By Martin Nachimson
As you read this, nearly 1,000 North American teenagers are about to return to their high school classrooms or begin their college careers with a deeper appreciation of their Jewish heritage and a stronger connection to the Jewish homeland. They have just spent an incredibly inspiring summer at an NCSY program, and even as the summer recedes into memory, they will carry their life-changing experiences with them.
It is no secret that summer camp is one of the best ways to deepen a young person’s connection to Judaism. Away from the pressures of school and home, in an environment created to emphasize Judaism, camps have often succeeded where other approaches have been found wanting. NCSY offers this kind of atmosphere all year round, but its summer programs can go beyond school-year programming in many ways, because it’s the only time in the year when many of these teens are totally immersed in Yiddishkeit. Whether teens come from yeshivah or public high school, whether they put on tefillin every day or have never worn them at all, whether they have lit Shabbat candles in the past or not, they invariably come away from an NCSY summer program with a more intense feeling for Judaism than they had before.
This past summer, 980 teens were enrolled in our twelve unique summer programs in Israel, Europe and the US. This is an all-time record for NCSY, but I have no doubt we will break the record again next summer. To what can we attribute the success of our summer programs? I believe our success lies in our recognition that each and every teen is unique, and that what speaks to one teen may not necessarily speak to the next. As a result, we offer a diverse array of programs: some focus on leadership training, others on volunteerism and chesed, still others on Jewish learning. Because of the broad range of experiences we offer, we truly believe that there is an NCSY summer program for virtually every Jewish teen.
Take TJJ, for example, a coed program geared to public school kids. This program allows kids to experience the thrill of touring Israel and deepening their understanding of our shared history. When I was youth chairman of NCSY, I rode on one of the TJJ buses along with the teens, all of whom were in Israel for the first time. I could see the impact the visits to Kever Rachel and Chevron had on these kids. Even though many of them had never experienced a Shabbat prior to that summer, they could feel the kedushah of these holy sites. A few of them even got choked up when putting on tefillin for the first time.
Kollel NCSY, an all-boys program, offers an entirely different experience. Geared to yeshivah kids as well as to those with limited backgrounds who are interested in learning, the program provides a unique combination of sports with intense Torah study with some of today’s foremost Torah scholars, including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, OU posek and rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. I am always impressed not only by Rav Schachter’s vast Torah knowledge but also by the personal warmth he shows each and every student.
Recently, NCSY Kollel participants visited an army base to witness OU Israel’s Mashiv HaRuach program firsthand. Mashiv HaRuach is an outreach program that gives Israeli soldiers a deeper appreciation for Judaism and the Jewish land. Rav Schachter accompanied the NCSY Kollel participants and, on the bus ride to the base, reviewed the halachot that pertain to army life. “The boys were amazed by the impact the OU is having on these soldiers,” said Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, director of NCSY Kollel.
Our GIVE program (Girls Israel Volunteer Experience) is an all-girls Israel-based summer program that focuses heavily on volunteering and chesed opportunities. Participants assist developmentally disabled youth, work in soup kitchens and run a carnival for disadvantaged youth. And while I won’t list each and every one of our summer programs, I do want to mention NCSY’s Jewish Overseas Leadership Training (JOLT) program, which takes promising teens on a life-altering trip to Poland, Denmark and Israel.
I want to stress that while all of our programs offer phenomenal trips and touring, their primary goal is to help teens—on all religious levels—grow Jewishly. No wonder our programs have been known to change lives. Sixteen-year-old Netanya Stein is a case in point. Three years ago, she met Rael Blumenthal, New Jersey NCSY’s city director of Teaneck. “I had never heard of NCSY before, but he got me hooked,” said Netanya, whose story is posted on NCSY’s web site. “I signed up for TJJ and it was the best summer of my life.” The program served as Netanya’s first positive introduction to Orthodox Judaism. Netanya, who will be a senior at a public high school in New Jersey this coming year, became very close to her advisors and they made her want to learn more about Judaism. “I wanted to become more observant,” she said. After spending a summer on TJJ, she attended GIVE and JOLT. After she graduates from high school, Netanya hopes to attend seminary in Israel.
Netanya’s story is not unique. And none of our programs would be successful without our first-rate staff. We can inspire teens because we understand teens. We know what they are interested in and what motivates them. As Rabbi Benovitz explains, “If something is happening in the teen world, we are aware of it.”
Our directors are highly trained and extremely capable individuals. I am constantly impressed by David Cutler, director of NCSY summer programs and finances, and his exceptional staff who coordinated the sending off of hundreds of teens this past summer. David is a consummate professional who is continually bringing our summer programs to greater heights.
As OU president, I must, of course, look at NCSY summer programs from a broad point of view. It is important that our teens do not lose their enthusiasm when they return home from their summer experiences, so NCSY’s school-year programs and the NextGen programs for college students and alumni are very much on my horizon. I want to expand our summer programs so we can accommodate even more teenagers. I want to make sure that any teen who wants to enjoy the experience can do so.
The school year is here, the yamim tovim are approaching, and planning for next year’s programs are underway. Now is the time to start thinking about presenting your favorite teen(s) with the gift of an NCSY summer for 2014.
Allow me to conclude with an invitation to parents and educators out there: please come and visit our summer programs. Visit us at any one of our US or Israel programs, and see for yourself why nearly 1,000 teens chose to spend their summer with NCSY.
For more information on any one of our summer programs, visit http://summer.ncsy.org.