Rabbi Perry Tirschwell became executive director of the National Council of Young Israel on Aug. 1 and vowed to revitalize the organization after an upheaval that saw a motion of no confidence in the leadership and threats by congregants to withhold donations.
The unrest, sparked by attempts by the national organization to seize the assets of a member synagogue that had elected a woman president, led to the amending of the NCYI’s constitution, stripping it of that right. Both the president and board chairman of the embattled organization resigned, and its longtime executive director, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, was granted a leave of absence and never returned. This is an edited transcript.
Q: What vision do you have for the Young Israel movement?
A: I want to return it to its roots. The reason this movement is called Young Israel is because young people in their early 20s and 30s wanted to create an American version of Orthodoxy that literally and figuratively spoke their language. So they introduced singing and speeches in English.
I feel we have a similar situation today. Children who grew up in an Orthodox community, went to day school, spent a year in Israel and attended colleges like Yeshiva University, Touro College and colleges where Chabad was active, are now in their 20s and 30s somewhere in Manhattan and there is nothing for them.
But there are so many synagogues here.
They don’t connect to these synagogues because there is no framework for them; synagogues are really structured for families. As a result, all the time and money that has gone into their education goes for naught. Until they marry and have a family, they are trying to build a career, working long hours and maybe in graduate school. There are thousands of single young professionals between 22 and 35 who are not connected too much Jewishly.
Do you think the synagogues are at fault?
I don’t blame the synagogues for not addressing this; synagogues look at them as transients and feel they often don’t pay membership. This is the Birthright generation that is used to getting everything for free. And in college, Hillel and Chabad give them free dinners. Since they have lived at home, their Jewish experience has been for free; they are not use to investing in their own Judaism.
And why should the synagogues invest money in them? These kids grew up in suburbia, they are often from out of state, they come to Manhattan because that is where the job market is — and once they are married and have kids they are off to the suburbs.
What do you propose?
The first project of Young Israel is returning to servicing synagogues, and the second is to create religious portals of entry for young professionals so that they can practice what they were educated to do.
How would you find them?
They come to synagogue but they are JFK Jews — Just For Kiddush. They come at the end of the davening [prayer service]. You have 300 singles at the Young Israel of the West Side. I asked them what they needed and they said they need a program director to work with them. The shul has welcomed them with open arms, but they need staff to work with them. My goal is to hire the staff. I don’t care if the singles daven at Young Israel — it’s just a question of servicing these young people. No one is addressing this age group now.
At the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights, the rabbi said that after davening Friday night he has 500 22- to 28-year-old singles and they need more help to provide services for them. They are looking for something. I want to work with existing groups and shuls because the longer they stay single, their religious commitment wanes.
Is this primarily a Manhattan issue at particular shuls?
No, we have a singles scene in Passaic, N.J., and in Queens. So although it’s pretty much in Manhattan, it is in the greater New York area.
And the kids shul hop — Friday night in one shul and Saturday in another; they are fickle. A shul that may be popular now won’t be in six months; it’s not a shul-based issue, it’s a community issue.