Happy to be Aish'd

The difference between the two outreach experiences is a result of the broader context.

aish  (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A few weeks ago, when I stood beneath the wedding canopy with my new husband, among our wedding guests was a friend whom I first met nearly 17 years ago when I was a 14-year-old attending an NCSY Shabbaton. The friend, who is now a respected rabbi, teacher and school administrator, was then a 20-year-old college student and youth group adviser. He was one of many young, enthusiastic advisers in my junior high and high school years who took the time to listen to my nearly endless questions about Orthodox Judaism and to encourage me on a long and sometimes difficult path toward greater religious observance. Although the frequency of our contact has ebbed and flowed over the years, we have always stayed in touch, and he, and eventually his wife, have been my teachers, spiritual guides, sounding boards and concerned friends. My long-term friendship with this adviser and more than a few other NCSY friends and mentors - some of whom also attended or were invited to my wedding - illustrates an experience with youth outreach movements that is quite opposite that of Danielle Kubes, the Jerusalem Post intern who wrote so derisively of her participation in an intense three-week summer program ("You've been Aish'd...," July 17). The stark difference between Kubes' experience and mine - at least as she describes it - is a result not of the intensity of the programs we attended, but of the broader context in which those programs took place. WHILE I also participated in a very intense summer program - a six-week NCSY Israel travel/study program for girls that was by turns exhilarating, inspiring, exhausting and emotionally overwhelming - that trip was preceded by years of involvement in less intense NCSY programs and was followed by weekly contact for several months afterward with one of my counselors, who helped me integrate the lessons of the program into my non-Orthodox/public school life and to continue the intellectual journey I had begun that summer. And while over six years of NCSY involvement I did occasionally encounter naïve or overzealous advisers who seemed unwilling, or unable, to engage in substantive discussions about what Kubes terms "stock responses" to a variety of matters related to living an observant life, the vast majority of my advisers were able to engage in serious discussions, listened with an open mind to counterarguments and admitted when they did not have the answers I sought. While they spoke in glowing terms about the benefits of an Orthodox lifestyle, they also acknowledged the challenges presented by such a way of life, especially for those raised in less observant homes. Most important, I never felt that my advisers had befriended me on the condition that I become more religiously observant. Instead, I knew they would be there, always encouraging me on my religious journey, but never demanding me to adopt rituals with any sort of speed, or even at all. The enduring message I received from NCSY - from my first Junior NCSY Shabbaton as a seventh grader all the way through my high school graduation - was that I should be proud of my Jewish heritage and committed to learning more about it. While increased observance was clearly a goal that was lauded by the organization, on a person-to-person basis its thrust was on developing Jewish identity and education. The thought was that a healthy exposure to a meaningful lifestyle speaks for itself and requires no persuasion. That was the case for me. All these years later, I'm delighted to be sharing my traditionally observant life with a man who also connected to his heritage with the help of Orthodox friends who reached out and kindly, not coercively, showed him the beauty and meaning of traditional Judaism - and who stood by him as constant friends and confidants while he struggled with various rituals and precepts. It is my hope that most youth outreach workers adopt their methods, and not the more coercive ones described by Kubes. The writer lives in Baltimore.