What’s the minimum age for the leader of a political mission to Washington? What about for the National President of, well, anything? Meet Rivka Abbe and Ariella Freedman, leader of a lobby mission to Washington, DC and former National President of NCSY, respectively. Both are currently 19 years old.
NCSY’s GIVE (Girls Israel Volunteer Experience) program served as Rivka’s introduction to the organization in the summer of 2011. She credits her experience that summer with getting her hooked on taking action. “GIVE is five weeks of chesed, not just a tour of Israel,” Rivka explains. “You do every kind of chesed you can possibly imagine, from being a medical clown, to planting vineyards, to working in soup kitchens.” What clinched her convictions was her experience at Aleh, an organization that helps people with severe physical disabilities, many of whom cannot move. When the GIVE girls spent an hour singing and dancing in front of children and saw the thrill it gave them, Rivka says, “It made me realize that you can really have an impact on people. It made me want to spend my life giving to Am Yisrael.”
Once GIVE got the ball rolling, the next step for Rivka was arranging an Israel advocacy group, Central Political Awareness Committee (C-PAC), in her high school. This was a natural outgrowth of her interest in politics and the Land of Israel. The club held information sessions to teach kids about lobbying, raise their level of awareness regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, and actually lobby congressmen over the phone.
The opportunity to intern in NCSY’s Department of Education was an exciting one for Rivka. “At NCSY, they really care about the Jewish people and they all really want to be there,” she says. In the Department of Education, she helped develop Israel-related educational materials for teens so that they could become active participants in the political process. At this point, she had the idea of organizing a teen lobby mission in Washington, D.C. NCSY partnered with Yeshiva University and her effort turned into a two-day event involving more than one hundred teens. The first day was spent on YU’s campus where the teens learned about advocacy and lobbying. The second day was spent meeting with their representatives in D.C. and with Jarrod Bernstein, the Jewish liaison at the White House. “Her professionalism masked that fact that she was a high school student,” recalls Rabbi David Bashevkin, Director of Education at NCSY. “Her intelligence is matched by her creativity. Definitely mature beyond her years.”
The most gratifying experience for Rivka was learning about students from different schools who, after experiencing the power and opportunity that political action holds, have started advocacy groups and missions of their own “It’s our responsibility as Jews to get involved,” she says.
Ariella Freedman, National President of NCSY for the 2012-2013 school year, first got involved in NCSY in high school, participating in the Michlelet program and joining the Regional Board of New York. Becoming Teen President of the National Board took things to a whole new level, though. “My whole life revolved around NCSY that year,” she says. Every leader brings his or her own personal vision to the table. Given the opportunity to implement her ideas on a grand scale, her goal was to foster an even greater sense of community between the different regional divisions. Toward that end, she helped implement several new programs that involved an element of inter-regional involvement. One campaign she spearheaded was a NCSY Stands with Israel Day last year, to show solidarity with Operation Pillar of Defense. Inspired by a friend’s idea for the Jewish students on the Queens College campus, Ariella asked her friend, “Why don’t we make this national?”
On Tuesday, November 20, 2012 about 1,000 teenagers and college-age kids all over the country wore the color red, representing the Code Red siren which indicates an incoming rocket and gives a person between 15-60 seconds to get shelter. They launched a Facebook campaign to raise awareness about the event and posted pictures and reactions on the actual day, helping connect NCSYers wherever they were located.
Other new programming Ariella helped set up included a weekly Call of Inspiration and the Teen-2-Teen Chavruta program. The Call of Inspiration, which continues this year, is a 15-minutes call in each Monday featuring the likes of Lord Jonathan Sacks, Mr. Charlie Harary, and others who talk about various Jewish themes. The call ends with announcements about various upcoming programs and events in different NCSY regions and helps remind everyone of the fact they are part of a much larger whole. The Teen 2 teen Chavruta program began with 30 pairs of teens learning together on a weekly basis, in person, on the phone via video chat. “30 pairs learning on a weekly basis is incredible for the first year,” says Ariella. “It shows how much NCSYers are thirsting for Torah and inspiration.”
On a personal level, Ariella shares that there was a learning curve as far as juggling all her responsibilities – home, school, and NCSY – which served as valuable preparation for the future. In spite of all the pieces she was juggling, Ariella made every effort to speak at each Shabbaton she attended. “I wanted to make it personal, I shouldn’t just be a face they recognize.” Her message? “Keep growing and keep trying to be the best you can be.”
Rabbi Marc Fein, Director of Experiential Education for National NCSY, works closely with the board of which Ariella was president. “Ariella’s maturity, intelligence, and drive are remarkable,” he says. “Her commitment to Torah learning and personal growth helped her lead a team of her peers and implement innovative programming that inspired thousands of teens around the country.”
As much as she has given to NCSY, Ariella says she has gained a tremendous amount in return. “I’m continually inspired by everyone’s thirst for Torah and for inspiration. Growing up in New York’s self-contained Jewish community can make a person forget to look further. But NCSY has taught me to look beyond myself, to ask not just what do I need for my Judaism but what does Am Yisrael need?”
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Rivka and Ariella are just two examples of the network that is NCSY. According to Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY, “A pillar of NCSY’s mission is empowering teens to take ownership of existing programs and develop skills they can use in the future as tomorrow’s Jewish leaders.” Toward that end, NCSY is structured to foster teen leadership. National and Regional divisions, as well as individual Chapters, provide a wealth of opportunities to get involved. With the guidance of mentors and other NCSY staff members, teens themselves are engaged in every phase of programming from concept to completion. Activities range from arranging bowling trips to Shabbatonim to public service such as disaster relief and visiting nursing homes.
Rabbi Greenland believes that professional development is an important value at NCSY and this means developing teen talent as well. “Our message to teens,” he says, “is to never sell yourself short and never stop learning and growing.” With this in mind, NCSY has developed several leadership training programs. One, called Leadership Bootcamp, is an intense four-day program each August. Two to four kids work with the staff to choose a topic and design each of the workshops. Then, they work with about 15 to 20 teens in a “pre-program,” training them to be able to give the workshops that will take place during Bootcamp. “Peers teaching peers is one of the most effective ways to reach kids,” says Rabbi Greenland. “And for those developing the program – it grooms them for public speaking, it teaches them planning, it teaches them how to structure their thoughts and it develops pedagogical skill.”
Another program, JOLT, or Jewish Overseas Leadership Training, begins in Europe where high-school kids from the U.S. and Canada explore their heritage and run a camp, called Am Echad, for unaffiliated Jewish kids. JOLT culminates in a visit to Israel, where after focusing on their Jewish past and present, they have the opportunity to focus on their collective Jewish future. The program includes various leadership and team-building activities as well as formal and informal discussions on effective leadership. Nediva Susman, a JOLT participant, describes it as follows: “You walk out of the ashes of the past, singing, crying, and empowered. You then go to [Am Echad] a place where all of the feelings you had in Poland are turned into actions. We give teenagers, living in places where they lack the necessary resources to be Jewish, the opportunity to see how great our religion is and why it’s worth the struggle. This whole trip has made me so much more appreciative of my family, my homeland, my religion, and my people. I feel Hashem all around me and I see the miracle of our nation and our lives.”
Given that NCSY is celebrating its 60th anniversary, it makes sense to wonder how it has changed over the past six decades of its existence. Having been a part of NCSY in his youth, before joining the organization professionally, Rabbi Greenland says that in his opinion, the commonalities outweigh the difference. “Teens, in general, are in a stage of life where they are part kid and part adult. They want to be treated as mature, thinking people. As a fifteen year old, I found it eye-opening to be taken seriously and I think the same holds true today.”