May 28, 2014

Where Principals Found Their Principles

Coincidence? We think not. Top educators around the country developed their passion for Judaism from NCSY.

Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky

When Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, the founding principal of the Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys (DRS) in Woodmere, NY, had his first interview with the school’s board of directors, he was very clear about his intentions as a principal.

“High standards in achievement are important,” he recalled while traveling on a bus with his students to a white water rafting trip on the Lehigh River. “But if you want kids to be positive about religion, I’m going to take the NCSY experience and bring it into the formal school.”

And he did just that. He began organizing yeshiva Shabbatons, tishes on Friday nights, school trips and encouraged close relationships between educators and their students, all of which yielded astonishing results. Sixteen years later, the school is a success full of teens graduating with strong religious identities and spending a year studying in Israel to further their commitment to Judaism.

With NCSY celebrating its 59th year, the organization has transformed the everyday fabric of Jewish life. Many educators are not only using techniques of spiritual development pioneered by NCSY, but are products of NCSY themselves.

Even though he grew up in an Orthodox family in Passaic, NJ, Rabbi Kaminetsky, the son of a rabbi and former national director of NCSY, found NCSY inspirational. “I was seeing a lot of kids who had made such incredible strides and commitments in their own growth. It made me appreciate my observant background even more,” he said.

NCSY was a family affair for Rabbi Kaminetsky. His wife, Elisheva, serves as the director of religious guidance at the Stella K. Abraham School for Girls (SKA), the sister school of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys. The two of them met while they were both advisors for NCSY. She credits NCSY with teaching her about interpersonal relationships with teens.

“I learned the way they think, what inspires them and the common questions and issues adolescents experience,” she said. “The most important things I learned was showing teens you care and seeing how much they appreciate you caring about them. It allows them to open up to you and respect you.”

Given that NCSY runs programs in more than 200 cities, the reach of NCSY’s educators is not limited to the Tri-state area.

Elysee Wolf

Elysee Wolf

Elysee Wolf grew up in a Conservative home in Virginia Beach, VA, and attended public school. After a teacher in her after-school Talmud Torah class recommended she attend one Shabbaton, she and a group of friends continued going.

“It sparked Jewish pride in us,” she said.

Wolf became regional president in tenth grade and then transferred to the Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, where, coming full-circle, she is now the dean of English Studies.

“It definitely helped me to realize the impact an individual could have and the power of igniting the love of learning and the love of growth,” she said about her NCSY experience. “It just gave me an appreciation of what there was to do for the klal and what could be done.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson

Rabbi Dov Emerson

Rabbi Dov Emerson, the current head of Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA), was an avid NCSYer growing up in the small Jewish community of Memphis, TN.

“Growing up Orthodox, there’s always a danger of doing things by rote,” he said. “NCSY helps stop that because when you’re with other NCSYers, you’re constantly being challenged and being forced to have meaningful reasons for what you are doing. Often, those less religious will give you meaning you never thought of. I’ve taken that with me in terms of my own role as an educator.”

 Rabbi Perry Tirschwell began his NCSY career in the late 1970s as a teenager in New Jersey.

“Shabbatons were really magical,” he said. “I never experienced a Shabbat like that before. We traveled all over the state and slept on synagogue floors and people’s homes.”

Rabbi Tirschwell was so moved by his experiences in NCSY that he returned as an advisor, bringing along his then-roommate, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who is now the vice president for university and community life of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Tirschwell stayed involved in NCSY until he retired as regional director of New Jersey NCSY at the age of 32 to launch a school in the Jewish community of Boca Raton, Florida. “Weinbaum Yeshiva High School was the first Jewish high school between Miami and Atlanta,” he explained.

Rabbi Perry Tirshwell

Rabbi Perry Tirshwell

He ran the school for 15 years and is now the national director of the National Council of Young Israel. He credits his experiences in NCSY to be extremely influential to who he is.

“NCSY gave me not only a religious direction, but a career direction,” he said. “And even before a career direction, it gave me leadership opportunities and helped develop aspects of my personality which had not come out before.”

Rabbi Benjy Owen, dean of Torah studies and head of school at Northwest Yeshiva High School, recalled his experience as a member of the Seattle NCSY chapter as a formative time for him. “I think being part of the chapter and being reachable in the chapter helped me practice being responsible for the future of my community,” he said.

Even educators who were only advisors describe their experience as formative.

Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, was an advisor in NCSY. “I learned a lot in terms of building employees,” he said. “If you empower talented people you’re going to get a lot of good work from them. The right people working together in a team-like atmosphere produces great results.”

Occasionally, the links between a career in NCSY and a career in education are more direct. Rabbi Dov Emerson applied for his first teaching position at DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys. He got along well with his interviewer, Rabbi Kaminetsky. Rabbi Kaminetsky was delighted that his former NCSYer had become an educator.

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