With chapters and regions across United States and Canada, NCSY — the international youth program of the Orthodox Union — has become a household name on the North American continent. Its mark has been left not only on the map but in the hearts of countless thousands of teens who have been inspired by NCSY to discover the beauty of their heritage. With an awareness that it’s not only North American teens who are subject to assimilation, but their counterparts in South America as well, NCSY has expanded, first to Chile, where it has operated for the past four years, and now to Argentina, where the new NCSY chapter will be officially dedicated.
The dedication will take place when an OU delegation, led by President Stephen J. Savitsky and NCSY International Director Rabbi Steven Burg, will visit Buenos Aires, June 12 to 15, to celebrate the grand opening of NCSY Argentina chapter and to meet with dignitaries of the Orthodox and the general Jewish community, and of course with the teens themselves.
“NCSY is dedicated to inspiring the Jewish future no matter what language it is in. Teens are looking for meaning and spirituality all over the world and we bring it to them on their level,” declared Rabbi Burg.
“After more than half a century of success in North America, NCSY is expanding its horizons to South America,” Mr. Savitsky said. “We are very fortunate in Argentina and Chile to have teenagers who are eager to learn about their heritage, and we are confident that the great work of NCSY will help these teens develop into the future leaders of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Burg and Mr. Savitsky will be accompanied by Rabbi Israel Lashak, the Dallas-based NCSY Southwest Regional Director, who is himself a native of Mexico; as well as a number of key lay leaders of the OU. They will be greeted by Rabbi Shimon Vinger, Director and Founder of NCSY South America, based in Santiago, Chile, and Rabbi Marcelo Krawiec, the Director of the Argentina chapter .
Rabbi Vinger, who is not a native Spanish speaker, learned the language when he first moved to Chile with his family in 2004. Once the chapter was started in Argentina, he led the first 35 NCSYers on a leadership trip to Florida and New York in February of this year. “The 35 students who participated in the trip brought many of their friends to NCSY programs, and are continuing their involvement with NCSY,” Rabbi Vinger said.
According to Rabbi Vinger, “”We are revolutionizing the way Jewish teens in South America think and feel about Judaism. Our objective is to show each student that there is a Jewish way to see the world. Once we achieve this goal, it depends on the students where they take it. We emphasize that they will not assimilate and many of them begin to keep mitzvot (commandments).”
“Most of the kiruv (outreach) in South America is geared towards university students,” Rabbi Vinger explained. “This is wonderful and amazing. But we insist that it does not make sense to wait until they are deeply involved with everything the world has to offer before we reach out to them. According to the Torah, between the ages of 12 or 13 and 20, a person decides who he or she is. We make Judaism an important part of that process.”
He explained that from the outside it may appear that the large Jewish community in Argentina, approximately 200,000 strong of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi descent, is flourishing; it is in fact, rapidly disappearing.
He remarked that there are nearly 15,000 Jewish teenagers in Buenos Aires, one-third of whom attend the two largest Jewish secular high schools. It is therefore relatively easy to identify teens and to guide them to NCSY.
To replicate the success of NCSY in North America, which proves that teens inspired by the organization do not assimilate and maintain a proud, committed Jewish lifestyle, NCSY programs in Buenos Aires and Chile are similar to the ones in North America. They include learning sessions, Shabbatonim, trips and mentoring programs.
Once the OU delegation steps off the plane in Buenos Aires it will have a jam- packed schedule. The visitors will meet with prominent leaders of Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities such as the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Buenos Aires, Rabbi Yosef Chehebar; Rabbi Avraham Serruya, who leads one of the Sephardi communities, and who himself is involved in kiruv including the NCSY Argentina program; Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer, who leads the largest Ashkenazi community and administers one of the largest kosher certifications in the country; and Rabbi Yitzchak Sacca, another Sephardi leader, who is also very involved in outreach. The group will also meet with representatives of JAFI (The Jewish Agency for Israel) and JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).
Additional highlights of the trip will include a meeting with the Israeli Ambassador, Rafael Eldad and a solidarity visit to the reconstructed AMIA (Asociaciờn Mutual Israelita Argentina) Jewish Community Center, which was bombed in 1994 in a terrorist attack widely attributed to Hezbollah.
On Friday, June 13, Mr. Savitsky will be interviewed on a local radio show, Radio Chai, about the visit of the OU to Argentina.
That evening, the OU delegation will join teens of NCSY Argentina, whose parents would have already met the OU visitors the day before, at a Shabbat dinner and program, where they will be addressed by Mr. Savitsky and Rabbi Burg. The conclusion of the Sabbath will mark the NCSY chapter’s official grand opening.
“These teens are a very special group. We didn’t need to advertise, they heard about us from their peers and started coming to the programs. The feedback from the parents is tremendous; they are very happy and want us to continue working with their teens,” Rabbi Vinger said.
Below is an excerpt from a letter to NCSY from a mother of one of the participants in the February visit to Florida and New York:
“As Mijal’s mother, I am very happy that she has become part of this group. The trip was important, but the most important thing for me is that this group continues and grows every day. I want you to know that I will always be available for whatever you need from me. I am so thankful that my daughter came across your path. She looks very content and happy to be involved with you. ”
Michelle Bortnik, who is now a student at Stern College for Women in New York and is a native of Argentina, became involved with NCSY while living in Miami. She wrote:
“When I was becoming religious through NCSY, I remember speaking to many people about the possibility of ever opening NCSY in Argentina. I was so grateful (and still am) for everything NCSY had done for me, that I felt my people in Argentina deserved to have this opportunity as well.
“A few months ago, I had the privilege to be an advisor for a group of 35 Argentineans who came to New York, and it was here for the first time that I actually realized NCSY in Argentina is real. It is so amazing to see Argentinean boys and girls who come from a culture filled with passion and so much energy, and refocus it toward Judaism.
For more information on the OU visit to Argentina and the NCSY Argentina chapter contact David Frankel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-613-8381.