NCSY: A Gateway to Fundamentalism

ou_logo4.gifI previously questioned whether NCSY was providing a gateway to ultra-Orthodoxy, and not just restricted to the fun and educational Modern Orthodox activities for secular Jewish teenagers it presents itself as.  Since then, it has become clear that not only does NCSY allow promotion of full-time studies at ultra-Orthodox institutions as an option to our teens in NCSY, but NCSY staff at least sometimes actively facilitates their recruitment to these ultra-Orthodox institutions, because full-time Jewish studies are often considered by NCSY to be the ideal program for NCSY teenagers immediately following high school, and they’re what are most readily available. 
The Orthodox Union’s publication (the Orthodox Union is the parent organization of NCSY), the Jewish Advocate, actually boasts of their role in Charedi recruitment of a secular Jew in their fall issue. Within a feature of a former NCSY teenager featured in “Keeping the Faith in Iraq,” the Jewish Advocate notes,

“Rabbi Dave presented him with a full scholarship to attend Ohr Somayach’s Derech Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem.”

Who is Rabbi Dave?

Rabbi David (“Rabbi Dave”) Felsenthal was “then-New Jersey NCSY’s director of recruitment and [is] currently director of NCSY alumni.”

How often is this happening? 
As Modern Orthodox leaders will note in their defense, there are no comparable places for Baal Tshuvahs (Newly Orthodox Jews) to go to except Charedi institutions.  But this is partially because NCSY specifically and the Modern Orthodox generally are apparently content with directing secular Jews to these institutions, even though most Modern Orthodox parents would never send their own kids to such hard-core Charedi institutions.  They send their kids to yeshivas and seminaries that don’t advocate the same level of disengagement with the secular world or discourage college, and they are surrounded with other students from a similar Modern Orthodox background as themselves, and have a positive and solid Modern Orthodox identity.  Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, and Neve Yerushalayim are comprised of students renouncing and discarding their secular and liberal Jewish identities and assuming  fundamentalist ones often based on literalism, stringency, and particularly on the Israeli campuses, are guided by rabbis encouraging them to take the leap to eventual poverty and socio-economic devastation. 
Let us be clear.  Ohr Somayach, like Aish HaTorah, an official OU partner in kiruv  (recruitment to Orthodoxy), is Ultra-Orthodox, and among many other of Ohr Somayach’s fundamentalist positions, O.S. strongly discourages enrolling in full-time college education, promotes a rejection of the theory of evolution, and preaches contempt for Modern Orthodoxy, never mind the secular world.  Of course, nothing—absolutely nothing—about Modern Orthodoxy can be found on Ohr Somayach’s site.  This is not because the subject never comes up.  This is because when you have a public website, and you have absolutely nothing nice to say, you don’t say anything at all.   They save that for on-campus, and there’s no shortage of it. 
Jewish parents in the traditional secular Jewish world, whose kids make up the core of the youth group’s membership, and often have some affiliation and Jewish education, need to be alerted that NCSY is not only a Modern Orthodox youth group, but at least to some degree, also a feeder into these Ultra-Orthodox institutions they have official ties with, such as Aish HaTorah, and apparently also to those they do not to have official ties with, yet still boast of their relationship in their magazine for their community.    What is their policy in terms of guiding NCSY members to Charedi institutions? Is there, perhaps, no official policy? Is this trusted solely to the discretion of the NCSY advisor?
When even leaders and the websites of NCSY and the Orthodox Union are directing secular Jewish youth to Charedi institutions  after high school, secular Jewish parents should be alerted that they are risking subjecting their children to such pressures and “choices” by sending their kids to NCSY youth group events.
Though they certainly do great work in many ways, NCSY may not always be a sufficiently safe place for secular Jewish teens, as NCSY is allied with institutions with troubling ambitions for secular Jews, that discourage functionalism and achievement, not only as we in the secular world understand it, but even as the Modern Orthodox themselves understand it, at least for their own kids, even if not for ours.  This is not only a disappointment, but perhaps should be perceived as yet another Orthodox Union/NCSY betrayal of the traditional secular Jewish community’s trust. 
There is a case to be made that there is a real need for Modern Orthodoxy to promote its vision to secular Jewry, where many are uninspired with liberal Judaism, and for good reason, and respect the Orthodox, also for good reason.  But it in order to get that without the fundamentalist ties and risks, we may need a new Orthodox youth group that has greater respect for the wishes of the constituency it services, and greater accountability.  That seeks to increase Jewish education, identity, and religious commitment, but does not seek radical change, and does not allow for promotion or facilitation of an ultra-Orthodox trajectory, which most secular and liberal Jewish parents would find highly objectionable, in ways they would not find Modern Orthodox influence objectionable.  Perhaps we need something a little more “Modern,” and consistently so, because all too often, NCSY as an organization has proven willfully blind and irresponsible when a person or organization has a successful track record at “making people frum.”  They have never properly addressed this broad underlying cause of their past problems, and maintain ties to fundamentalist recruiting institutions based on this justification, not because the Orthodox Union shares or even approves of their Charedi vision.
We need an Orthodox outreach group whose board of directors includes secular Jewish members, and though the staff will be Orthodox, the leadership positions will not go to the ultra-Orthodox, nor will the staff include those willing (never mind eager) to facilitate recruitment to ultra-Orthodox institutions, but will have clear policies against exactly that.
Enough already.
David Kelsey attended Ohr Somayach upon graduating high school.

