Written by Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, Dean of NCSY Summer/Director of NCSY Kollel
So NCSY is turning 60 — perhaps you’ve heard? Happy Birthday! For all those who ushered in this amazing project in its infancy, it is a time for celebration and pure marvel. Only they dared dream of 60 years of lives uplifted and communities transformed. We now share the responsibility to set in motion another 60 years of inspiration, education and change.
Surely, it is also an opportune time for reflection. The milestone of 60 years demands a re-articulation of the founding vision, and an attempt to recreate the foresight and predictive skills that created the NCSY revolution in the first place.
These considerations almost inevitably venture towards the tenet that much, much has changed. The world is different, NCSYers are different, our communities are different and our communication is different. Hangouts are virtual, stimuli are viral, attention spans are vanishing. NCSY has always provided wholesome social platforms, combined with the best in informal education. Recent technological developments have transformed the way we interact and the way we learn. Thus, conventional wisdom concludes that this cannot be your grandfather’s NCSY. Our very survival requires a strong emphasis on innovation and timely change. What worked in 1954 will be stale and unattractive today. No different than any other industry, NCSY must adapt or suffer the consequences of extreme irrelevance and inefficacy.
And yet… somewhere in this cacophony of change whispers the mantra, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” For NCSY in particular, any metamorphosis must be handled with extreme care, and the goals must be stated with clarity and conviction.
Yes, we should reevaluate how to engage our teens. Yes, our Shabbatons and other programs should shed any resemblance to a time capsule and reflect the realities of modernity. Yes, our educational messages and themes must be ever updated and timely, and the delivery systems for these ideas should be updated to eagerly utilize the very best technology offers. Failure in any of these areas can be catastrophic. Ask Blockbuster or your local record store.
But equally critical for our survival is a commitment to the immutable nature of the core message and founding principles of NCSY. Few teens will be inspired without someone who personally cares. Few teens will develop mature and long-lasting bonds with religion without the embrace of a community that personifies pride and passion in their Jewish pursuits. No app can substitute for that. No insight into the internet-nurtured teenage mind can lead to any alternative conclusion. While parts of NCSY continue to evolve, other elements are tried and true and should be immune to change for change’s sake.
This challenge is nothing new to NCSY, or any other educational institution. Success in all our endeavors has always been dependent on equal measures of what we say and how we say it. An overemphasis on the former leaves us with the devastating result of a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. Or perhaps a better analogy: We become an iPod playing incredible music with no headphones to amplify or deliver the sweet sounds.
But equally true is the sure failure of overcompensating and excessively focusing on how we deliver our message. The best headphones in the world can’t turn bad music into good. Ironically, the changing world hasn’t made our message of authentic Torah living obsolete or anachronistic. It has made it more relevant and needed than ever before. The medium may change, but the message can be lifted directly from a Havdallah in a small shul in the 50s or 60s.
So, as we imagine NCSY after the next 60 years, we may picture a youth movement utterly unrecognizable. At first glance into this futuristic vision, we are confused and bewildered. The Shabbaton has been replaced by something in Google Glass. Information is communicated by methodologies we can hardly conceive of in 2014 terms. But if that updated NCSY shares the current rate of success, it will be due to what is revealed by a second, deeper look. Underneath the technology, beyond the new modules for interaction sits a dedicated advisor. That advisor burns with a passion and sincere concern for Jewish survival and development. He or she connects on the most basic level with NCSYers beginning a remarkable journey. And there continues the magic of NCSY.
Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, an NCSY alumnus, is the dean of NCSY Summer and the director of NCSY Kollel. He is also a rebbe at Reishit Yerushalayim in Israel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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