There’s something extraordinarily rare about a close circle of more than 100 middle-school students who care. Teachers know how hard it is. Trying to get the typical middle-school student to listen, let alone become passionately involved in anything besides sports, fashion or the latest iPod, is like pulling teeth. Yet somehow, Junior NCSY’s New Jersey Region has perfected this delicate art into a science. If you ask the NCSY regional administration, they’ll tell you that it’s all about having a great staff; but as a New Jersey Juniors advisor, I say it’s much more than competent, enthusiastic role models. The empowering energy infused into the ambiance of NCSY programming is what moves NCSYers across the United States to sing and tear, to absorb and exude, to feel so intensely their Jewish heritage.
Founded by the Orthodox Union in the mid-1950s, NCSY is an organization originally intended exclusively for high school students. The need to engage an even younger audience, through Junior NCSY, was realized shortly thereafter. Decades later, New Jersey, one of Juniors’ first regions, now hosts chapters in nine local communities— Cherry Hill, Fair Lawn, Highland Park, Manalapan, Passaic, Springfield, Teaneck, Twin Rivers and West Orange. Bimonthly programs and six themed regional Shabbatons throughout the year serve as the stage for New Jersey Juniors’ hundreds of members to discover and express their Judaism.
I was hesitant when I was encouraged by a college friend to attend a Shabbaton last February. Previously involved in other youth groups in Chicago, as a participant in middle school and an adviser in high school, I had a feeling NCSY was going to be an entirely different experience. Carrying the responsibility of “Inspiring the Jewish Future,” the NCSY slogan, seemed somewhat intimidating to an incoming adviser. Every Shabbaton involves the basics — davening, meals, and programming — but knowing that my friend chose to be an adviser specifically for Junior NCSY set it on a more elevated and purposeful level.
During the Shabbat ebbing circle at the most recent New Jersey Junior NCSY Shabbaton, a highlight of every NCSY Shabbaton, Aaron Horn, the Regional Director, told a true story about former Idaho Senator William Borah. A seemingly random and unsung hero of Jewish history, Senator Borah single-handedly convinced former presidents Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rescue two Jewish teenagers from Russian jails. These two teenagers later became Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “We don’t know what implications our decisions may have in the future,” he told the circle of advisers and NCSYers, who were fixating their gazes on various points in the room and wiping away loose tears, diving into self-reflection. “But what we do know,” he continued, “is that they all count.”
The power of one, the individual– and more importantly, a unified community — is emphasized at NCSY’s Shabbatons and educational programs. Taking the guise of comical skits, Chinese dinners and Bananagrams tournaments, NCSY reveals to its middle school members that they are important contributors to a movement much larger than their fantasy basketball leagues and social cliques, even larger than NCSY itself, and so great it’s been around almost forever—the Jewish nation. NCSY tells its members that they are important; their efforts count in making the world a better place and, in turn, the world counts on them to act accordingly. The message is contagious.
Four years after shedding my high school cocoon and having entered the broader community of the college campus, I find that my youthful innocence continues to dwindle. Caught in a whirlwind of pedestrians stampeding past Manhattan’s homeless and ambitious students engrossed in physics web-assigns and Geoffrey Chaucer, the degree to which apathy seeps into the ideological missions of humanity is frightening. So a weekend of NCSY in New Jersey suburbia is a breath of fresh air, in more ways than physical. And while an NCSY Friday night circle may also drown out the sound of my vocal cords, not by car horns but by 100 voices joined in a grand “Umdididai,” my inner voice echoes for days and weeks that follow.
A close circle of more than 100 middle-school students who care is hard to come by, but thankfully, in the American orthodox community we have NCSY. Through the setting of a youth group and the environment of informal education, imparting a dedication to traditional Jewish practice and eternal Jewish values is an uplifting and glorified task. As an adviser dedicated to “Inspiring the Jewish Future,” New Jersey Juniors NCSYers inspire my Judaism in turn.
Meira Weiss-Faratci, a public relations intern at the OU, is a regional adviser for Junior NCSY’s New Jersey Region. Currently a senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and a Chicago native, she feels fervently connected to the New Jersey NCSY region, its adviser staff and middle school participants.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.