31 thoughts on “NCSY: A Gateway to Fundamentalism

  1. “[I]f you describe Orthodox or any other rabbinic approach to Scripture as ‘literal’ I will be forced to whack you over the head with a copy of Artscroll’s Shir Ha-Shirim until you do teshuvah.”
    Also, some of your links are broken. Otherwise, good post!

  2. This is assuming Ohr Sameyech, Aish haTorah, etc, are Charadi institutes and not modern Orthodox. As someone who went to a charadi institute (MTJ in Staten Island) and currently attends an MO institute (YU), I take exception to that assumption. Ohr/Aish are much closer to YU than MTJ. And if YU isn’t MO, what exactly is?

  3. As an NCSY product now firmly in the MO camp, I agree with you. When I was in NCSY twenty-odd years ago, there was quite a push for such haredi seminaries and not for more modern Israeli institutions in Israel. Although most of the advisors came from YU and Stern, there were quite a few charismatic rabbis recruiting for haredi institutions. Even though there will always be many baalei teshuvah who will head toward extreme positions. But the OU doesn’t need to encourage it. Also, at the time, NCSY did not push aliyah and stayed away from zionist ideology.

  4. Mordy,
    O.S. and Aish are not “close” to being Modern Orthodox. They are not “close” to YU. What on earth are you talking about? O.S. discourages college education, and hates Modern Orthodox. Y.U. IS college education, and is the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. O.S. and Aish reject scientific method because R. Elyashiv said so. O.S.’s R. Gottlieb will explain why God made the dinosaur bones as fossils as a test of faith. YU doesn’t care what R. Elyashiv said about science. They teach evolution and biology. Aish teaches “kaballah” mysticism and “Bible Codes.” Shockingly, neither is part of the YU curriculum. Neither Aish nor O.S. trach Hebrew properly. YU focuses on Hebrew.
    Mordy, whatever problems YU has, please do not EVER suggest they are in any way “close” to Aish or O.S. This is absolutely the worst type of Motzei Shami Rah. What a horrible vicious slander against YU.

  5. David – I thought YU did have courses about Kabbalah. Isn’t Alan Brill still on the faculty, and didn’t he teach a course about it – or is that just in the rabbinical school? (Not disagreeing with you – just curious).

  6. The problem with charedi BT institutions to me isn’t just the anti-college, anti-secular studies bias. If they were to shun college but still be wholesome in their outlook, it wouldn’t be so bad. But they practice a Disneyland Torah with belief in rabbinic infallability and Torah as a book of magic. They don’t just discourage college, they discourage any type of parnassah – and puts people into very damaging poverty. Also, these are guys who can’t reason. They yell, shame, talk in fantasy and sing song. They worship rabbis as gods. They live a rigid and cold life. I spent five years in BT yeshiva.

  7. I’ve listened to Alan Brill’s lectures – they come off as scholarly text courses rather than as ’emes’ revealed. I enjoyed them – you can get them as MP3 files on line thorugh YU”s web site.

