Since I began my investigation of NCSY back in September, my primary concern has been that America’s foremost after school youth program for Jewish teens is advocating haredism (ultra-Orthodoxy) to secular Jews under the guise of Modern Orthodoxy. In fact, in a two and even three step program, NCSY is proselytizing under an ecumenical veneer, recruiting non-Orthodox Jewish teens to their programs directly from the public school system, through the Jewish Student Union (JSU).
The mission of Jewish Student Union is to get more Jewish teens attending public high schools to do something Jewish! That’s it! It’s that simple!!!
Some of the JSU’s activities are in school, and some of them are after school. JSU has pizza parties, and during school hours, is open to anybody. NCSY’s JSU works with faculty and even has begun partnering with non-Orthodox groups, such as BBYO.
But JSU is ultimately controlled from the top by NCSY. Even the “dean” of the Jewish Student Union is the national director of NCSY, Rabbi Stephen Burg, though he is listed only on the JSU site as a “cool advisor,” without his title, not even of “rabbi,” and like many of its Orthodox advisory staff, without an actual photo. The relationship between JSU and NCSY is not revealed clearly, and by failing to disclose this information NCSY may be seen as attempting to disguise both their control of the program and its goals.
Though the Jewish Student Union may be ecumenical in its content, it will stress participation in other after school activities, such as their latte and learning programs, and NCSY’s staple program, the shabbaton.
Though its declared mission is merely to encourage students to “Do something Jewish. That’s it!” on their website for students (and perhaps parents and administrators), NCSY outlines goals significantly more specific and ambitious in their policies and essays to their staff, and even to the rank and file of membership of the Orthodox Union, NCYS’s parent organization.
Pro scientia atque sapientia?
NCSY promotes haredism and vocational and collegiate underachievement, and they do so through their public school clubs. In fact, they brag about doing so. In last year’s fall issue of the OU’s house organ, Jewish Action, NCSY boasted how they had convinced most of the members of one club (then known as a “JCCs”) at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant high school to abandon their opportunity to ever go to the best colleges in the nation in favor of attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and seminaries.
“Many club members ended up turning down the finest universities in the nation, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Boston University, Brandeis, New York University and other esteemed institutions of higher learning in order to engage in some genuine “higher learning.” Some of us went to study at Ohr Somayach or Kol Yaakov in Monsey, New York. One member deferred Harvard for a few years, ultimately becoming one of the metzuyanim [star students] of the Mir Yeshiva kollel in Yerushalayim (and undoubtedly left someone in the admissions office in Cambridge scratching his head). Two club members went to Neve Yerushalayim College in Jerusalem […] In truth, deciding to defer college in order to further our Jewish education was the proper application of the Stuyvesant school motto, “Pro scientia atque sapientia” (For knowledge and wisdom).”
These haredi institutions which NCSY recruits for are hardcore in their vision of what an “authentic” Jewish life is — and what it isn’t. NCSY is recruiting underage secular Jews to haredi institutions that seek maximum compliance with Jewish law, teach revisionist history of the student’s own frequently forgotten non-haredi traditional Jewish heritage, hagiography, rejection of scientific method when conflicting with a literal understanding of the Torah, and mandate reliance on rabbinical decision making outside the realm of ritual.
What is surprising is that by publishing this article, NCSY and the OU assessed that rank and file Orthodox Union members would have no qualms with promoting this trajectory to Jews in the most competitive public school in the nation. There are some that claim that although NCSY itself is under haredi influence, the Orthodox Union itself remains Modern Orthodox. But the publication of this self-congratulatory essay makes such a distinction between NCSY and its parent organization difficult, although it is possible that while Orthodox Union members prefer a Modern Orthodox–or at least functional–approach for their own kids, they are more willing to advocate haredism and downward mobility to Jews from a secular background.
There are currently 150 of these clubs across the country, each of which generally meet at public schools. There were only 100 of them at the end of 2004, when NCSY explained how important they were in recruiting public school teenagers to haredi institutions.
