Global, Politics, Religion

Is NCSY appropriate for our public schools?

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).
JSU claims,

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.

19 thoughts on “Is NCSY appropriate for our public schools?

  1. True, Bnei Akiva is less dumbed down, doesn’t advocate haredism, and is cool with higher education. But, there are a couple things parents should be aware of before enrolling there kids.
    1. they are proudly and strongly Religious-Zionist. that pretty much translates into right wing politics regarding Israel.
    2.(at least in what I’ve seen) there is a very strong push for kids to make aliya.
    While I’ve never been involved in BA, many of my friends have been chanichim (participants) and madichim (youth leaders), and these have been my impressions.

  2. Bnei Akiva? Maybe its non-fundamentalist in the US, but it sure ain’t in Israel. BA in Israel is pretty fundamentalist and pretty to the right. How about we just come out and say it – most Orthodox Jews have such an inferiority complex about their observance that they support fundamentalism. and for the others…well, for me, its just sad.
    Better we should enhance USY and NIFTY and give them our money.

  3. Amit– did you mean to write “most NON-Orthodox Jews have such an inferiority complex about their observance that they support fundamentalism”?
    ’cause ortho communities have their issues, but, well, I don’t think inferiority complexes are generally among them these days.

  4. Kelsey-
    Thanks for posting this.
    Stuyvesant High School, wow. It sounds like this was a while ago (during the 1990s), and the article says “Unfortunately [sic], due to changes in the security policy of the school (located five minutes away from Ground Zero), NCSY is no longer able to sponsor the Stuyvesant club.”
    Suppose hypothetically that some of us were to have connections there. Suppose further that, despite “changes in the security policy”, the school (like Milwaukee) were to continue to have its share of visitors. Suppose further (still hypothetically) that there were occasional signs around the school advertising a “Jewish Student Union” (but not really a significant presence otherwise).
    Does the name “Jewish Student Union” always imply a front for NCSY, or could it be something unrelated (and perhaps innocuous) with the same name? If the former, suppose one wanted to bring this to the attention of the school administration. Is there anything to bring to their attention? Are they breaking any rules, or is this totally legit (albeit sketchy)?
    I can’t do anything to try to establish a liberal Jewish presence, because I respect the Constitution too much.

  5. There was some talk about this group on Jewlicious some time ago. At some point, one of their reps joined the conversation, proudly proclaiming their relationship with BBYO, etc…
    Here’s the thing: go to their site, read the names of the people working in the schools. It reads like the graduation program from my orthodox high school. Even if the org has an ostensibly pluralist mission, the staff is going to promote the Judaism that they know and believe, and you can basically infer that it’s generally going to be Orthodox.
    You should see some of their ridiculous promotional videos, by the way. I wish I could link to them somehow. Nothing like good propaganda to rile the teens.

  6. Thank you for keeping us all safe. Next thing you know Jewish kids everywhere will be keeping kosher and Shabbat. God forbid it should come to that.
    After reading your post I’m not sure I understand your point, beyond Haredi bashing. Will the “Modern” ortho option that is sufficiently non-fundamentalist for you deny that the Torah is the direct word of God? Will it not strictly forbid certain foods (which we all know isn’t really about what God wants us to do, but kept us safe from diseases before food was kept chilled or frozen), will it allow shatnes, touching during niddah, etc. etc.?
    Replace “haredi” with “gay” or “black” or just plain “Jewish” and how many would have their panties in a twist?

