People often ask Rabbi Ethan Katz of Fair Lawn why he continues taking New Jersey Jewish teenagers to lend a hand at natural-disaster scenes across the United States. He is heading his 22nd such mission on February 19, bound for the 11th time to New Orleans.
Rabbi Katz will arrive with 30 students and a new title on his business card: regional director of Teaneck-based New Jersey NCSY.
“The city was hit with Hurricane Katrina eight years ago, and there is still at least 10 years of work to be done by dozens of organizations,” he said. “Our group is not going to rebuild the city alone. But there are lessons to be learned that have little to do with the work, and those lessons are about leadership and volunteering.”
|Rabbi Ethan Katz|
Rabbi Katz, 48, places a high priority on building future Jewish leaders through his career with NCSY, the youth arm of the Orthodox Union. The recently released Pew Research Center report on American Jewry reinforced his contention that leadership is lacking, and he intends to create opportunities for the 1,500 Jewish day school and public school teenagers in his region’s purview to fill that void.
“I want to increase our chesed [charitable] missions, because I believe they are key,” he said.
It is logical to speculate that Rabbi Katz’s own leadership trajectory began when he served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces.
Born in Boston, he spent his childhood in a variety of Israeli and American communities. Returning to the United States in 2005 after 18 years in Israel, he became an NCSY chapter adviser in Cherry Hill, and in 2009 was promoted to associate regional director. For the last two years, Rabbi Katz has been preparing to take over as director from Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, who has moved on to a position at Yeshiva University in addition to his pulpit at the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton.
Rabbi Glasser said of his successor: “Rabbi Katz has a track record of success in inspiring individual NCSYers to grow in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and at the same time has brought some of the most creative programming to the growing New Jersey region.”
Rabbi Katz heads a full-time staff of seven, a part-time staff of 20, and more than 50 volunteers.
Founded in 1954 as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the informal Jewish educational, social, and recreational organization has evolved from a synagogue-based structure to a more community-based model.
New Jersey NCSY now includes chapters in Fair Lawn and Teaneck, Friday Night Lights programs in Livingston and Englewood, and 15 Jewish Student Union clubs. In Bergen County, those weekly clubs are held at Fair Lawn, Paramus, and Teaneck high schools, Bergen County Academies, and the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.
“Our main objective with these clubs is creating a sense of Jewish identity, pride and values, and to inspire these students to go on summer programs in Israel,” Rabbi Katz said. In a typical summer, about 100 NCSY teens take part in Israel programs. One-third of them come from public schools and two-thirds come from Jewish schools.
In addition, NCSY “city directors” run programming out of their homes, serving Twin Rivers (Southern New Jersey, East Windsor); Monmouth County (Manalapan, Marlborough, Englishtown); Highland Park, and West Orange.
“My vision for the region includes slowly increasing the number of full-time couples serving as city directors, a program we started five years ago,” Rabbi Katz said. “We no longer have synagogue-based chapters because you don’t find kids in shuls – you find them everyplace but shuls. We continue to work in conjunction with local synagogues, but this new approach creates a different atmosphere and more flexibility.”
He hopes to revive the Junior NCSY division that was phased out two years ago, and to establish a Torah High in South Jersey.
And, of course, he intends to continue participating in disaster relief work with local teens.
“I view this as a continuation of the work of the State of Israel, the number one responder worldwide to natural disasters,” Rabbi Katz said, pointing out the “tremendous kiddush hashem aspect” of the missions. Kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God’s name through public deeds by Jews on behalf of others, is a primary Jewish value.
He emphasizes to participants that as identifiable Jews, they represent Judaism and must comport themselves accordingly - not only on the scene, cleaning up or fixing houses, but also on the airplane, in the hotel, and in local stores.
“We are a group of Orthodox Jews that sticks out like a sore thumb, and as a result, for many people in New Orleans their only impression of Jews is that they come to help others,” Rabbi Katz said.
The groups also interact with the local Jewish community.
“The kids walk away saying, ‘Wow, I really made a difference and a difference for Orthodox Jews.’ Now, after a disaster, the kids call to say: ‘What can we do to help?'”
Rabbi Katz and his wife, Debbie, have four children: Shani, 23; Talia, 22, Shmuel, 19, and Naama, 12. Talia and Shmuel live in Israel, and Shmuel has followed in his father’s footsteps as an Israeli soldier.