Michael Feldstein
Michael Feldstein

Young Israel Returns to Its Roots

Last month, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) made a dramatic shift in its leadership, and elected an entirely new board of directors.  The group ran on a platform that emphasized serving its member synagogues, and promised to downplay the political advocacy that had been the organization’s main focus for the past 25 years – and which was a point of controversy for many members of its participating shuls.

I experienced the political advocacy personally… and it was not pleasant. Twelve years ago, when I invited a speaker to the Young Israel at which I am now a member (the Young Israel of Stamford) to speak about kashrut and ethics, our synagogue was publicly shamed by the director of the NCYI for inviting such a speaker to discuss the subject.  At the time NCYI was strongly supporting Sholom Rubashkin, who eventually was convicted of crimes in the Agriprocessors scandal, and the speaker who we invited was critical of Rubashkin.

Around the same time, our synagogue selected a new rabbi, but as a member synagogue of the NCYI, we were forced to have our selection vetted by the NCYI before formally hiring him, a process that the NCYI had put into place for political reasons. I thought it was embarrassing that our new rabbi – who was a first class talmid chacham with sterling character – had to receive the NCYI’s stamp of approval before we officially made him our rabbi.

Personally, I’m very excited about the new direction of the organization.  I grew up attending a Young Israel synagogue in West Hempstead.  When I got married 39 years ago and began looking for a place to live, I immediately felt at home in Stamford once I knew there was a Young Israel branch there. The new board of directors at NCYI – many of whom are around my age and also grew up attending a Young Israel synagogue– likely have similar feelings, and they are hoping to shift the organization’s emphasis back to what it had been in years past.

I have very fond memories of the Young Israel movement of old.  It was at the Young Israel of West Hempstead where I attended a teen minyan, and learned how to be a ba’al tefila.  The NCYI also sponsored an inter-shul basketball league for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, in which both my brother and I participated and which was a lot of fun.   My father played second base for the synagogue’s team in the inter-shul Young Israel softball league. (I was the official scorer for the team, and helped keep the stats.)  And my mother played the lead in a shul production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Iolanthe.  Adults and youngsters regularly participated in chessed projects for the community.  There was a true feeling of camaraderie, and we were all proud to be members of a Young Israel synagogue, which at the time meant that you could be both observant and in step with the rest of the modern world.

Although its focus was its member synagogues back then, NCYI still strongly supported Israel and other Jewish causes.  In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War broke out, the organization actively encouraged its member shuls to raise money for Israeli bonds.  I remember my father, who was president of the shul at the time, making a passionate plea at a special membership meeting to purchase Israel bonds — and the shul members responded positively in full force.

In bygone days, when the NCYI would hold its annual dinner or fund raising event, it would honor well deserving leaders of its constituent congregations rather than political bigwigs.  Compare that to what the NCYI has done in the recent past.  A couple of years ago, the organization cozied up to political financiers Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas and honored them at the organization’s annual dinner with its Chovevei Zion award.  Six months later, the two were charged with campaign finance violations … and are now awaiting trial.  A year before that, Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted only 11 days as Donald Trump’s communications director after an off-the-record statement he made surfaced, received a similar award from the NCYI.  Personally I find awards to such individuals – who are receiving the awards more for the political influence they might wield rather than for any specific accomplishments they have achieved — extremely distasteful.

Also, in a refreshing change, the NCYI’s new board of directors now includes two highly qualified women.  For years NCYI has had a rule on the books that prevents a woman to be the president of a member shul, so it’s nice to see that women are now being added the board of the umbrella organization.  Perhaps the rule about women presidents of Young Israel shuls will change soon.

To David Warshaw, new president of the NCYI, and the entire leadership team, I wish you all the best for a successful tenure, as the Young Israel returns to its traditional roots of serving its constituents.  Hatzlacha raba!

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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