Title: Living from Convention to Convention: A History of NCSY, 1954-1980
Author: Zev Eleff
Publisher: Ktav Publishing Inc.
Living from Convention to Convention: A History of NCSY, 1954-1980 by Zev Eleff charts the history of NCSY since its inception. These formative years allowed the national youth organization of the Orthodox Union to become what many say is now the largest force in bringing Jewish teens closer to their heritage and religion.
Eleff wrote the magnum opus as an undergrad student at Yeshiva University. Eleff’s hard work is a thorough and detailed examination of the challenges facing NCSY in its early days and the politics that were present behind the scenes, a given in almost any national Jewish organization.
One of those initial disputes was over the nature of certain activities NCSY sponsored for the young and unaffiliated Jews it hoped to bring closer to Orthodox Judaism. While NCSY was founded with the intent to follow halachic standards, it also needed to attract secular teens to its events. And yet, despite its refusal to cave to protesters and sponsor activities such as mixed dancing beginning in 1961, after Rabbi Pinchas Stolper assumed NCSY’s top position, NCSY was successful in attracting teens who may have otherwise balked at participating in social activities such as “separate workshops in ‘singing and Israeli dancing’ for boys and girls,” part of the program agenda for the 1960 NCSY National Convention.
Eleff attributes this to NCSY’s “serious effort to give NCSYers a feeling of ownership of the youth ownerships,” owing to the movement’s malleable nature when it was first starting out. “Teenagers began to flock to NCSY because they considered themselves partners in its inception and development,” he writes.
Another difficulty the young movement saw was in maintaining close ties with right-wing rabbinical figures, which Rabbi Stolper felt was crucial to NCSY’s survival and continued success. Eleff suggests that this was due to the fact that in previous decades, Modern Orthodox Jews were more lax in their religious observance. Thus, “Modern Orthodox rabbis of the 1970’s tended to validate their outlooks outside a halachic framework.”
Because Rabbi Stolper hope to attract more right-wing youth to NCSY, the many endorsements of those Modern Orthodox rabbis would not go a long way towards convincing more right-wing teens to attend. However, as more right-wing rabbis had trouble giving approval to a movement that sponsored co-ed activities – even if they did not involved mixed swimming or dancing – appealing to more yeshivish students proved difficult.
A further blow came when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, one of the most seminal figures in Orthodox outreach, criticized both Yavneh and NCSY as groups that fell outside the realm of acceptable Orthodox outreach organizations. Due to a misunderstanding, the Rebbe was led to believe that NCSY may have made dispensations for its followers at the cost of strict adherence to Torah law, which he found wholly unacceptable.
“In the end,” writes Eleff, “the episode’s residual effects were minimal [but] the incident speaks to the caution exercised by the already well-established NCSY to mollify right-wing Orthodox leaders to whom NCSY administrators felt obligated to justify the ideals of the youth movement.”
Eleff touches upon a significant change that faced NCSY beginning in the late 1970’s, when the majority of teens attending NCSY events and involved in its programming came from single-sex and co-ed yeshivas and day schools. Eleff accredits this to two things: to NCSY’s belief in “demographic studies [in the 1980’s] that suggested Orthodoxy was losing thousands of neglected young people reared in observant homes, and “the disappearance of Jews from the small towns that had once been the hallmark of the youth movement.”
Many small-town families that had once been the stronghold of NCSY were now moving to more mainstream Jewish communities or becoming more assimilated into the general population. It was at this time, writes Eleff, that NCSY established intensive study programs and kollel programs in Israel, recognizing that the typical NCSYer was now most likely to be from an Orthodox background.
The aforementioned episodes only highlight the numerous anecdotes and historical reminiscences that are so abundant throughout this crowning achievement. Eleff is to be commended for the painstaking research he conducted to compile this definitive history. The serious historian and the casual reader alike will both benefit from his devotion to producing a comprehensive history accurate in its minutest details. This slim volume contains a wealth of details.
Perhaps the greatest value of this book is that it illustrates a number of important halachic and hashkafic principles regarding how one does effective kiruv on the individual and mass scale without sacrificing one’s integrity, personal or institutional. In that sense, this book reads like a primer of kiruv, one that kiruv practitioners today would be well advised to read and follow.
The times, conditions, and challenges facing outreach workers in the 21st century might have changed in certain details – iPods, Internet, cell phones, etc. – but the principles for connecting effectively and communicating eloquently the beauty of Torah remain remarkably constant, and the heroic men and women who presided over the birth of NCSY have much to say to our modern kiruv workers. And given the realities of the Jewish world and our responsibility for our fellow Jews, aren’t we all outreach workers?
Rabbi Burg writes an afterword, praising Eleff’s work in tackling “the seemingly insurmountable task of documenting NCSY’s formative early years.” Rabbi Burg described the ways NCSY has changed in more recent times, as teens themselves have changed since earlier decades of NCSY. “… as of the close of the era covered by this volume, NCSY’s story has just begun. I look forward to the eventual, inevitable sequel, detailing how NCSY continues to carry the torch into the new millennium and beyond.”
The book is available in major Judaica stores and through the OU’s online store, www.shopou.org.