What started out as a passing curiosity in a great social program morphed into a lifelong commitment to an organization that changed Nina Butler’s life.
In short, Nina (née Novetsky) joined the Southfield Michigan chapter of NCSY when she was thirteen years old, and never left. Part of the reason she actively fundraises for NCSY and still sometimes attends a Regional Convention is that she later married Dan, the guy who was regional director when she was in her teens. “I was one of the kids who gave him grey hairs,” she quips. But let’s not get ahead of the story.
Looking back, Nina reflects that initially she joined NCSY because her older brother was an active member and she was struck by how all the older kids in her shul were involved. Once she was old enough to join, she found plenty of reasons to stay. “Part of the lure of NCSY in the ‘70s – back in the day before internet and email – was that we could get together with Jewish kids from other cities, even other states all across the country. That’s very exciting to a teenager. We felt like
we had friends everywhere. And that bond extended well beyond our teen years. I’m still in touch with NCSY friends. It’s really inspirational – today there are NCSY alumni across the country and around the world who will gladly open their homes to share their Shabbat tables, as others did for us.”
Another facet of the attraction to NCSY, she recalls, was the transformational way it teaches about Judaism. Informal, warm, interactive and meaningful, the powerful messages of Torah Judaism are absorbed by the teens at a pivotal stage of their lives. “Initially, I was interested in socializing, but became intellectually intrigued by what they were teaching us. I wasn’t going to easily accept anything new, though. I challenged my advisors constantly about Torah observance, looking for weaknesses in the system. Time and again, I was shown that my ignorance was the problem, not something wrong with the Torah. I realized I simply had to learn more. And the more I learned, the more the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.”
That potent NCSY blend of components – a welcoming social ambience and dynamic intellectual challenge – has the same power today as it did back then. “And never underestimate the importance of peer support,” Nina says, noting that eventually many NCSYers intensify their Jewish commitment and observances. This result, of course, is the goal of NCSY, but the process can be perplexing and painful, particularly to the teens’ parents. “And that’s where NCSY can really help. First of all, NCSY takes great care to communicate a message of kibud av v’eim, genuinely honoring and respecting parents; but perhaps more importantly, we met other kids just like us, going through the same thing. NCSYers support one another− and along the way, they inspire one another. We had this sense that we’re all in this together, and there’s great strength in that.”
A Kiruv Veteran’s Perspective
“We’ve been in Jewish outreach long enough to learn that God has long-range plans, spanning generations,” reflects Nina Butler. “Everyone who has been involved in this way has come across a kid who simply didn’t take to the NCSY experience. He came once, maybe twice, but then dropped out. And you figure he’s lost. It’s discouraging and sad.
“But we’ve been around long enough to see an amazing phenomenon. Now and then, a teen will come to his parents and say his friends want him to go to an NCSY event with them. And his father or mother will say, ‘Oh, NCSY. I remember that. I went there myself when I was your age. You’ll have a good time!’ Even though the parent didn’t stay with NCSY, the single encounter was so positive that it left good memories. They may even encourage their kids to go.
“So there’s a second chance. Even if we think we lost one generation, we may be able to influence the next. We’ve had a peek into God at work.”
An important byproduct of that transformational experience is that former NCSYers have a past that opens them to respect other Jews, regardless of their current practice or affiliation. “Everyone is moving along the path; it’s not for us to judge anyone else. It’s clear to me now that tolerance and respect for others is a key, enduring message of NCSY.” Nina sighs, “I wish we could export that value to the rest of the world.”
Maybe Nina can’t reach the entire world, but she is trying. The Butler family is distinguished in Pittsburgh for their outstanding hospitality and kiruv. People who would never have a Shabbat meal, university students, family, friends, all find their place at the Butler Shabbat table. “We’re not out to indoctrinate,” Nina chuckles. “We respect everyone. We simply answer questions. There’s no need for a hard sell because the product is so good!”
And it’s no secret that the place to be in Pittsburgh every summer is at the Butlers’ annual Garden Sizzler, “an adults-only gastronomic experience” held in their backyard to raise funds for NCSY. Serving dozens of succulent BBQ dishes and other tantalizing fare, the event attracts 300 people including local dignitaries and Jews of every stripe. “It’s a wild time and we are proud to host a wide cross-section of the Jewish community,” Nina says. “Some people would not know about NCSY in Pittsburgh without the Sizzler. They’re inspired and thrilled to support an organization that is so successful in turning teens on to leading committed Jewish lives.”
The example set by the Butlers has been so successful that other NCSY alumni are raising large sums for NCSY through their own BBQs in other cities. But Nina and Dan’s is by far the most famous, and they will be happy to coach anyone who would like to emulate their event.
And how did they actually meet? “Mmm, I met Dan when I was a kid and he was regional director of NCSY,” recalls Nina. “Over the years we got better acquainted, so when I went to Stern College, I tried to fix him up with some friends. But I discovered he didn’t want me to fix him up; he was actually interested in me! We were engaged in only five weeks, probably because we had shared the NCSY experience for so long.”
The wedding of Dan and Nina Butler soared with lively NCSY ruach. And in the thirty-seven years since, their commitment to living a full, vibrant Torah life inspires all who know them − and keeps the NCSY banner flying high.
Charlotte Friedland is the editor of Reunion.
This article was first printed in the Fall 2014 issue of Reunion Magazine.