OU’s NCSY’s NY & NJ Gala Celebrates Jewish Public School Teens’ Resilience Amid Relentless Antisemitism

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02 Apr 2024

Evening honored three couples for their outstanding contributions to NCSY

At a time when Jewish public school teens are grappling with relentless antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, Jewish Student Union (JSU) culture clubs in their schools have served as their literal safe havens, by helping students to cultivate a strong sense of Jewish pride and equipping them with the tools to respond to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incidents both in and out of school.

A program of the Orthodox Union’s NCSY, JSU is a network of after-school Jewish culture clubs for North American Jewish students in public schools and non-Jewish private schools. JSU staff engage over 17,000 teens at 316 schools across the country in meaningful discussions, education and celebrations centering on Judaism and Israel, and help interested teens to develop relationships with their Jewish heritage, identities and values. JSUs are open to non-Jewish students as well, with the goal of fostering an understanding of, and allyship with, their Jewish peers.

Since October 7, 30 new JSU clubs have launched across the U.S alone, including eight in New York and New Jersey, where JSU impacted 6300 teens in 2023, a 40% increase from 2022.

Sofie is president of her high school’s JSU. The East Meadow, New Jersey, resident says that JSU is the one place in her school where she feels most comfortable and safe.

“Because of the daily antisemitism at my school, it’s such a great feeling to be able to walk into a space where everybody is accepting of our Judaism and our religion,” she says. “Everybody there attends for the same reason; to find a Jewish community.”

In her leadership position, Sofie has brought in staff from Stand With Us and other organizations to inspire JSU members to take pride in their Judaism and support of Israel. Sofie was also among the featured speakers at a November rally for Israel held in Long Island.

“The antisemitism I encountered at school was the reason I decided to speak out,” she says. “Even at a young age, it’s never too early to start making a difference. I feel it’s my responsibility to be that voice for the Jewish people. Just like all students from different backgrounds deserve to learn about their homelands and where they came from, as a Jewish person, I deserve to learn about, and feel the same sense of respect, for Israel.”

David and Stephanie Sokol

Earlier this month, Sofie and fellow JSU teens everywhere were celebrated for their courage and resilience, at New York and New Jersey NCSY’s Evening of Strength. Held at a hall in Lawrence, New York, and chaired by Rabbi Dov and Rina Emerson, and Jeremy and Dana Frenkel, the gala dinner also honored esteemed community pillars David and Stephanie Sokol of Woodmere, New York; Rabbi Aryeh and Yael Wielgus of Bergenfield, New Jersey;and Rabbi Tuvya and Sara Fried of Far Rockaway, New York, for their dedication to NCSY.

Dalia Sokol describes her parents, David and Stephanie, as “the Avraham and Sara of hachnasas orchim”; continually hosting people for Shabbos and holidays and trying to bring others closer to Hashem.

David and Stephanie became enamored with TJJ (The Jerusalem Journey, JSU’s summer program) for Moms — an eight-day Israel trip where participants connect to the land, to their Jewish values, and to one another — after they attended an NCSY Shabbat of Inspiration dinner at Young Israel of Woodmere. The two were so inspired by the event and the women they connected with, that they decided to become actively involved with TJJ.

Rabbi Aryeh and Yael Wielgus

From reciting Modeh Ani with women daily, to accompanying them to the mikvah — a highlight of Stephanie’s involvement — and connecting nightly on Zoom to daven for Israel, Stephanie says she draws tremendous chizuk from her new TJJ friends.

“Seeing mitzvos that we do all the time through the eyes of someone experiencing them for the first time, is the most inspiring, awesome thing to watch,” says Stephanie. “There’s nothing like it.”

Young Israel of Woodmere’s Rosh Bais Midrash and Yachad Rabbinic and Halachic Advisor Rabbi Shay Schacter has observed TJJ for Moms develop over time, and credits the Sokols with helping the program to flourish.

“It is amazing to see the inspiring leadership of Stephanie and all of her friends, and of course of David and the entire family, who go along with everything that TJJ for Moms represents,” he says. “The Sokols welcome participants into their home and include them in every aspect of Jewish life.”

