The youngest of the Jewish youth movements in the United States affiliated with a major denomination of Judaism, NCSY turns 60 this year. Founded by the Orthodox Union in 1954 as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, it has connected more than 250,000 Jewish teens with Jewish life, and helped pioneer activities that introduce Judaism outside of a synagogue setting.
The Jewish Week recently spoke, via email, with Rabbi Micah Greenland, the new international director of NCSY, who was a member of the organization during his youth and lives in his native Chicago. The conversation has been edited.
Q: You were an NCSY member two decades ago. How has the organization, Orthodox teens and the organization’s way of reaching them changed since then?
A: Most of the differences relate to the mechanics of how to get the attention of today’s over-programmed teens — we need to be even more creative when developing our programs to ensure that we can compete with the other extracurricular activities. It is considerably more difficult to grab the attention of the current social-media generation. Our advisers and city directors are very active on social media, not only posting about events and activities, but actually communicating with teens on a regular basis and utilizing these tools as a means to develop meaningful relationships.
Some of our leadership building programs, like the Sen. Ben Cardin Jewish Scholars Program or JUMP (Jewish Unity Mentorship Project) or the Teen Philanthropy Movement, were developed specifically to attract teens looking to bulk up their college resumes with real leadership activities.
The phenomenon of Orthodox teens keeping “Half Shabbat,” texting and going online on Shabbat, has been fully documented — including in this paper. Is this still going on, is it still hard to convince NCSY to fully keep Shabbat?
Sadly, it seems that this phenomenon does still exist. The pull of technology is incredibly strong, and it has become increasingly difficult for many teens to give it up completely, even for a 25-hour period. In addition, with so much communication taking place today via texting, some teens have told me that asking them not to text on Shabbat is tantamount to asking them to stop communicating for an entire day.
I believe that the only real solution is elevating Shabbat for these teens. Anyone who experiences an authentic and meaningful Shabbat, a spiritually rejuvenating day during which they are given an opportunity to really connect with the Almighty and fellow Jews, gets such a boost from that one day that they find themselves unable to imagine spending their Saturdays any differently from that point forward.
NCSY took a big hit, in terms of image and fund-raising, from the Baruch Lanner scandal, the longtime NCSY leader who had abused children for several years. How long did it take for the organization to recover from that?
It took the organization several years to recover fully, but we came back stronger than ever. Everything changed in terms of the safety of NCSYers, our advisors and our staff.
Today, anyone can go to NCSY.org and click on the ‘About Us’ section, which contains a category called “Conduct, Policy and Behavioral Standards” with a list as long as your arm. These rules and standards are strictly practiced and enforced. So much so that we are confident that being involved with NCSY is simply one of the best and safest places for a teen to be today.
What lessons did NCSY — and the wider Jewish community — learn from the Lanner scandal?
It was a very painful episode that hurt a lot of people and it was our responsibility to learn every possible lesson from it. Our participants are encouraged to speak up and to expect to be heard. In turn, our staff and advisors are empowered to promptly report any credible suspicion of criminal activity directly to the police and, in general, it is an absolute expectation that anyone confronted with such a situation would handle it swiftly and appropriately.