As the Development Director of NCSY Israel, I am tasked with telling the story of the organization to the broader community. It is hard to convey a nuanced story and I often feel myself correcting misconceptions. But after speaking with a few of our alumni, I realized that they are the best way to relate our story.
I recently met with Avi to tell me his story. Avi made Aliyah in 2010 at the age of 11 with his family. Moving from Maryland to Yad Binyamin, Avi needed to adjust to a very different life in Israel. School in Hebrew was difficult. He jumped between a couple of schools and dropped out at various points throughout his integration process. Socially he felt lonely. On his Aliyah flight he met another oleh his age and they became friends who have remained close to this day. That friend, having made Aliyah from New Jersey, was the only person in Avi’s life that shared in his story of struggle and adjustment.
At the end of 2016, Avi was introduced to NCSY Israel through a shabbaton taking place in his community. He still remembers that shabbaton as one of the greatest Shabbat experiences in his life. The meaningful singing and dancing, the caring and welcoming advisors, but most of all, Avi was drawn to the social network NCSY provided. He was introduced to other teens working through the same integration struggles as he was; people that finally could relate and understand him. Before NCSY, Avi was so unhappy with his elementary and high school experiences living in Israel that he anticipated returning to the United States after graduating. NCSY Israel changed all of that. He became more comfortable and confident here. As the oldest of 5 children, Avi was the first in his family to navigate enlisting in the IDF. He was fortunate to have the help of a cousin who had served in the army, as well as NCSY Israel co-regional director Rabbi Yosef Ginsberg. Rabbi Ginsberg was able to guide him through the process as someone who has served in the IDF himself. Avi now proudly serves in an infantry unit in the Israeli army and is thankful towards NCSY Israel for its help in getting him to where he is today.
At the age of 14, Deena left her home in New Jersey and made Aliyah to Givat Zeev with her family in the summer of 2014. She felt lonely despite attending an English-speaking high school with other teen olim. She recalls that during her first year in Israel she rarely left her house other than for school. One year after her Aliyah, Deena joined the newly founded NCSY Israel region. Her first shabbaton was in Yerushalayim and the group walked to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night. That was her first Kabbalat Shabbat experience at the Kotel and she still remembers the scene of spiritual prayer and meaningful connection at the holy site.
Deena was extremely close with her advisors:
“They made me feel special when I thought I was average at most. They gave me confidence and that little push I needed. They put me on the board, I took a leadership role. They asked me to give a speech, I stepped out of my comfort zone. I did things I didn’t think I could, but they never pushed too hard, and always reminded me that I could do anything I put my mind to.”
During her senior year Deena made the decision to complete her National Service in an Israeli environment where she could work on her Hebrew and make Israeli friends. She is currently in her second year working in an Israeli preschool on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in northern Israel and plans to learn in a seminary program next year.
How can a youth movement in English help teen olim integrate into Israel? It is a valid question and one that I am often asked. But it works with the assumption that in order for them to integrate we need to throw our children into the deep end. We need to stick them in an Israeli environment and their natural human instincts will kick in and they will learn to swim. Yet, at NCSY we have seen too many drowning teens. Teens drowning in depression and anxiety. Teens drowning in an Israeli school system they don’t understand. Teens drowning in loneliness. NCSY Israel provides these teens with a social network, introducing them to other teens dealing with their same challenges. It provides these teens with a support system of advisors they can trust and relate to, as all of our advising staff are required to have served in the army or National Service. It provides these teens who are new to the land of Israel with guidance as one of the only youth movements in Israel dedicated specifically to serving the teenage population. By providing all of these elements within a Jewish religious environment, NCSY Israel creates not a bubble, but an incubator of Jewish Israeli leaders, confident in themselves, proud of their country, and ready to make a difference.
The truth is, I believe this is also part of the mission of the broader OU Israel organization, which we are thankful to be a part of. OU Israel offers English services, shiurim, lectures and programs to the olim population not in an effort to maintain their Anglo status, but rather to give them the comfort and confidence to contribute to Israeli society. Now in its 40th year, it is both remarkable to see all that the organization has accomplished and exciting to see what is still to come.
While Avi and Deena help to tell the story of NCSY Israel, they are just two of many whose lives have been changed by the program. As we grow and graduate more NCSYers each year, we are proud in the leaders they have and will become. We are impressed by their development from lonely olim who resent Israel to confident religious Zionists, proud of their Jewish identity and ready to serve their land. And as we witness all this, we recommit ourselves to this sacred mission. We recommit ourselves with more events and more staff, with more opportunities to relate and connect. We recommit ourselves with the support and financial assistance of the broader community. Together we can be a part of building Israel, one future leader at a time.
NCSY Israel is the premier organization in Israel dedicated to connect, inspire and empower teen olim to the Land of Israel by encouraging passionate Judaism through Torah and Tradition. Find out more at israel.ncsy.org