  8. As an individual who has long had an association with NCSY as an advisor, and as an individual who is ardently modern orthodox, I have to say that this portrayal is thoroughly inaccurate. While many on the rabbinic staff of NCSY are indeed chareidim, to call for the formation of a new youth group to supplant NCSY is proposterous. Almost all modern orthodox educational institutions have in them individuals who have ultra orthodox sensitivities. I think it’s healthy for kids to be exposed t multiple ideologies. The last thing we need is a chareidization of modern orthodoxy, where we are intolerant of others’ views, simply because they are not in consonance with our own.
    Moreover, the heart and soul of NCSY’s staff, the lifeblood of the organization, is it’s advisors. Kids aren’t particularly interested in what 50-something year old rabbis with pot bellies and long beards have to say. The people who impact these kids are the advisory staff, and everyone knows that. The advisors are for the most part modern orthodox, and espouse such an ideology.
    Needless to say, I hope DK agrees that a year in OS is better than nothing at all.

  9. Why do you assume that NCSY, and its parent organization the Orthodox Union (or, more formally, the UOJCA), need to be Modern Orthodox. My limited understanding of these organizations is that they represent the broad range of beliefs within the Orthodox community, and not simply the narrow (minded??) Modern Orthodox constituency. Is it their fault if the Modern Orthodox community have failed to produce programs where ba’alei teshuva can study to learn? However, exception must be made to The Mechinah Program at Yeshiva University, now in its third or fourth year, under the leadership of by Rabbi Zev Reichman. Having seen first-hand the work being done at The Mechinah Program, there is hope that Modern Orthodox institutions can, in fact, take part in the kiruv process. I personally think that it is important that the material taught to ba’alei teshuva focus on those aspects of traditional Orthodox Judaism, rather the flashy Modern Orthodox topics, as to do the latter would simply be confusing and send mixed messages to the students.

  10. AJ,
    After protesting my “inaccuracy,” you seem to agree with most of my major points, except for the inclusion of Charedi counselors, which I didn’t even say they shouldn’t have, except at the leadership level, but only a strict policy against recruitment to charedi institutions. An MO organization has no business guiding secular Jewish kids to Charedi institutions, offcially and unofficially. There is not a sufficient MO infrastructure for high school graduates from a secular background, and the fact that after some decades of kiruv they are only now finally opening up an MO institution for BTs after high school is troubling, and quite frankly, even suspicious.
    I have a question for you, AJ. You’re a MO guy. Given the choice between absolute Charedism (with poverty) or secularism (and functionalism) for the Jews form secular and liberal backgrounds you service, which would you choose for them?
    If only one or the other option, AJ, which lifestyle would you choose for him or her?

  11. I think that you are being too kind to NCSY. I good friend of mine (he was my boyfriend and an advisor when I was an NCSYer, but that’s another story) was pushed to go to Neve by the NCSY higher-ups. This guy went to public school, parets weren’t religious, etc. So he ended up at Neve. What do you think happened? He got tired of watching his roomate get stoned on acid and came home. The parents were left with a horrible view of Judaism, and the kid got nothing out of it.
    Then there was the regional shabbaton in which a friend of mine was reduced to tears after being told that she shouldn’t talk to irreligious family members. She’s modern orthodox; her mother’s new husband isn’t Jewish. Nice, huh?
    FYI, I’ve been told that NCSY outside of the NY metropolitan area is quite different than NCSY in it (mirroring MO itself). These experiences are from NY.

  12. Yes, NCSY has many (majority) advisors who lean more to the right, but then again, YU – the central MO institution – as an institution is moving to the right. Despite their attempt to stop that move, by apppointing the current centrist President, more and more of the student body is right-leaning and cares little about their secular education. Who are the ones who volunteer to be advisors and leaders at these Youth movements? Those that want to focus their lives on Jewish education and Kiruv – and by definition that includes those that lean more to the right. Its a basic trend we see in all religions – a right moving progression.
    If you want evidence of a group that is not right-leaning, look at the Jewish Student Union (, which is basically like Hillel in the Public Schools. They have advisors that are culled from NCSY, USY and NFTY. The doctrine is pluralisti, and I think is what DK may have in mind.

