NCSY: A Gateway to Fundamentalism
I 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.Â Since then, it has become clear that not only does NCSY allow promotion of full-timeÂ 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.Â
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 “KeepingÂ 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?Â
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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, and Neve Yerushalayim are comprised of students renouncing and discarding their secular and liberal Jewish identities and assumingÂ fundamentalist ones often based on literalism,Â stringency, and particularly on the Israeli campuses, are guided by rabbis encouraging them to take the leap to eventual poverty and socio-economic devastation.Â
Let us be clear.Â Ohr Somayach, like Aish HaTorah, an official OU partner in kiruvÂ (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.Â Of course, nothing—absolutely nothing—about Modern Orthodoxy can be found on Ohr Somayach’s site.Â This is not because the subject never comes up.Â This is because when you have a public website, and you have absolutely nothing nice to say, you don’t say anything at all.Â Â Â They save that for on-campus, and there’s no shortage of it.Â
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.Â Â Â 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 toÂ Charedi institutionsÂ 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.Â 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.Â
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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.”Â 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.
David Kelsey attended Ohr Somayach upon graduating high school.