Saturday, July 4, 2009

NCSY, What We Didn't Know

My husband was sent a book to review, Living From Convention To Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954-1980. I grabbed it immediately.

"I'm the NCSY'er. I'm the one who must read it and review it."

At first I read the book quickly and with great enthusiasm. It began with a Forward by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper. It hit my emotions like many of his talks had done when I was in high school.

Lag B'Omer in Bear Mountains, NY, 1963, was the first NCSY event I ever attended. Less than six months earlier on a wintry Saturday or Sunday night, my father drove me to the Great Neck Synagogue to attend a "Teen Club" get-together. We had only moved to Great Neck late August, just before school started, and my parents had decided that my getting involved in the synagogue youth activities would be the best way for me to make more friends. I was suffering severe culture shock after our move from Bell Park Gardens, Bayside to Great Neck, New York.

The Teen Club meeting was in a large old house in the woods behind the synagogue's building. I immediately felt at home with the kids. It was under the auspices of an Orthodox Synagogue, but in those days there was very little to differentiate teen programming between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. We were just Jewish kids who lived in Great Neck. There was a youth director, either Stan or Hal Greenberg. We met weekly, and at some point, we were informed of trip to Bear Mountains, and I went.

Honestly, I don't remember anything very "Jewish" about those early events. It could have been the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. I certainly had no idea that these fun activities would end up totally changing my life. And even when I began attending Shabbatonim, conclaves and conventions I just thought of them as fun social activities. That included the constant singing and dancing to Hebrew songs during the meals.

It seemed to me that this organization was well-established, well-oiled and very experienced. Only now after reading Zev Eleff's book have I discovered that in essence I was part of a grand experiment led by Rabbi Stolper.

Rabbi Stolper was out to prove that if you exposed ordinary American Jewish teenagers to Torah True Judaism, they would accept it. It took me a few years, but in the end I did. By the time I graduated high school, four years after that picnic, I was as Torah observant as I could be in a totally non-religious home.

Now, about the book. On one hand, it was like reading personal, disturbing things about your parents, things children don't need to know. Rabbi Stolper and Rabbi Chaim Wasserman, his Assistant National Director and my Regional Director, always gave the impression that they were fronting a strong movement. Even though I was a chapter, regional and finally national officer, I had no idea of the organizational difficulties they constantly faced from the OU. Now that I've read the book, cover to cover, I appreciate more, if that's even possible, how much they did.

The book itself is badly organized and doesn't project the passion of the NCSY experience. After a while I found it difficult to read, because there was no clear timeline. The narrative skips all over the place, maybe because the young author has no personal knowledge. It became tedious reading. I doubt if anyone unconnected to NCSY during the times discussed could get through the book without suffering total confusion.

I was very disappointed. Regardless, I plan on lending it to other NCSY'ers who are still close friends. Yes, I still maintain strong friendships with people I met through NCSY. Yesterday I showed it to one who is anxiously awaiting her turn to read the book. We discussed writing our own NCSY history through the eyes and memories of former NCSY'ers.

NCSY was established at the time when all experts were predicting the demise of traditional, strict Torah Judaism. It was the first kiruv, Orthodox Jewish outreach, organization. I don't have sufficient words to thank the idealistic, daring pioneers who ran NCSY in those early days. Who and what would I have been without NCSY?


Leah (Mandel) Lipszyc said...

Thanks Batya!

"We discussed writing our own NCSY history through the eyes and memories of former NCSY'ers." Good idea!

"NCSY... was the first kiruv, Orthodox Jewish outreach, organization." Not true -- it basically was for US, but Chabad was out there first. I am embarrassed to say it, but when I was little, I went to Chabad's Release Time or "Wednesday Hour," but thinking I already knew everything, I played hooky after the first time! My years in NCSY got me started, but Chabad came in again when we were in Stern, with Rabbi Metzger, and added the depth to Judaism that I didn't find in NCSY. (Ask me privately about my big blunder in NCSY.)

Batya said...

I think that there were a number of "small" or "local" and other efforts for kiruv in the 1950's. The organizational structure Rabbi Stolper developed was revolutionary. Also NCSY concentrated on youth and only teens.

I remember from our time together that you were looking for something else that NCSY didn't give, and I was, too, but we needed different things for our "shleimut."

DK said...

Unfortunately, Rabbi Stolper is responsible for the Baruch Lanner years. He hired Lanner, he proteted Lanner, and even -- three decades later -- when the Federation newspaper exposed Lanner, Rabbi Stolper still defended Lanner.

He never apologized for his behavior. For enabling Baruch Lanner's reign of abuse.

After all..."he made them frum."