Over the past six decades, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) has provided more than 250,000 Jewish teens with opportunities to explore their heritage and connect with Jewish life in a warm and welcoming environment.
Through Shabbatons, regional conventions, Jewish student union clubs and a host of summer programs, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union has inspired many of our current community leaders.
Educators, philanthropists, medical professionals, lawyers and entrepreneurs credit NCSY for their Jewish observance, leadership abilities and public speaking skills. Their identities have been shaped, in many ways, thanks to their involvement with the organization.
This year marks a special milestone, as NCSY celebrates its 60th anniversary.
Rabbi Glenn Black, CEO of NCSY Canada, spoke to The CJN about the movenent’s history, evolution and successes.
“We are marking [the anniversary] in so many ways. We recently hosted a weekend of inspiration at nine synagogues in our community. As part of our focus on alumni that we have reinvigorated in 2014, we held an event open for the entire community, with several of our speakers addressing the challenges facing our next generation and held an NCSY-style kumzitz featuring internationally renowned Jewish singers Abie Rotenberg and Shlomo Simcha,” he said.
“We are continuing to reach out to our alumni with a robust social media presence. The feedback has been great, and many of our alumni are asking us how they can become involved in our work and give back. We are also working closely with the national office and taking part in their initiatives such as the recent special edition of Ignite, NCSY’s popular magazine, telling the tale of how we made it from 1954 until now.”
When NCSY was founded in 1954, American Judaism was struggling with continued observance, as people were becoming more absorbed into mainstream American culture, Rabbi Black said.
“NCSY was founded to keep Jewish teens connected and engaged with their heritage. The movement sought to create and connect various youth programs across the country, creating a movement to give teens strength and support to enable them to live fulfilling Jewish lives. That goal remains the same today.”
Rabbi Black said the same passion for Judaism and outreach to Jewish youth has carried into the present.
“Practically, the programming is no longer based out of shuls, because it is seeking a wider reach. In Canada, our primary focus has been on reaching out to unaffiliated and unconnected Jewish teens, primarily in public high schools and non-parochial private schools. These teens are at the greatest risk of disappearing from the Jewish scene, as the recent Pew study [of U.S. Jewry] demonstrated. Expanding our reach, and constantly seeking innovative ways to involve Jewish youth, pushes us to move forward every day.”
NCSY has seen a lot of gradual change over the past 60 years, even though the heart of the organization remains the same, he said.
“One of the major leaps was going from being a synagogue-based movement to bringing our programming to the unaffiliated.”
Among its many innovative opportunities for youth, NCSY has created Jewish culture clubs in schools and a Torah High program that offers Jewish studies courses for credit to hundreds of students across the country.
“Implementing programming in Israel was also a big step. This summer, NCSY Canada will be sending close to 200 teens on summer programs. We will continue to grow these numbers.”
Rabbi Black said NCSY has always made it a priority to engage youth on their terms, in their language. “That began with bringing on student advisers rather than just rabbis to be leaders of the movement. Going digital was also a major decision made to keep NCSY relevant and has been highly successful.”
While NCSY runs many programs, Rabbi Black said one of the most popular is Live2Give, combining tzedakah, social action and Jewish learning for young women.
“Another is our Jewish Professional Association for high school, giving aspiring business and professional faculty students the opportunity to be mentored by successful entrepreneurs who have taken leadership roles in the community.”
In terms of future aspirations, Rabbi Black said NCSY has several areas of focus, including “leveraging cutting-edge technology to enable us to reach a far broader audience of Jewish teens… [and] investing more resources in professional development in order to increase the depth and breadth of our team of more than 350 staff and advisers.”
Ultimately, he said, NCSY is on a “mission to inspire the Jewish future.”