April 30, 2014

3 Ways Music has Shaped the NCSY Experience

Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, former director of education for NCSY, reflects on the oversized role that music has played in inspiring NCSYers for decades.

By Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, associate dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, and former director of education for NCSY

Rabbi Yaakov Glasser leads havdallah at a New Jersey NCSY Regional Shabbaton.

Rabbi Yaakov Glasser leads havdallah at a New Jersey NCSY Regional Shabbaton.

The NCSYers finish Maariv and the band begins their preparations. A unique energy fills the room. The lights dim, the rhythm begins. The signature “Hinei Keil” invites the NCSYers into the experience. Teens of all ages line up and place their arms around each other — and the musician’s job really begins. Entrusted with the goal of elevating the NCSYers to a meaningful spiritual peak, the song choices, passion, and emotion become as essential as the notes and equipment. To succeed, the NCSY band must capture the core emotion of a song and translate that passion through their performance. It is unlike any other musical performance that I know. Before the music began, we were filled with our own thoughts and passions. As the music continues, we become one, filled with the collective dream of Klal Yisrael. This is an NCSY Havdallah.

Looking back on my career with NCSY, I realize that there are so many elements that comprise the unique Torah experience of NCSY. Innovative educational programs, dynamic speakers and charismatic advisors all coalesce into a world that enables Jewish teens to thrive. At NCSY, the spiritual and emotional momentum reach a crescendo, allowing teens to make transformative changes within their lives. However, no matter what NCSY program, there is one factor consistent through it all: the music.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach conducts a kumzits with NCSYers at a national concvention in the 1960s.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach conducts a kumzits with NCSYers at a national convention in the 1960s.


NCSY’s formative years coincided with the musical revolutions of the 60s and Shlomo Carlebach’s modernization of Jewish song. From the very outset, NCSY’s founders recognized the power of music to shape spiritual experiences. From pre-Shabbat ruach to Havdallah and kumzits, no elements of a Shabbaton reaches teens quite like song. It is not simple entertainment, but spiritual fuel.


Music provides three things that shape the substance of NCSY:


1. It is accessible to Jewish teens regardless of their background.

In just a few moments, even the most unaffiliated NCSYer can learn the refrain from songs that capture the emotions of NCSY. It is the great equalizer — providing a context where a lack of Hebrew knowledge or Torah background does not disqualify one from participation. Public school students can be heard humming the tunes of our community’s most popular melodies on their buses home from NCSY events across North America. I recall how NCSYers with barely any knowledge of Hebrew would find themselves completely familiar with the music and songs of NCSY by the end of the weekend. We would look out into crowd, and see kids from the most distant background exuding an emotional and spiritual intensity through the sacred words of our texts and tradition.

2. Music provides a healthy unifying experience.

Teens are at a developmental stage in life and are searching for their individual identity. So much of Judaism is rooted in the community of our observance and music has the power to bring together a group of teens, while providing the space for them as individuals. Attending an NCSY Havdallah, one is struck by the symmetry and unity of movement as teens become a community of passionate Jews. One of the most exhilarating moments in the musical performance of Havdallah is when the band stops and the kids carry the tunes and the energy on their own. As a musician, you feel you have not only performed the song, but you have elevated the listeners to a different place.


3. Music in NCSY is a vital educational vehicle.

It provides a platform to teach our students the most profound ideas in an engaging and enjoyable format. Through song, NCSYers discover the nature of Jewish life. Countless verses — whose messages embody our values and ideals — become part of the Jewish teens vernacular through music. When running a kumzitz, I will often pause to discuss the theme of the song, and develop a meaningful message that is relevant to their lives. To watch teens close their eyes and then sing the song again, one can sense that the message of the music is reaching their souls.

Music will always be a part of the NCSY experience. As our teens evolve, so will the culture of NCSY music. As it has for so many generations in the past, the singing and dancing of Jewish teens is sure to one day bring us to a world where, to quote a famous Jewish song, “Someday….We will all be together.”


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