In addition to recruiting for haredi institutions, NCSY also has a strong relationship with Touro College. Touro is, to be polite, not Yeshiva University. It is a third tier school, and most secular Jews, well known for their academic excellence, would never consider going to a school of its caliber. But NCSY, ever fearful of the risk campus life presents for the newly religious, is promoting Touro. On the application, Touro specifically requests that applicants note their NCSY involvement (see question 18). NCSY even partnered with Touro to establish a girls seminary.” Touro is sold to NCSYers and former NCSYers (who attend these institutions in Israel for one year) on frumkeit and community, as well as college credit for attending seminaries and haredi yeshivas. Touro also provides corporate sponsorships to NCSY. While Touro College may be conducive to Orthodox life, its uncompetitive academic standing does not seem to be an important consideration to NCSY recruiters. Touro College may be more appropriate for haredi students who received a less intensive secular focus in their educational studies than Jews who attended public schools.
NCSY has attempted to defend itself against charges of promoting dual curriculum schools through a dated study that cited only slightly more than one out of four students from its alumni from a public school background went to a dual curriculum school. But this ignores the fact that more like zero out of four would elect to go to a dual curriculum school if it weren’t for the recruitment efforts of NCSY. (Staff pressures to attend dual curriculum schools were noted in this study.) Additionally, since 1998, Touro and haredi institutions such as Aish HaTorah have grown significantly, even if American secular Jewish numbers have stagnated. NCSY’s official position (which will be noted by staff, even if not by NCSY by teenagers) on Ivy League schools is to discourage attending them, and their educational guide refers to them in an eponymous essay as “Poison Ivies.”
There are many problems with NCSY’s methods and goals for secular Jewry, specifically, those teens who listen to their guidance. But where do we go from here? After all, there are those who would like (or at least, are willing) to expose their teen to Orthodox influence (even if maybe not in their teens public school), but they do not want haredism for their child or for him/her to be encouraged to take an educationally unambitious trajectory.
Even adjusted for deception, NCSY would not be as dominating a youth group as it is if it weren’t the will of significant pockets of secular Jewry to have Orthodox influence for their teen. But the “don’t ask, and we won’t tell you” policy we are getting is partially due to our own confliction, and our lack of commitment to a quality Orthodox supplement Jewish education. It is reflected in NCSY’s questionable behavior, and its squishy, lowest common denominator appeal.
So what are the other Orthodox options? Well, there are none.
As NCSY’s national director Rabbi Burg noted,
“WE ARE IT. We are the only Orthodox teen outreach organization.”
Or are they?
Outside the long black shadow of the massive NCSY subsists a small Orthodox youth group without haredi ties, which has so far not entered into the kiruv world in a major way, the youth group Bnei Akiva. This moderate youth group does not hold hands with haredi institutions, and does not seek to deprive their members of a top notch college education.
The question is if Bnei Akiva (or some other new group along those lines started from scratch, perhaps in conjunction with YCT) would be willing to offer their program to secular Jews, or perhaps, create a different, parallel program for them. While it is a lot to ask a small organization, it should be noted that segments of secular Jewry would probably approve of their message, and perhaps so would secular Jewish philanthropists. If so, Bnei Akiva would not only be offering an important alternative to secular Jews who might not be willing to send their kids to NCSY anyway, but they would be given a much greater platform to spread their own worldview, and their positive, non-fundamentalist Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Modern Orthodox educators are able and interested in incorporating the teaching of classic texts, Jewish literature, culture, and history, as well as exploring a wide range of opinions and approaches. But such people do not come as cheap as haredi recruiters who do not require the same academic training, never mind volunteers. It should be noted that such an expanded program would also serve the Modern Orthodox community by cultivating such educators, of whom there is a shortage.
The secular Jewish community would not only have to come up with the funding for B’nei Akiva to expand its programs and service the secular Jewish community, it would have to find the will to concede that it is necessary.
But Secular Jewry needs a truly “Modern” Orthodox option for their teens. One that doesn’t include a deceptive gateway into haredism, anti-intellectualism, downward mobility, and an inferior secular education.
NCSY just can’t be right for everyone.