During my last years of elementary school, a branch of a national Jewish youth movement, NCSY, was formed in Staten Island. Weekly meetings included cookies, Coke, and stories that expressed Jewish values. Sometimes, the volunteer youth leader — a sincere, college-aged woman — strummed a guitar and we sang Jewish songs.
Every few months, a weekend away — a “shabbaton” — was held. Young people, anywhere from 50 to a few hundred, from across Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, would gather in a designated neighborhood, sleep at the homes of the community’s families, and meet for meals at a synagogue or social hall. In addition to the volunteer youth leaders, these weekends were attended by members of NCSY’s professional staff. Most were rabbis or school teachers.
Each meal began with singing and reciting of the kiddush. In between courses of gefilte fish, coleslaw and chicken — all served on disposable plates — words of wisdom from the weekly Torah portion, and inspiring anecdotes were spoken by the leaders.
A typical story told of a youth, similar in age to us participants, living in a small town where no Jewish education or synagogue was available. Some event or encounter would result in the youth seeking out higher meaning, and ultimately, with sacrifice on her part, and the goodwill of a pious stranger who happened along, the youth would begin to accept religion. The first week, she would refrain from eating cheeseburgers. The next, she would keep the Sabbath. These were all laws I myself had always observed and never questioned. Eventually, the returnee would find herself in a religious school, studying Torah, observing all of Jewish law, and performing acts of great charity and piety. At that point, I understood that the story’s protagonist had surpassed me in Jewish devotion.
Sometimes, a postscript was offered up. “That young girl from Toledo who lost her grandmother and started to think that there must be more to life than cheerleading and proms is now the head of a women’s seminary in Jerusalem. Each year, she returns to visit that small town in Idaho — just in case there might be another girl like her, waiting for someone to help her.”
When the story ended, we rose to our feet, split into separate circles for boys and girls, and danced. We spun. We sang. Voices rose. Arms pulled arms. Feet flew. We sang our hearts out. The boys to my right and left were almost always taller than me, and my arms — pulled, up and away, in either direction — ached. My feet scuffled, rose up, down, up down. Sometimes, I missed a step. Sometimes, I fell and got back up.
And then, the singing and dancing ended. Drenched in sweat and endorphins, we returned to the tables, where we found that the volunteer waitstaff had cleared the dirty plates and left huge slices of chocolate layer cake on white foam dessert plates.
That was all very heady. But the high point came late on Saturday, when the sun was setting and the room was washed in twilight. I remember one particular shabbaton at a Brooklyn synagogue. All of us — about 75 junior-high schoolers — sat cross-legged on the floor at the center of the social hall. Rabbi Baruch Lanner, then-director of NCSY’s eastern region, led the singing of soft, introspective songs. Soon the sun was down, and the room was pitch black.
At that time, the Sabbath was officially out but the havdala ceremony still needed to be recited. Under cover of the dark, in a corner of the room, the college-aged youth leaders, who doubled as the band for the event, went stealthily about unpacking and arranging their equipment: drum set, electric guitar, keyboard, amplifier.
Readying for havdala, Rabbi Lanner lit a braided, triple-wicked candle and passed it to an eighth-grade boy. I didn’t know him, but I knew that, unlike me and my friends, he was not religious and went to public school. He stood in the middle of the circle and held the candle aloft, like a young Statue of Liberty.
Rabbi Lanner went on to tell the most tear-jerking story of the weekend. These finales were often tragic, the main character died of cancer, or was attacked by antisemites. These stories, like those we heard in school on Holocaust Day, made me realize that I wanted to be a better Jew. I pictured myself, the next day, instead of buying Archie comics or baseball cards, giving money to charity. Instead of watching baseball games, I would seek out people in need. I would be a good person. The story progressed. My determination increased. Along with resolve, I felt sorrow and regret. I should already be that better person. Remorse grew and spread like an ache in my stomach.
At the center of the circle, the candle’s three braided wicks flared, the blue and white wax melted, and a drop hit the hand of the eighth grader. He gasped. He passed the candle to the other hand. Rabbi Lanner went on. Soon, hot, translucent rivulets flowed on Michael’s hands. He folded one hand within the other and grimaced. Loud whispers. A tall girl hissed that somebody should do something. Rabbi Lanner paused and said, “It’s OK, Michael. It’s fine.” His words were soft, but his voice was impatient, even angry.
His hands trembled and tears flowed on his cheeks, but Michael made no noise. To steady himself, he squeezed one hand with the other. All attention was now back on Rabbi Lanner.
The story went on, but for me, Rabbi Lanner’s voice faded into the background and Michael’s hands took the foreground. The top liquid layer of wax glistened in the flame’s light. Michael was still. I wanted to be like Michael. Unlike me, even without the benefit of a religious family or a Jewish school, he knew how to sacrifice in the name of God.
Rabbi Lanner finished his story and told everyone to rise and form two lines side by side — girls here, boys there, Rabbi Lanner in the middle. With arms around each other, we swayed, as Rabbi Lanner recited the havdala. When he stopped, closed his eyes and stood like that, quietly, we continued to sway. My arms stretched and my shoulders throbbed. I breathed in the bitter scent of open armpits and thought of labor in the service of God. We sang wistful songs that heralded the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of a new week.
Rabbi Lanner took the candle from Michael’s paraffin-coated hands and lowered its tip into a saucer of wine. The flame fizzled. The room went pitch black. And then, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. Lights came on. A bass drum pounded. Chords erupted from a keyboard. And once again, now fortified by live music, we were dancing in frenzied circles. Dancing for life. Dancing in celebration of our new lives. Of the new people we would become.
* * *
During that weekend, in 1975, when I was 12, I formed thoughts about good and evil, reward and punishment and who I wanted to be. I learned of a grave responsibility: to do the right things, and to become a good Jew. And I also learned that I had the chance of a bright, boom-boom-boom new day.
I wish I could leave it at that, but I must add this horrific note. No commentary is necessary.
From Stolen Innocence by Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week, June 23, 2000
…more than a dozen former NCSYers and others have come forward publicly over a three month period, telling their stories to The Jewish Week. They described in detail first-hand experiences, including Rabbi [Baruch] Lanner’s alleged kissing and fondling scores of teenage girls in the 1970s and ’80s, repeatedly kicking boys in the groin, and reports of taking a knife to a young man in 1987, and propositioning girls in 1997 at the yeshiva high school where he was principal for 15 years.