  13. David, while I believe your outrage is geniune, I don’t think you have the full picture of YU. A recent conversation between Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) Rosh Kollel Hershel Schachter and Yeshiva College (YC) Dean David Srolovitz was published in the YU Commentator.
    Specifically note Schachter’s beliefs that YU shouldn’t teach Art History or offensive secular literature (he considers Chaucer in that catagory). Read through the conversation. While you are correct about many YU students, you have a very superficial understanding of the institution as a whole.

  14. Mordy,
    I actually already read that, and I am aware that the RWMO are gaining strength at YU, and are seeking to curtail some of important aspects of YU’s liberal arts curriculum, and perhaps more disturbingly, create a precedent as a censor for the curriculum. But Riets, though they seek greater power and an ever-frummer undergraduate campus life, does not (yet) control the undergraduate program completely, and the issue of Art History, which is clearly an attempt to mollify the Charedim who will never accept them anyway, never the less pales in comparison to those Chraedi institutions who pretend they are something they are not (Aish) preach a rejection of scientific method when it interferes with literalism (all of ’em, whether they want to or not, R. Elyashiv and the Gedolim hath spoken), a contempt for secular studies even if not Christian or involving nakedness, and much, much, worse, Mordy,the very worst thing of all — a curriculum which if followed properly, will lead to poverty for its middle class recruits. This is absolutely what is preached at O.S. It is not at YU. No way.
    Menachem Butler, you asked,
    “And how do you account for the several dozen NCSY advisors who are students at Yeshiva University, a far cry from an ultra-Orthodox institution, who attend NCSY shabbatonim”
    Because it is under Modern Orthodox auspices. Secular Jewish parents wouldn’t be sending their kids to this program in the same numbers if it was a charedi only program, and the kids wouldn’t want to go. This is, at its heart, a Modern Orthodox program. At least, until it comes to guidance about what to do after high school. And then at least some of the campers are encouraged to go to yeshiva. Where? Oh, well, we don’t really have any Modern Orthodox ones that want you (they say it differently) so we’ll send you to Rabbi Weinbach’s yeshiva. He believes a bachur needs to be taken “out of the environment of sin.” He doesn’t say that publicly, that’s just on the internal memos to other teachers. But did you know how big the environment is? Very big! And very dangerous. You need a Very Narrow Bridge approach! So you’ll probably be there a long time. Or we’ll send you to Aish. Do you know Hebrew already? No? Oh, that’s too bad. They don’t really teach it there. But you know a little, right? Cause that’s all you really need for Hashkafa 101, 102, and 303.
    But wait…maybe I’m being too mean to Aish. Gosh, those rabbis on campus sure look modern, and they ask you if “You’re ready to rock!” Let’s check out there new Passaic NJ campus: Wow! How about that! A whole year of study there, and you will learn 200 words of Hebrew!!! A whole 200 in a mere year of study? Single AND Plural? Damn…what a fine institution! No wonder NCSY and the OU took so long to build their own for the BTs. Aish is putting secular Ulpans to shame.
    But what if you already went to Hebrew school and know, like 150 words? Should you have another Hebrew class? No! Of course not! One Hebrew class is enough for everybody of all levels, unless there is some special situation or something. So the point is, since you already know 150 words AND past and present tense (you really don’t need to know the feminine tense until you’re married), then you only need to learn 50 more words, and you can spend more time on becoming part of our kiruv pyramaid scheme, AND of course, more hashkafa.

  15. And Srolovitz said that a comparative religion course “should be avoided”. I know they’ve been moving to the right, but I find that very disturbing.