  7. Wow.
    What a remarkably worthless argument. Forget about the charedi nonsense. It’s completely disingenous for a group like the JSU to go into public school settings under the guise of broader jewish engagement and then present orthodoxy to students. Look at the advisors on their site: the names read like a graduation roster from a yeshiva high school. These educators are going to teach the Judaism they know, and the Judaism that they know is Orthodoxy. Going straight from there, across the board in Orthodox communities, it is generally considered to be desirable to hit up Yeshivot right after high school instead of going to college. And while the JSU claims to now be separate from NCSY, and proudly proclaims its partnership with BBYO, I highly doubt they latte and learning (how fucking original) sessions would ever be teaching perspectives that fall in line wiht B’nai Brith.
    And by the way, this whole model is pretty much a high school ripoff of Hillel’s Jewish Campus Service Corps, which for all of it’s flaws, trains its fellows to meet students where they’re at, not just in terms of location, but in terms of who they are as Jews and offering them every available option for enjoying a Jewish life, not just the frum one.
    I went to a session at Limmud in which the leader talked about an encounter with a JSU leader who was taking personal phone calls from his high school advisees until (very) late in the evening. I have to say, as a longtime educator, I find that to be just a little bit unprofessional, and I’m being generous and understating it.
    And for f–k’s sake, go to their site and watch their movies. WTF? I can’t but notice in the cartoon, the “cool advisor” is a black-hatter. I gotta tell ya, I’ve seen other movies of theirs that aren’t on the site. We don’t need poorly edited propaganda to reach Jewish teens. They know bullshit when they see it. Then again, apparently they don’t.
    Offices in Teaneck? give me a break.

  8. You curse like a 14 year old trying to sound like a grown-up. Makes me wonder if your obvious anger is less about a sincere desire for full disclosure and more of being threatened by Orthodoxy. How sad. Everyone wins when young people are engaged and connect with Judaism. So what if it is by “black hatters” or “Charedi” or feminist-queer-transgendered-intersexed-illegal alien Rabbis for that matter.
    The bottom line as I said with Kelsey’s and Donkey’s article and response is a feeling that somehow is kids become Ortho then that is a problem. It’s not your cup of tea when it comes to things Jewish and look how the knifes come out. How sad.

  9. My problem isn’t with orthodoxy. It’s with agendas masquerading as engagement. I have no problem with people calling a spade a spade. The JSU clearly isn’t doing that.
    That’s the second time you”ve played gay/trans against people’s supposed problems with the Orthodox. What’s that about?
    I don’t know how everyone wins when young people are engaged with charedi Judaism. You should really try to explain that, because it makes no sense.
    And look into my argument, not my supposed anger. I’m writing that way because I dont sleep. I’ve ben connected to the Orthodox community for years, and had both positive and negative relationships and experiences. I simply find this approach to be problematic. And “as long as they’re doing more Jewish”, is a pretty empty goal to have for people. Richard Joel started that up with Hillel years ago (there’s that lifting of old ideas, again), and I’m pretty sure it’s been discarded today for a reason. Our educators need to be able to think a little harder than that.

  10. “These haredi institutions which NCSY recruits for are hardcore in their vision of what an “authentic” Jewish life is”…
    Huh? Most of the Israeli schools that NCSY recruits for (as evidenced by the NCSY pages you linked to) are plainly not Haredi. NCSY has hundreds of advisors and rabbis and counselors, etc. and they are from all over the spectrum.
    As a matter of opinion I don’t get it: a guy in the recruitment video is wearing a black hat, and therefore…?
    “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.”
    Again: a Jewish outreach group motivates a minority of its members to go to schools at which daily Jewish learning is part of the curriculum. And this is bad and/or unexpected because… what? Speaking personally, friends of mine went to the JSUs at their own public schools and found it to be a lifesaver for them and many other Jewish students. My friend who was most involved is decidedly not haredi today. And if he was it would mean…what exactly?
    So would you prefer that a Jewish youth group in high schools: avoid involving teens in greater Jewish learning, avoid promoting or enabling observance of Jewish holidays, mitzvot, etc., avoid encouraging a connection with or travel to Israel, avoid encouraging schools at which Jewish learning is a regular feature of the education? Well in that case it would be the Rotary club or debate team. All very nice, just nothing to do with Judaism.
    Would you like them to come in and say: “Hello, we’re Orthodox! We want you to be to. Let’s go!” That would be puerile and off-putting. And JSUs in public school aren’t there to ‘make kids orthodox’ (for goodness sake it’s a public school!). They’re there to first help students enjoy a Jewish environment and build connections to Jewish things and help get them involved in the community. And those happen to be some things that NCSY excels at.

