing, and I quickly came to appreciate my own rich background in Judaism,” said Steinberg. “I decided to step up my NCSY involvement over the next year.”

She quickly became president of the Manhattan Beach chapter and worked hard to put that chapter on the map. The fun, informal Sunday morning learning program called Teen Torah Center (TTC, the precursor to Latte & Learning), made a real impact on her. “Becoming fully observant wasn’t the easiest road, but TTC really bridged the gap between my learning and my actions,” explained Karen.

Steinberg worked as an advisor in the New York region after returning from two years of learning in Israel. After she moved to Florida in 2004, she found herself dipping her toe back into NCSY. After running programs and assisting with other duties, she officially became part of Southern NCSY in 2006. “It’s the biggest zechus for me to give back to NCSY,” she said. Steinberg was recently promoted to Chief Operating Officer for Southern NCSY.

Rabbi Dave Felsenthal
Director of OU NextGen; Founding Director of NCSY Alumni

Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, fondly known as Rabbi Dave, grew up in Baltimore where his family kept little in the way of traditional Jewish observance aside from Friday night dinner and a kosher home.

This changed when Felsenthal’s mother enrolled him for fifth grade in Beth Tfiloh, a Jewish day school, where he first learned about NCSY. Although he eventually returned to public school, the experience ultimately led him to question his casual observance of Judaism. “As I got more involved with NCSY and engaged more deeply in Jewish learning, I began to wonder why I wasn’t keeping the things I was learning,” he said. “That became a defining time for me.”

Felsenthal, Dave

Rabbi Dave Felsenthal

With the support of Atlantic Seaboard (ATS) regional director Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, Felsenthal began observing Shabbat and Yom Tov, keeping kosher outside his home, and wearing a yarmulke. Associate regional director Bonnie Pollak’s husband Joey arranged for Felsenthal’s 12th grade work-study to occur at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, where he balanced learning with his duties as regional president of NCSY. After his freshman year at Yeshiva University, Felsenthal convinced his parents to let him learn at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel. He later returned to learn at Ner Israel in Baltimore and earned a BA in computer science and an MBA from the University of Maryland.

The next couple of decades involved different cities and positions, including the founding of — by Felsenthal and Rav Noach Weinberg z”tl — a program tailored to impact non-Orthodox students on college campuses using NCSY alumni and other committed student leaders.

It was this position that served Felsenthal very well in his return to the Orthodox Union, where he formally started NCSY Alumni. Currently, he oversees NextGen, an umbrella program that includes OU Alumni, JLIC, Birthright and Heart to Heart. “We house everything from high school through marriage,” said Felsenthal.

“Working for NCSY is a form of hakarat hatov to me,” explained Felsenthal. “I am proud and happy to give back to an organization that has influenced my life in innumerable ways.”


Shosh Friedman
Skokie Chapter Advisor and Program Coordinator

“We went to shul every week, but we drove there,” said Shosh Friedman about her family’s religious observance. “There was a love of Judaism but not with a halachic perspective.”

Friedman, a Milwaukee native, attended a community day school, but when it came time for high school, the only option was the local public school. Determined to nurture her interest in Judaism, Friedman instead boarded with a family in Chicago to attend the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and it was there that she became involved with NCSY.

Shosh Friedman

“NCSY gave me a different perspective on Judaism,” she recalled. “I learned why we keep different halachot and I responded to it right away.” As a result, Friedman became more observant and decided to study in Israel for a year after high school. She remains best friends with a woman she met through NCSY. “We all come to NCSY because we were passionate about a common goal,” she said. “The friendships formed there are fierce and special.”

NCSY also gave Friedman her first public speaking opportunity when she was asked to deliver a d’var Torah in her sophomore year at an NCSY convention in Minneapolis. “Most teens don’t have many leadership opportunities, so NCSY is unique in that respect,” Friedman explained.

She eventually served as Skokie chapter president and as a chapter advisor. Twelve years later, she still holds a full-time staff position. “Working for NCSY is incredibly fulfilling because I know firsthand what a difference I’m making,” explained Friedman. “I enjoy spending time with teenagers as they search for meaning and inspiration, and the connections I forge with them continue long after they graduate NCSY.”

“Working for NCSY is a form of hakarat hatov to me,” continued Friedman. “I am proud and happy to give back to an organization that has influenced my life in innumerable ways.”



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