Posted in Reunion Mag, on September 17, 2014

NCSY Havdalah: Six Decades and Still Burning Strong

After six decades, the NCSY Shabbaton continues to prompt thousands of teens to turn their lives around. But what keeps that passion burning when the twenty-five hours of fun and Torah-inspiration come to an end?


Night has fallen. Shabbaton participants amble into a dimly lit room. A band sits on a stage. The individual leading Havdalah stands in the middle of a group of NCSY teen regional heads, each proudly holding a candle aloft. The leader chants the prayer to a haunting Carlebach niggun; hundreds of voices join his. With arms around each other’s shoulders − boys with boys, girls with girls − teens close their eyes and sway in unison to the melody.

At the final blessing, “Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” the room explodes with music, dancing and unbridled NCSY ruach. Then the band transitions to a slow song, pulling the spirited throng inward. Someone tells a compelling story about the awesome privilege of being a Jew. A roomful of captivated hearts open wider.

“It’s dark; you can’t see anyone else; it doesn’t matter what you look like or what your facial expression is. It’s the culmination of an amazing Shabbos. You’ve grown as a person and as a Jew,” says Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, former international director of education at NCSY (currently associate dean for the Center for the Jewish Future and University Life at Yeshiva University), and second- generation Havdalah devotee. “You’re all coming together to concentrate on that sense of emotion. It’s a very personal, private experience and at the same time one of tremendous unity.”

The NCSY Havdalah tradition, dating back to the program’s fledgling days in the early 1960s, appears to be a case of spontaneous combustion.

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, NCSY’s first director, recalls how the realization came over him that Havdalah could be a potent, transformative moment. “[That first time] we recited Havdalah there was a feeling of, ‘what’s next?’ No one was in a rush to go anywhere. We had just shared a beautiful Shabbos together; it seemed like a wonderful time to start singing and dancing.” And so, they did. “The kids took off with it. No one wanted to stop. It went on and on. It was something they had never experienced before. All of the leaders understood we had to keep doing this.”

As Shabbaton participation grew, NCSY leadership decided to enhance the experience further. They hired musicians, some of them NCSYers. “No one had done such a thing. At most communal Shabbos gatherings, Shabbos just ended and that was that,” says Rabbi Stolper. “But at an NCSY Shabbaton, it’s a different world. The music was a big part of it. It gave everyone a tremendous feeling of joy that they carried into the week.”

That joy sailed right into the next decade. “I never dreamed it would happen in that tremendous way,” Rabbi Stolper reflects.

Paul Glasser (father of Rabbi Yaakov Glasser), associate vice president of Institutional Advancement at YU, was a senior in high school when he first experienced an NCSY Havdalah. “In those days, the band was behind a curtain,” he says. “After Rabbi Stolper said the final brachah, you heard three beats of a drum and then the music. It created a moment.”

According to Glasser, the songs and inspirational story reflected the era. The first generation after the Holocaust, many Shabbaton participants had parents who were survivors and they had heard stories of relatives who had been murdered. “We sang songs like Ani Maamin, slow hartzig [heartfelt] melodies,” says Glasser. “We heard stories about the gedolim of Europe. The most important ingredient was emotion.”

Although many of the ’80s teens later brought the secular slam dancing fad to the Havdalah fervor, the spirit of the moment remained intact. Members of the regional board still hold the candles, eyes brimming with emotion; the music and story still touch the heart, and the swaying arm-in- arm camaraderie continues. “You feel connected, soul to soul,” says Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, director of OU NextGen. “It’s like we’re all on a mission to make the world a better place, to strive in Judaism and come closer to Hashem.”

With the 1990s and Y2K, came meteoric advances in communication technology, hijacking the teenage attention span. NCSY promptly cranked up its Havdalah voltage. They tweaked the traditional order: instead of starting with something slow and emotive, segueing into the powerful speech, reciting Havdalah and striking up the band after the final brachah, the dancing now starts in the middle of Havdalah, in the dark. “Teens needed to get more energy out sooner,” says Rabbi Glasser. The stories are shorter; the messages more direct. “These are slight strategic shifts to address where the kids are. We’re dealing with a more concrete and empirical generation.”

Six decades since that first extended flame, the teenage neshamah yet responds to NCSY’s signature Havdalah. Despite the fact that today’s teens are technologically-possessed, they are still connecting to its spiritual power. “They don’t have their phones in hand, and they’re coming off a Shabbos of incredible togetherness, learning and laughter,” says Micah Greenland, NCSY international director. “There’s an electricity in the air. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.”

“When you have the zechut to lead an NCSY Havdalah, to look out at hundreds of kids who are closing their eyes and singing their hearts out, it gives you confidence in the future of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Glasser. “Our generation of youth is not beyond an extraordinary spiritual moment. The power of the music, the storytelling, going through a transformative Shabbos experience together with other teens, discovering who you are through that experience − that’s what energizes the Havdalah. That experience catapults teens to that magical moment when they look inside and say, ‘I could do more.’”


Bayla Sheva Brenner is a staff writer at the Orthodox Union.

This article was first printed in the Fall 2014 issue of Reunion Magazine.