By Rabbi Leonard Oberstein
I grew up in Montgomery,Alabama in the 1950’s. Today I am an orthodox rabbi and father and grandfather of a large family. However, my first experience with orthodox Judaism really came about because I went to one single NCSY National Convention a year after my Bar Mitzvah and that inspired me to go to Yeshiva University High School in New York.
Prior to our shul becoming officially Conservative, there was no youth group. There was AZA and BBG, which were sponsored by the Bnai Brith and attracted youth from all congregations, but these had no semblance of religious commitment. Our new rabbi, Joseph Reich founded the local chapter of USY (United Synagogue Youth). This group met at our shul and attracted a lot of teens. We had programs of various types, and religion was a part of the package. The highlight was going to other cities for conventions and meeting Jewish boys and girls. I remember going to a convention in Birmingham and another in Columbus, Georgia. On the application to the convention you were asked if you preferred or required a kosher host home and whether or not you would ride on Shabbos. I was told that I was the only person in the region who both demanded kosher and wanted to walk to shul. There was a drawback: our chapter advisors themselves did not keep kosher or Shabbos themselves. In the context of the times, though, this was not seen as the main point. The parents just wanted Jewish kids to hang out with Jewish kids and to meet Jewish kids in other cities so that they would eventually marry a Jew. I have only good memories of USY; its influence was positive. Had I continued on that path, however, I would have gone to the summer camp program, and who knows what that would have led to. But that was not to be, because after only three years, the rabbi left, and the shul hired an Orthodox rabbi, fresh out of YU. In those days, mixed seating, nominally Conservative shuls often got rabbis from YU. It was a different world.
Rabbi Aaron Borow took me to one of the first NCSY conventions, the national convention in New York. That made me one of the first NCSYers in the country. I loved every second of that convention. It was a life changing and life enhancing experience. Orthodoxy was finally waking up to the challenge and not conceding the youth to other movements.
Let me describe NCSY through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy from Montgomery who never saw anything like it in his life. I entered this big room and didn’t know a soul. I gathered up my courage and walked up to a guy and introduced myself and said I didn’t know anyone. He introduced himself and said he, too, didn’t know anyone. His name was Arthur Saslow, and he came from Saratoga Springs, NY. I couldn’t get over that the males wore yarmulkes in the street! We toured Jewish New York, and then they took us up to a hotel in Monsey.
Friday night, Shlomo Carlebach davened Kabbalas Shabbos. Now, I was very familiar with the way we did it in Montgomery – with some Hebrew, some English, some responsive reading, and some singing. It was lovely. But it didn’t compare to Shlomo Carlebach. I was uplifted, inspired, and invigorated by his davening and his singing over the weekend. The sincerity, the passion, and the spirituality were new and enticing. The dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have aThe dancing was so much more lively. You don’t have to have English responsive readings if you see real kavana (intent and meaning). Even if you don’t understand the words, the Orthodox service gets its message across, at least, when you have someone like Shlomo davening.
The sessions were also much different than USY’s. It opened up vistas, and I returned home inspired. It was this experience that spurred me to go to yeshiva. NCSY was new and experimental in those days, but it helped thousands of kids like me to be turned on with emes (truth). Rabbi Pinchos Stolper had just been hired, and I met him at that time. He went on to become the long time national director, and led NCSY to great accomplishments. Years later, I thanked him for what he did for my life.