By Hanna Schlager
As the school year winds down and our children slowly make their trek upstate to camps or gear up for their first summer jobs, one can’t help but wonder whether all of the valuable Jewish education they received and the rituals they practiced throughout the school year will be remembered and maintained, or will it fly out the window the moment they embark on their summer journeys? Will this be a summer “off,” or will it be a summer full of inspiration, self-discovery, and Jewish learning?
At NCSY, there’s no such thing as a summer off. There is no break, time-out, or pause. The momentum that is built up throughout the year at weekly Latte & Learning meetings, regional Shabbatonim, and Jewish Student Union clubs comes to a peak as the calendar page turns to the month of July. And this incredible force of inspiration naturally continues into the following school year. Public-school students, who do not have the opportunity to learn Torah during their school days, spend the year learning with talented advisors after school and receiving inspiration from creative and unique NCSY events. After the school year, many teens set out on life-changing summer-long programs that empower them as individuals, connect them with their peers, and expose them to their homeland and tradition. Whether they are in Israel hiking the historic peaks of Masada, attending a shiur at the Ner Israel campus in Baltimore after playing hours of competitive basketball at Camp Sports, or running a Jewish camp for Russian children in Eastern Europe, NCSY teens will be making the most of their summers while on unforgettable summer programs. With 13 programs to choose from, it is not difficult to find the right niche for each individual teen.
Below, a recent public-school graduate and longtime member of NCSY tells his story of personal growth and expresses gratitude to the organization that allowed him to become the best version of himself he could be.
“My name is Avi and I have been an active NCSY’er for four years. Growing up in a broken home, I always needed a stronger support system outside of my family—Boy Scouts, school, my teachers, and my rebbeim served that role. But one of the strongest support systems, especially through those four crucial years of high school, was NCSY. There were times in the past four years when I felt that the only place I had friends was at NCSY. I don’t even think my advisors, my mother, or even my fellow NCSY’ers realize how much an impact NCSY has had on me.
“When I was in yeshiva in seventh grade, I often left class with a negative attitude towards Judaism. By eighth grade, I wasn’t keeping Shabbat in my house. I would watch TV, turn on and off lights, and use the computer. Outside the house, I kept Shabbat, or at least I would pretend to when people were watching. I wouldn’t always wear my kippah, let alone don my tzitzis. In short, I wasn’t very proud of being Jewish.
“Everything changed when I attended my first NCSY Sheepshead Bay Shabbaton. I remember during Kabbalat Shabbat, we sang a version of Lecha Dodi that made the hair on my arm stand up. I had never heard anything so beautiful in my entire life. From that Lecha Dodi, I decided I would try to keep Shabbat. It took me about a month, but I did it. Since then I’m proud to say that I have never intentionally or knowingly violated Shabbat.
“But that’s not the story I wanted to tell you. One Shabbat, after I had been keeping it for a couple of weeks, I decided to sit down at the table and sing some zemirot. I don’t know what made me do it—I guess it was just an instinct or a burning desire. My grandmother was in the other room, watching TV. But the instant she heard me singing that beautiful tune of Lecha Dodi, she turned off the TV, got up, and came in to sing with me. In my entire life, I had never felt more privileged to be Jewish. . . .
“Since graduation, I have decided to dedicate 50 hours of learning to NCSY this summer in honor of the incredible gift of Torah NCSY has given me. . . . I also hope to return to NCSY as an advisor after my year in Israel . . .
“I’d like to thank NCSY for all of the Jewish friends I have been able to make, for all of the role models who gave me guidance through some of the most challenging times in my life, and for all of the memories I made with NCSY. I will never forget these past four years. Thank you so much.”
Avi is just one unique teen whose moving story permeates the halls of the NCSY office. There are thousands of other teens striving for the inspiration, direction, and empowerment Avi received from his positive Jewish role models at NCSY. Can you imagine pressing the pause button for even one moment when you are charged with such a crucial mission? Reconnecting Jewish teens with their heritage and exposing them to positive Jewish experiences is not a part-time job; in fact, it’s not an ordinary “job” at all. At NCSY, there’s no such thing as a summer off. v