Former NCSY New Jersey Regional Director Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus is known by his colleagues for his passion, authenticity, spontaneity and “crazy schemes”. One summer, an organization called Athletes for Israel brought the Auburn Tigers, a Division 1 basketball team from Alabama, to Israel, to play against the country’s national team. Filling the stands at their biggest game, were 400 NCSY Kollel participants, whom Rabbi Wielgus had brought in to watch. The yeshiva boys, he recalls, garnered more attention at the live broadcast than the basketball players.

Rabbi Tuvya and Sara Fried

That fall, Rabbi Wielgus created a tournament and Shabbaton in Auburn, Alabama, for more than 120 yeshiva day school student athletes. The group also attended an Auburn Tigers home game in appreciation to Auburn Tigers’ Coach Bruce Pearl for his support of the Jewish People.

Rabbi Wielgus is most proud of overseeing the creation of NCSY’s 4G (For Girls) program, which caters to a broad spectrum of Modern Orthodox and Bais Yaakov high school girls. The success of the initiative, he says, surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams.

Rabbi Wielgus and Yael agree that their entire family has been shaped and enriched by their involvement with NCSY.

“The organization is everything to us,” says Rabbi Wielgus. “It’s where our family got started, it’s where our career began, but most importantly, it’s where we met so many amazing teenagers and staff who continue to inspire us every day.”

“Participation in NCSY will change your life, “ adds Yael. “We will hold on to these feelings forever and look forward to continuing our involvement in whatever capacity we can.”

NCSY Managing Director Rabbi Moshe Benovitz says the couple have impacted more people than almost anybody he knows in the world of NCSY.

“They do it out of their incredible capacity for love, generosity and ability to connect to such a wide variety of people, with a goodness of spirit and energy that is absolutely contagious,” he says.

Rabbi Tuvya Fried has been a dedicated, driving force in NCSY for 22 years, seeing past people’s appearances and into their neshamos as NCSY’s Great Neck Educator. For decades, he and Sara opened their home to dozens of NCSYers who became part of their family.

Described by his colleagues as a coach, athlete, mashpia, Rebbe, and person who is willing to take on any job at NCSY’s Camp Sports, Rabbi Fried first influenced NCSY Camp Sports Assistant Director Rabbi Dani Cooper in 1996.

“I was a camper then, and I remember my first time meeting him in the Bais Midrash, seeing his fire and the look in his eyes when he learns and interacts,” recalls Rabbi Cooper. “It made me realize that there was a way to go in terms of my own fire, my own passion. He continues to have that fire.”

NCSY Great Neck Director Rabbi Jonathan Zar sees Rabbi Fried as someone who always steps up to the plate: “A student of mine attended Camp Sports and he developed a connection with Rabbi Fried,” he recounts. “Once the student returned home, he wanted to start a regular class for himself and some friends. Rabbi Fried immediately offered to teach it. That shiur ran for close to 10 years, and was attended by hundreds of teens, entirely because of Rabbi Fried.”

The Frieds see NCSY as a wonderful tool to educate teens and contribute to their religious growth and inspiration.

“NCSY is so important to us and to all of Bnei Yisrael because it connects our youth who are not affiliated with their Jewish roots in a very emotional way,” says Rabbi Fried. “NCSY does something that no one else can do with teenagers; it gets them to love Torah and mitzvos. That’s the magic of NCSY.”

The gala included entertainment by IDF paratrooper Sergeant Major Noam Buskila, a singer serving on Israel’s northern border, and an address by New York and New Jersey NCSY CEO Rabbi Gideon Black.

Reflecting on the evening, all agree that it was extremely special to be celebrated alongside public school teens for their resilience in the face of persistent harassment.

“The first week I began working at NCSY nine years ago, a JSU club president called me about a swastika that had been drawn on the school’s football field,” recalls Rabbi Wielgus. “That was an isolated incident back then and JSU responded. In light of what our public school students are experiencing now, I know their struggles, and what the NCSY leadership means to them. It’s incredible to see them rising above it. To be celebrating alongside them was tremendously rewarding and humbling. Because NCSY is not about the adults, it’s about the growth and leadership of these teens.”

Rabbi Fried agrees.

“In today’s troubling times where Jewish public school teenagers face daily antisemitism, we must give them strength and knowledge of the beauty of Judaism,” he says. “The teens’ resilience proves to me that there is a great future for the Jewish people and a great need for NCSY.”