From time to time, Rabbi Ethan Katz goes to work in sloppy clothes. He pulls on his “seriously stained” casual pants and shirts, and his work boots, topping it all off with a baseball cap. Then, accompanied by a dozen or more teenagers, he heads for the muck, mire and ruin of natural disasters to bring hope and good cheer to the victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and other calamities.
The newly named Regional Director of New Jersey NCSY developed a reputation as the chesed (loving-kindness) rabbi, who has led or dispatched groups on 22 trips to disaster sites – including multiple trips to New Orleans; Oak Island (Galveston), Texas; Birmingham; Nashville; Boulder, Colorado and Rochester, Minnesota. Closer to home, there was also a post-Sandy trip to Hoboken. The trips have brought yeshiva and public school students to these communities; some trips were all boys, some all girls, and some co-ed. Another journey to New Orleans is scheduled for February, and the participating teens are already beginning their preparatory meetings. Even with his new title, Rabbi Katz will don his disaster gear once again in the Crescent City.
Rabbi Katz succeeds the much-respected Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, who also served as National Education Director of NCSY. He is moving on to lead the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, his alma mater, and where he received semicha. Rabbi Glasser will continue in his role as rav at the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton.
Rabbi Katz’ journey to NCSY was not a straight path. Living in Israel where he moved following high school, he received his higher education at the Technion and served in the Israel Defense Forces in the paratroopers service and as a first sergeant in an anti-tank reserve unit. Following his time in the military, he was engaged in retail business and marketing. Upon his return to New Jersey in 2005, Rabbi Katz got his NCSY start as a chapter advisor in Cherry Hill. This came about when Chazzan Isaac Horowitz of Congregation Sons of Israel, where he also led the youth program, asked Ethan to chaperone a Junior NCSY group to a Shabbaton. “I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Rabbi Katz recalls. “He twisted my arm, so I went. After the Shabbaton I called him and told him it was one of the most amazing things I had ever done. Chazzan Horowitz told me that he could have chosen someone else but he wanted me. He had authority to hire for NCSY in the area and he hired me as Cherry Hills Chapter Advisor.”
Now in an emeritus position at the synagogue, the cantor surely knew how to recognize talent.
Rabbi Katz moved rapidly up the regional ladder, serving as Central Jersey district director in 2007-2008. He then moved to Fairlawn and was promoted to northern director. In 2009 he was promoted again to associate regional director, a position he held until September when NCSY held its annual staff conference and he assumed the title of director, which has now been made official. Because of Rabbi Glasser’s multiple responsibilities, for the past few years Rabbi Katz has been managing day-to-day operations of the region, its programming and staff management.
Rabbi Katz will supervise a fulltime staff of seven, a part-time staff of 20, and more than 50 volunteers. They will serve more than 1,500 teenagers in the Garden State, in an approximate 2/3 to 1/3 ratio of Jewish day school/public school students. (The public school students include those in Jewish Student Union programs in 15 high schools.)
Rabbi Katz has giant shoes to step into, but he was well-prepared for the task by Rabbi Glasser himself.
“Rabbi Glasser has been a phenomenal mentor and friend,” explains Rabbi Katz. “Almost everything I know in this organization I have learned from his passion and vision. He has taught me how to bring out the best in people; he has inspired me to always see the future potential in every program we run. He has taught me to focus on numbers, but the most important number is always number ONE: what each individual teen gets from the program.”
Rabbi Glasser returns the compliments. “Rabbi Ethan Katz distinguishes himself throughout the NCSY professional world as a unique combination of stellar professionalism and total devotion to the personal and religious needs of our students. Rabbi Katz has a track record of success in inspiring individual NCSYers to grow in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and at the same time has brought some of the most creative programming to the growing New Jersey Region. I have full confidence that under his leadership, the region will continue to serve as the primary inspirational force within the New Jersey teen Jewish community, finding new ways to engage and inspire our youth to reach their full personal and religious potential.”