  11. uh — i thought the whole point of kelsey’s post was to say: what business does ncsy have trying to convince jewish kids to turn down harvard for ohr samayach?
    do you want your children to get law degrees or to spend the next 10 years freeloading in kollel?
    i think that’s an entirely valid point.

  12. “i think that’s an entirely valid point.”
    I agree, it’s a serious question. But parents and children have to be involved at these decisions at all times and not coast into any major life decisions on cruise control. That’s true under any circumstances and regardless of the particulars. Oxford, Ohr Somayach, Gush Etzion, etc. etc. Either way you’re making a choice. The real question is how do you balance the pros/cons and the particulars for each person and context.
    In any event NCSY doesn’t really tell students to “turn down Harvard” or college. It wants students to make Jewish involvement/learning a regular part of life. Some kids won’t listen. Others will. Some will go to yeshiva for a year, or two, or…none! Some will go for many years, maybe for a decade. Alright. If it works for them I don’t see the problem. The converse is “turning down Yeshivat Hakotel for Yale” and many people would object to that also. Either way you make a choice. NCSY helps people realize that there is a choice.

  13. That’s the second time you”ve played gay/trans against people’s supposed problems with the Orthodox. What’s that about?
    One shouldn’t single out a group of people for bashing, regardless of “most-favored-minority” group of the day/week/year. It’s not nice to bash gays and it’s not nice to bash haredi Jews.
    And “as long as they’re doing more Jewish”, is a pretty empty goal to have for people. Richard Joel started that up with Hillel years ago (there’s that lifting of old ideas, again), and I’m pretty sure it’s been discarded today for a reason.
    I don’t think exposing people to some kind of Judaism is a bad thing at all, be it Reform, Conservate or Orthodox. That Hillel seitches it’s tag lines every few years has more to do with campus branding and fundraising than it does with its overall mission whihc stays and has stayed relatively consistent over the years.
    Our educators need to be able to think a little harder than that.
    True that. Our educators also need to be able to conduct themselves with a little more class and dignity, and model to their students that when one disagrees they do not just start swearing and name calling, and being a potty mouth does not a convincing argument make. I hold by my original point though, which is you seem to be motivated more by anger or negative feelings against the Ortho as opposed to demonstrating any real and lasting damage or nefarious goals on behalf of NCSY and their high school programming. Maybe I’m wrong, wouldn’t be the first time, but I don’t think I am. No harm is done if more kids start keeping Kosher, Shabbat, etc. No harm is done if some kid goes to Ohr Somayach or Aish or Nishmat or wherever for a year or two before law school. And no harm is done if some kid sits in Yeshiva for 10 years instead of law school. We have enough lawyers already.

  14. I swore maybe twice. You can get over it. Because snotty, underhanded condescending insults are no less undignified than tossing out the word bullshit once or twice when one is hslf asleep.
    To compare charedi Jews to gays for the point you’re making truly makes for an uneven analogy.
    And I’m not in any way motivated by anger at the Orthodox. This disingenuous approach to drawing unknowing teens into the community makes me angry at specifically NCSY, not the other way around. One of the greatest influences in my life was and is an Orthodox rabbi, so you can stop with your psychoanalysis, because it avoids the substance of the issue.
    I don’t care if NCSY wants to go into high schools and get kids to become frum, Just be open about it. And yeah, I’ll still have a problem with that, because the kiruv thing has always troubled me, and considering insular fundamentalism to be the positive outcome of a Jewish journey is equally troubling.
    If the JSU leaders were all of a sudden sending every kid they engaged to USY and only USY, I’d have just as big a problem with that. Becuse USY sucks ass. Now you can tell me that I’m motivated by anger against the Conservative movement too.
    And why imply that anyone is modeling anything to students in this thread. These are blog comments; this isn’t room bet t your local hebrew school. There’s a reason that we use aliases here.

  15. PS, in terms of charedi bashing= gay bashing
    Making a researched and informed critique of the conduct of a communal organization is not the same thing as gay bashing. That’s called prejudice.

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