My First Encounter with Orthodoxy – Shlomo Carlebach and NCSY Circa 1960

By Rabbi Leonard Oberstein
Baltimore, MD

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.

9 comments on “My First Encounter with Orthodoxy – Shlomo Carlebach and NCSY Circa 1960

  1. Bob, in my case I joined the congregation stating up front that I intended to work towards a proper seating arrangement, but with no specific deadline. In the two years that I was there, I reminded them of this on a few opportune occasions, but didn’t push it. I understand that my successor did do away with the mixed seating area successfully.

    Rav Dolgin’s story, printed in Sanctity of the Synagogue, is quite interesting and inspiring.

    I never heard of a rav joining such a congregation with no concern at all over the mehitza. The reality is, that one has to judge the congregation’s understanding and one has to prioritize, as well. You should have seen the flash and smoke when I instituted restrictions to ensure reliable kashrut in the shul kitchen! When everything is a struggle to educate and advance the community, some things take time. Some things take even more time.

    When I came from Israel, I was quite critical of the more ‘liberal’ congregations I saw. Now, decades later, I have great respect for some of these rabbanim who managed to maintain a core commitment in their communities, even with many details lacking, so that the next generation would go off to NCSY and YU and move forward in their learning, and understanding, and commitment.

    It isn’t simple. Each situation has to be judged for itself. AFAIK, there are very few non-mehitza congregations left that call themselves Orthodox. I just hope that if a rav went to one in a responsible manner, that he wouldn’t have the problems that Rabbi Balinsky alluded to. He very well might. I certainly wouldn’t expect anymore to see a Conservative congregation offering to hire an Orthodox rabbi. And I think it would be far more problematic today for an Orthodox rav to take such a position.

  2. In 1980, my parents joined just such a ‘Conservative’ shul. I don’t know what the “statistics” were overall, but 3 kids from my Hebrew school class (of 14?) were shomer Shabbos by the end of HS, 2 ‘dropping out’ of the afternoon Talmud Torah (TT) class because they switched to Jewish day school.

    No mechitza, mixed seating, but the TT teachers taught Torah. Yom tov, Shabbos, Hebrew reading and writing, Jewish history. One of the teachers was an Our Way (NCSY for the hearing impaired) advisor, and encouraged us to try out a local chapter shabbaton in the next town over (YI shul).

    And when United Synagogue OK’d egalitarian minyanim, USY was banned from the shul, and we became ‘Traditional’ instead of ‘Conservative’, with the kids either joining other USY chapters, or the closest NCSY chapter – which eventually became hyphenated.

  3. This is R. Emanuel Feldman’s experience from “Tales Out of Shul” :

    “During the third year of my tenure the congregation sold its tiny quarters and purchased a church building which we ren-ovated into a synagogue. This was the natural time for me to install a physical mechitzah in the synagogue. Up until then we had had separate seating for men and women, but no
    actual partition. This was far from the ideal situation, but I accepted the pulpit after consulting with a number of rabbinic authorities who approved the arrangement with the understanding that it was temporary, and that within a reasonable time an halachically acceptable partition would be installed.”

  4. Mordechai,

    Am I correct in assuming that those who permitted taking a position at a non-mechitza shul also encouraged the rabbis involved to get a mechitza installed as soon as practical, and to raise congregational consciousness towards that goal?

  5. MIchael, the assertion that taking a non-mehitza shul “would exclude someone from the Orthodox rabbinate” is a little too simple and not entirely true. Largely true, maybe.

    My brief experience as a synagogue rav was in a fairly new congregation that had three seating sections – ‘yours, mine, and ours’ ;-). This was the mid-90s. On the advice of one of my teachers in Israel, I called two poskim here in America. Both said it was permissable for me to do this. One explicitly encouraged me to do it. With that backing, no one ever seriously questioned my Orthodox credentials. A colleague of mine who was a Young Israel rav later spent a few years as rav of a non-mehitza shul. Again, no repercussions that I have heard of.

    The opportunities are less nowadays. The lines between Conservative and Orthodox shul are much more clearly drawn. A story like Rav Dolgin’s at Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills would likely not happen today.

    It is still done here and there. I agree that it is done with more hesitation and trepidation. I would note that one of the poskim I spoke to asked me to try and leave his name out of it because he didn’t want the headaches that the politics would bring. A telling statement, that.

  6. Rabbi Oberstein mentioned in passing that there were YU rabbis who took non mehitza shuls in his day. While today, that would exclude someone from the Orthodox rabbinate, a positive word should be said about these men and their wives who did this. Without his rabbi, Rabbi Oberstein would not have made it to YU. Indded NCSY was filled with teens from these types of congregations. It was only because they were YU(and sometimes other Yeshiva)rabbis, they led many teens down the road to observance. I led a mehitza minyan for teens in a mixed seating synagogue during my years at YU and the rabbi sent many children to yeshivot. While this era has largely passed, Orthodoxy owes a debt to these rabbis as well.

  7. Great post! RPS is simply one of the great architects and leaders not just of the kiruv movement, but also of American Orthodoxy. Anyone interested in the early years of NCSY must read Zev Eleff’s “From Convention to Convention” in order to see how NCSY played and still plays a huge role in helpimg Jewish teens explore Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. I share R Oberstein’s memories although my first National Convention was in 1969.

  8. That article spoke to me. I also have positive memories of USY events during high school, but realized after graduation that the moments of ruchnius experienced there lacked substance and staying power.

  9. Beautiful post, R Rabbi Oberstein. I grew up in Wichita, KS and had a very similar experience w/ NCSY in the 80’s.
    I’ve always been impressed, especially in the early days of NCSY, by how successful they were, based on the limited funds and staff at the time. It just goes to show the power of doing things L’Shaim Shamayim.

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