International Director of NCSY Rabbi Micha Greenland seconds the praise. “Rabbi Katz unquestionably has big shoes to fill, as he takes over an enormously successful operation, succeeding Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, who was brilliant as a leader of staff and inspirational in how he connected with teens. At the same time, Rabbi Katz is uniquely positioned to build on those successes. In his role as associate regional director, he was responsible for many of the region’s most innovative programs, including highly impactful service learning missions and disaster relief trips. I look forward to working with Rabbi Katz as he leads New Jersey NCSY to ever greater accomplishments.”
Allen Fagin, chair of the OU’s Youth Commission, which oversees NCSY, also believes that the OU made a sound choice in promoting Rabbi Katz. “Ethan Katz has been a leader of New Jersey NCSY for over six years,” he said. “As he now assumes the role of regional director in one of NCSY’s largest and most significant regions, we are confident that his vast experience, his welcoming and engaging style, and his manifest talents will propel the New Jersey region to even greater successes. ”
“Rabbi Katz has long proven himself as an extraordinary leader and passionate outreach professional,” added Dr. Murray Leben, chairman of the board of New Jersey NCSY. “He has the talent, creativity, and experience to guide our region to remarkable success. Rabbi Katz exudes the sense of “mission” that is critical in confronting the Jewish people’s most vital challenge — the future of our youth. The New Jersey NCSY lay leadership looks forward to working with Rabbi Katz in fulfilling our shared vision of inspiring the teens of New Jersey from across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation.”
New Jersey NCSY consists of city directors in Twin Rivers (Southern New Jersey, East Windsor); Monmouth County (Manalapan, Marlborough, Englishtown); Highland Park and West Orange. There are chapters in Fair Lawn, and Teaneck and programming, consisting of the popular Friday Night Lights initiative, in Livingston and Englewood.
Although Rabbi Katz will be in charge of all programs, and will work to develop new ones, he will always be identified with disaster relief. It began post- Hurricane Katrina, when then NCSY International Director Rabbi Steven Burg sent him to New Orleans with students from the Torah Academy of Bergen County. Then Rabbi Glasser dispatched him on missions following other disasters. Having lived for years in Israel, Rabbi Katz was right at home doing relief work.
“I viewed this as a continuation of the work of the State of Israel, the number one responder worldwide to national disasters,” Rabbi Katz recalls. There was more involved than disaster relief, however. “One of the big things lacking in the Jewish world today is leadership and I view this as training programs to create future leaders. The kids on these trips realize that in their own hands, face to face, they have made a difference in people’s lives, that they have the power to really impact and help other people and the power to create a Kiddush Hashem – the sanctification of the Divine Name.
“In most cases we encounter people who have never met Jew before, certainly not Orthodox Jews, and we leave behind the impression of Orthodox Jews we have made in the communities we visit. The kids walk away saying, ‘Wow, I really made a difference and a difference for Orthodox Jews.’ Now, after a disaster, the kids call to say, ’What can we do to help?’”
There is still much work to do in New Orleans, Rabbi Katz reports, and so in February he will be leading 30 girls from public and private schools, joined by Dr. Leben, chairman of the board of New Jersey NCSY.
Rabbi Katz’ has big plans for the future. “We want to continue to grow our leadership programs; to increase the amount of kids we impact; to start a Torah High in Southern New Jersey for public school kids. In view of the Pew Report, our goal, our real vision, is to increase our public school programming while continuing to grow our yeshiva programming as well.”
Summer programs, which have quadrupled in participants in the past few years, will continue to receive careful attention, and Rabbi Katz will look to bring back Junior NCSY, which was shut down two years ago, in order to get a head start on working with the Jewish youth of New Jersey.
Rabbi Katz resides in Fairlawn with his wife of 26 years, Debbie. They have four children, Shani, 23; Talia, 22 and living in Israel; Shmuel, 19, who is married, living in Israel and is now in the army; and Naama, 12, living at home.
That home includes Rabbi Katz’ closet where he keeps his disaster gear. Given the vagaries of nature, he knows that even after the next New Orleans trip, he will need the boots and other inelegant items of clothing again and off he will go, leading his New Jersey teens, to bring happiness into the lives of total strangers.
“There are two aspects of the trips,” Rabbi Katz explains. “There is the physical work and then there is the spiritual work. We visit the local Jewish communities and enrich their Shabbat. The kids really learn from their tremendous leadership experiences. They know that even today in America, one person can make a difference in people’s lives.”