Graduates of NCSY’s Impact leadership program at the spring regional awards banquet in Harrison Hot Springs, with Rabbi Samuel Ross. (photo from Rabbi Samuel Ross)
In a Jewish community with one of the highest assimilation rates, the role of youth groups such as the Vancouver chapter of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) has become more important over the years. NCSY Vancouver’s parent organization was founded in 1954 and the local chapter, which emerged about a decade later, is helping celebrate the 60th anniversary milestone.
NCSY works to develop a connection with Jewish youth before they embark on their university and professional lives. Rabbi Samuel Ross, NCSY Vancouver director, spoke about the “unique, beautiful situation” in which the chapter works. He said they “cater to anyone and everyone, which is an ongoing challenge but it’s really reaping rewards.” Indeed, many of those who join or take part in NCSY activities develop lifelong connections to Judaism and Israel, which was Nicole Grubner’s experience.
Grubner grew up in West Vancouver and became involved with NCSY when she was in Grade 9. She started attending their Shabbatons, and loved the warm atmosphere and Jewish connection that she felt at these events. By the end of high school, she was on the NCSY student leadership board, began keeping Shabbat, and had signed up for a post-graduate year at a seminary in Israel.
“I think the goal of NCSY is for it to be a jumping off point for you, so I used it as that and continued my Jewish education after high school,” said Grubner, 25. “It brought a lot of meaning into my life and week and I enjoyed the sense of community that it brought.”
NCSY Vancouver hosts a mix of educational and social programs, everything from a mock casino night to sushi in the sukkah to Shabbatons, trips and leadership programs.
“The city is growing, the chapter is exploding, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m actually bringing in someone else to come work for me next year,” said Ross, who has been leading NCSY Vancouver for the past three years. “We do the best we can to inspire them enough so that they’ll want to continue their Jewish growth once they get to university.”
In Grubner’s case, after her year in Israel, she studied at Stern College in New York, returning to Israel every year.
“I actually went back to NCSY and staffed summer programs in Israel for three years,” she said. “I had an amazing Israel experience and it was important for me to give that to someone else.”
Her love of Israel and connecting with the Jewish people didn’t dampen after university ended. In October 2012, she made aliyah.
“In Vancouver, we know that assimilation is a really huge problem, so NCSY is really important to the Jewish community in Vancouver because it’s a connection point, one that many kids don’t get the opportunity to be a part of.”
“It had a very big impact on my life, so much so that I made my best friends and closest connections in NCSY. I’m really grateful for the base it gave me, for the fact that I was able to get so involved and so connected in high school,” she said. “In Vancouver, we know that assimilation is a really huge problem, so NCSY is really important to the Jewish community in Vancouver because it’s a connection point, one that many kids don’t get the opportunity to be a part of. NCSY has really changed the face of Vancouver’s Jewish community,” she said.
NCSY is a globally recognized organization that connects Jewish youth through social, recreational, educational and spiritual programs.
“It’s about connecting kids to their roots and to their Jewish identity. Whether kids become religious or not, to me, that’s almost less important than kids thinking about their Judaism and it being something important to them in whatever way they choose to practise,” said Grubner. “It shouldn’t be a part of their identity that passes them by because of apathy or lack of knowledge.”
In Vancouver, the number of Jewish youth involved in NCSY programming has been growing. This year, they’re sending 16 youth to programs in Israel. Some of their programs draw 100 kids, and there are already 25 applicants this year for the NCSY Vancouver youth board.
“When I first came three years ago, we had to beg kids to be on that board,” said Ross. “Now, it’s really hard to get on. The kids have to write an essay why they like NCSY and what they can add, and it’s beautiful. You see how they write how Judaism has made such a difference in their lives and how passionate they are and how much they enjoy coming.”
Vicky Tobianah is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter, @vicktob, or at [email protected].