YU Student, Zev Eleff, Writes History of NCSY, 1954-1980

30 Jan 2009

Ostensibly, most college students like to relax in their spare time. Whether it’s playing foosball, surfing the Internet, or watching television, mindless activities can help de-stress a busy student. Yeshiva University senior Zev Eleff, on the other hand, doesn’t know what spare time is.

Zev, who grew up in Baltimore and Skokie, IL is a senior in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva University, former editor-in-chief of the undergraduate newspaper, The Commentator, newly engaged, and now – a published book author. Zev recently completed a treatise on the making and early history of NCSY, “Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954-1980.”Although the book, published by Ktav, is not yet available in stores, it can be purchased at the famed YU SOY Seforim Sale, occurring from February 1-22 this year at YU’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights. The book can also be purchased through the OU’s online store, www.shopou.org.

NCSY, formally known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, is the international youth organization of the Orthodox Union.

“I was speaking with Rabbi Steven Burg (International Director of NCSY) during a Shabbos in which he invited me to his home last year,” explains Zev, “when we started talking about how a book chronicling the history of NCSY would be a great project.” Zev, who had just finished editing a book about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik called “Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” (also published by Ktav) decided he was just the man for the job. And so, during the summer of 2008, Zev spent much of his time researching the creation in 1954 of NCSY and its early history – when he wasn’t serving as an educational counselor for Camp Stone, that is.

Zev says most of his research was not conducted through interviews but through archival research. “Yeshiva’s archive was a great resource for me to utilize, and Rabbi Burg and Ronit Meitlis (Assistant Director of OU Program Development) were consistently supportive of me, looking at rough drafts of the book and putting me in touch with various former and current NCSY officials whose internal documents provided a wealth of information for me. Old NCSY manuals and published documents also came in very handy.” Funding for the book came from NCSY, but Zev personally did not get paid to write it. “This book, while a labor of love for me and extraordinary fun, was certainly accomplished through a team effort.”

Rabbi Burg writes the afterword, which includes ways NCSY has changed since its founding and early beginnings. “When NCSY was founded, television was still a novelty. There were no iPods or Internet, no SUVs or soccer moms. Teens didn’t eat sushi or drink cappuccino. The world has changed. Teens have changed. By necessity, NCSY has grown and developed. The trick has been for NCSY to stay relevant to twenty-first century youth while remaining consistent with its firm foundation of Torah values. Through our innovative, fun programming, NCSY has been able to cultivate events that still resonate with our Jewish youth and are currently able to attract and serve 35,000 Jewish teens each year.”

Rabbi Burg also mentions the creation of the Jewish Student Union (JSU), which acknowledges that NCSY cannot take for granted that Jewish teens will be in a synagogue of any denomination on a Friday night or Saturday morning. “But we know where kids can be found 40 hours a week: in school,” says Rabbi Burg. “During the weekly club hour, over 200 JSU clubs in communities across the continent provide Jewish teens attending public high schools with a deeper appreciation for their rich Jewish heritage and inspire them to live fully committed Jewish lives.”

Zev only wrote about the history of NCSY through 1980, and when asked why, he says, “After NCSY took off and became the multi-service movement spread across the American forefront that it is today, it became nearly impossible to write a concise history of its efforts and programs. To document its history after 1980 would require a volume for each of its 18 fully-operational regions, rather than one comprehensive work.” Zev, who plans to pursue a career in Jewish education upon his college graduation this May, said he does not have plans to undertake that daunting project (“a challenge for some other historian,” he says) but is happy with his effort to record the early makings of NCSY.

Of Zev’s effort, Rabbi Burg states, “Zev Eleff, an outstanding scholar and individual, has done an exemplary job documenting the early days of NCSY. Through diligent research, Zev was able to uncover many historical gems that illustrate the challenges NCSY initially faced as a youth movement committed to Torah and mitzvoth in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. I look forward to the eventual, inevitable, sequel, detailing how NCSY continues to carry the torch into the new millennium and beyond.”