  16. DK,
    If by absolute secularism with functionalism you mean a lifestyle void of observance (and by that I mean observance of the entire corpus of Halacha) then I would unequivocally choose chareidism. Because, you see, in a battle between chareidism and secularism, the choice should really be neither – the choice is Judaism. It’s who I am and what I stand for, and it’s what I try to teach any kid who I meet in NCSY. It’s not my job, nor is it anyone’s job, to tell them what flavor Jew to be. My task is to educate them, instill within them a passion for their Jewish identity, and help them make the most informed decision possible regarding how they want to live their life. Like I said in my first post (a point which you didn’t respond to), to shove modern orthodoxy downtheir throats would be a charedization of modern orthodoxy of epic proportions.
    DK, as a MO Jew, I don’t live in the secular world as a secularist; I live in the secular world as a Jew. I don’t compartmentalize everything I do; I’m a Jew 24/7, a Jew who nonetheless believes engaging the modern world is important. For any modern orthodox Jew to suggest to anyone that they should neglect observance because it will lead to poverty or to a lack of exposure to the secular world is, in my view beyond the pale of legitimacy.
    So now I ask YOU, DK –
    Do you REALLY think that no Jewish learning is better than a year at Ohr Sameach? Are you really convinced that we should withhold a teenage secular Jew from a place like OS, for fear they MIGHT choose to live a chareidi lifestyle rather than choosing to reintegrate upon their return (btw, the second option is at least as rampant as the first if not more so)? Is exposing them to NO Judaism a better option, thereby insuring beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will live a life devoid of anything substantively Jewish?

  17. AJ,
    Since the MO are building insitutions of integration anf functionalism for their own kids, but not for Jews from secular backgrounds, who are not particularly welcome there, at least not in high numbers, it is clear that the Charedi institutions are considered not just a theoretical option or choice, but frequently the most obvious places to send them.
    I would absolutely not send a Jewish kids to Ohr Somayach for a year. Because like at so many Charedi places, it places emphasizes only those skills useful to their brand of Charedism, not general Orthodox skills, like say, Hebrew, which is kinda useful to know as an Orthodox Jew. They had one class for Hebrew when I was in Jerusalem. One. The emphasis is on discarding secularism, and repenting for the sin of growing up secular, and becoming Charedi, not just Orthodox. Modern Orthodoxy is considered enemy number one at O.S., and great pains are taken to preempt this as an option to their students.
    What I think is responsible and obligatory is for parents to understand this. And for them to understand that the Jewish studies programs where their kids might be guided to is not just the Modern Orthodox style Judaism of NCSY, but the Charedi one of the post-high school institutions.
    Sicne I would hope you don’t believe in bait and switch, I think parents have a right to know what post-high school BT institutions preach, and how that’s different than the Orthodoxy they see and hear about from their kids and other kids experiences in NCSY.
    You are willing to risk having secular Jewish kids moving into hardcore Charedism. I accept that, and appreciate your honesty. But these aren’t your kids, and you have to respect that as well. And NCSY does not work for secular Jewry anymore than the Charedi places they have relationships with do.
    If secular Jewish parents knew the institutions available and what they preach and what that can translate into, I think less of them would send their kids to NCSY.
    NCSY would be more specifically a chizuk group for Jews from already MO backgrounds.
    I guess you have a right to risk sending secular Jewish kids into charedism and eventual poverty. But secular Jewish parents have a right to decide that isn’t the sort of path they want to offer their kids, and that if NCSY is of that mindset, maybe it’s not for them. I’m guessing more secular Jewish parents would see it the way I do than the way you and NCSY do. Let’s inform them of NCSY’s perspective, and let them decide.
    NCSY and the OU’s open relationship with Aish is honest, even if Aish itself is exceptionally dishonest. Which may be why NCSY is more open about their relationship with Aish. They aren’t the ones lying, Aish is. And they justify it because Aish isn’t as visibly Charedi outside of Israel, even though really they are. And let’s be honest – NCSY has moved away from transparency with Charedi institutions except for Aish, because after my first post on Jewschool, they realized they were being called out, and they didn’t want to stand by these places, because they know they are indefensible. But apparently the relationship continues, and there is no policy against sending kids to these places, perhaps unless they are Chabad or anti-Zionist, I really don’t know.
    Are their any limits? What are NCSY’s limits in terms of places advisors may suggest to teenagers for study in Israel? Or is it whatever the hell an advisor decides are the limits or the right “choice” for the “individual student”? Stop hiding behind inclusivity!
    Parents have a right to know.
    And NCSY is certainly not telling them.
    Jewish parents must be informed. These are their children. Not NCSY’s or the OU’s.
    And they don’t understand, and NCSY will secular Jewish trust and members the more they do understand.
    As ;ong as NCSY is encouraging kids, whether through their advisors, or offically, to attned Charedi places, and particularly when there aren’t Modern Orthodox places for their kids to attend in such numbers, these places must be a part of the equation when secular and liberal Jews are considering sending their kids to NCSY.
    I think secular Jews should work with private Jewish organizations and foundations and create their own Modern Orthodox youth group which has responsibility to secular Jewry, and not just the Orthodox, even if the counselors and advisors would all be Orthodox.
    NCSY is not completely trustworthy. In the end, they are too willing to send other peoples kids into Charedism. And that isn’t what most secular Jews want for their children.

