I have attended almost thirty OU biennial conventions over the past sixty-five years but none, in retrospect, was as significant as the Thanksgiving weekend of 1954 when two hundred delegates gathered in Atlantic City.
It was not an easy time to speak of an Orthodox Jewish future in North America. Changing demographics, the rush to suburbia and the devastating impact of the college campus were all taking their tolls. Teenagers and young adults were leaving Orthodox synagogues in droves–despite the desperate efforts of well meaning individuals who tried to water down Torah Judaism in an effort to adapt and survive. It was against this background that a new generation of leadership took charge of the OU that weekend. My college friend Moses I. Feuerstein of Brookline, Massachusetts, was elected president; Samuel Lawrence Brennglass of Massena, New York, and I were elected as vice presidents; Harold H. Boxer, an attorney from Queens, New York, was elected national secretary. All four of us knew things had to change if the OU was to remain relevant.
It was Harold Boxer who had first raised the issue of a national youth movement. He, and his wife, Enid, had traveled around the country and knew that there were functioning youth groups affiliated withOrthodox synagogues in the South and in the Midwest, in Chicago, in Eastern Pennsylvania and in Upstate New York. Could we not create a national youth movement using these existing groups as our charter members? At the convention, the New York City delegates were skeptical [about the resolution to create such a movement], but the delegates from out of town were outspoken and enthusiastic. One by one they rose to tell of how badly they needed such an effort, of how Orthodox Judaism would not survive in their communities if it did not happen.
The OU’s new President Moses Feuerstein weighed in, as we knew he would, with his strong support, reminding the cynics that his father Samuel had faced similar criticism when he started Torah U’Mesorah a decade earlier. The resolution passed by a significant majority, and Harold Boxer was appointed the first chair of the NCSY Youth Commission. The rest, as they say, is history . . .
This essay is reprinted from the journal published for NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society Dinner, January 2010.