  18. NCSY reflects the problems within the MO world in general. At many if not most MO day schools, much of the staff is chareidi. It’s problematic to say the least when the people who are charged with carrying out a school’s educational mission reject that mission on ideological grounds.
    The reason for this state of affairs is pretty straight forward. The MO world has yet to commit the resources necessary to maintaining MO viability. How many bright, capable and talented young people see their future in Jewish education whether formal or informal? Where is the financial backing to pay living wages?
    The MO world is a victim of its own success. We have figured out to succeed within the secular world without having to sacrfice our religious commitments but failed to recognize without plowing back into the community the necessary funds, it cannot continue. It’s hard to argue that families who spend upwords of $20,000 per year to provide a Jewish education for each of their children should be expected (or even able) to pay yet more but if some solution is not found soon, MO will be an asterisk in the religious history of American Jewry.

  19. It is VERY important if you are going to write as someone educated on this topic that you get more facts. Machon Maayan is a post-high school seminary that is independent, but was started through an intiative, and with the assistance of the OU and NCSY. It is NOT Haredi, it IS geared towards baalei teshuva, although there are girls there from public school, day school and yeshiva backgrounds. (Samplings of Klal Yisroel – look at that.) While such a stupendous place should exist for young men, do not claim that NCSY directors don’t have this option to recommend. They do, and they send students there, but Machon Maayan can only do so much! The fact that advisors would offer interested students a menu of options that includes Chareidi institutions should be the biggest problem the Jewish world has. Honestly.
    Having said that, you should be highlighting Machon Maayan and advocating for it as a model rather than claiming it doesn’t exist.

  20. as a member of midwest ncsy, arguably among the most blakc hat of ncsy regions regarding staffing, i would like to crush a few assumptions that are being made.
    first, out of the dozens of people i have talked with about attending yeshiva in the future only 1 made any negative comment about my choices. to avoid lashon ha’rah, i will not mention which chapter i was in but suffice to say, the individual in question is noticeably more to the right religiously then i am. ( i have a JTS ordained conservative baal teshuva for a dad). out of the midwest ncsyers i know from this past year (2012-2013) only one is going to ohr sameach. others are attending KBY, Gush, Oryta, eretz hatzvia, maleah gilboah and a host of religious zionist modern orthodox yeshivot. i know of only one ncsyers from Midwest who in the past few years has attended a blakc hat institution and this was of his own free will. about zionism: over the past few months, by my count between 10-20 ncsyers have made aliayh or plan to after a year or two at a modern orthodox yeshiva. about machon maayan: i have seen it recommended over and over to ncsy women who are balie teshuva. mmy is also on the list. for guys, shalivim, and reshit are also on the list.
    regarding liberal leaning yeshivot: on NCSY’s summer kollel while rav schechter is know to be to the right, rav taragin of gush was on staff for six weeks; schechter for 4.
    about secualr education: no ncsy staffer would ever discourage an ncsy from reaching for the highest secualr education they can acheive. i have a friend who is headed to nyu tisch for film. ncsy encourages secular education but also jewish learning so the ivy leave schools are seen as good due to the high lelel of both secular education and jewish oppertunities. brandies is obviously a favorite as is maryland. YU is on the list but i have a feeling many ncsyers go there for the serious religious life. all ncsy staffers must have a college degree if they are chapter directors. all advisers must be in college or have jobs. many staffers have smeicha, a college diploma, and graduate degrees even if they are from yu

  21. You may have misrepresented Ohr Sameach in the article. My son is currently attending a gap year program at the yeshiva and is being encouraged attend Yeshiva University, and I know of other past students that have been encouraged to and decided to attend the modern orthodox college.

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