“Teenagers and young adults are inspired when they feel they are part of something larger than themselves, when they feel they are not just consumers but are attaching themselves to a larger mission for the Jewish future,” Rabbi Gideon Black of Englewood said.
Rabbi Black, 38, is the new chief executive officer of the New York region of NCSY, the flagship youth movement of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization for North American Orthodox Jewry.
Rabbi Black’s insights into what inspires teenagers come from experience. He spent the past decade working with the OU’s Jewish Life on Campus program, first as a campus rabbi at New York University from 2011 to 2015, and then as OU-JLIC’s national director of professional recruitment and leadership development for the last six years.
“It’s thrilling to work with young adults in college as they confront big questions about life and Judaism,” he said. “But I value this remarkable opportunity to engage people at a younger age, when their identity is in formation.”
While the flavor or content of a program or event may differ for a 15-year-old as opposed to a 21-year-old, “the deeper values and what we’re trying to achieve is quite similar,” he added.
“There’s a certain commonality that runs through all ages in terms of what they are looking for in their Judaism and what they admire in role models. Teens and young adults connect to role models whom they see as authentic — someone they can trust, who lives and breathes the values they are sharing,” Rabbi Black said.
NCSY was founded in 1954 as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and now has chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Israel, Chile, and Argentina.
Although run under Orthodox auspices, NCSY welcomes all Jewish boys and girls, ranging from those with no formal Jewish education or affiliation to those growing up in the synagogue and day school world.
Year-round programs include weekend Shabbatonim, Jewish Student Union clubs on public high school campuses, afterschool Latte & Learning sessions, summer camps, trips, and service missions.
“Young people’s attention is being drawn in many directions, from social media to sports, so the counselors and the content need to be fun and uplifting,” Rabbi Black said. “We want to see them leave a program or Shabbaton with a smile on their face.”
He estimates that there are about 100,000 Jewish teens in the region’s catchment area — New York City, Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland counties. About half are from ultra-Orthodox families, which rarely engage with NCSY. That leaves about 50,000 young people, many without any Jewish affiliation.
“We want to engage as many of those teens as possible — and that the engagement shouldn’t be fleeting but should be substantial and enduring,” Rabbi Black said.
He and his staff of 19 aim to continue NCSY’s strong momentum in areas including Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the Five Towns and Great Neck on Long Island, and increase its activities on the Upper West Side and in midtown and downtown Manhattan, Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Scarsdale, New Rochelle, and Monsey.
NCSY’s international director, Rabbi Micah Greenland, said that he is “excited for Rabbi Black to sharpen and implement his ambitious vision in leading New York NCSY’s program in order to better reach and impact the next generation of Jewish teens throughout the New York area.”
The region’s previous CEO, Rina Emerson, has been appointed as NCSY’s national chief operating officer.
Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Rabbi Black studied at the London School of Economics and has a law degree from University College London.
After attending Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, he moved to New York in 2007 to pursue his rabbinical ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He concurrently earned a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy from the university’s Bernard Revel Graduate School and completed Columbia Business School’s developing leaders program.
During his rabbinical training, Rabbi Black interned at the Manhattan Jewish Experience and the Riverdale Jewish Center. After ordination, he began his work at NYU in the summer of 2011.
Kenneth Sicklick, the chair of New York NCSY’s board, said that Rabbi Black’s “extensive experience at OU-JLIC and his warm personality will serve him well in his new position and will enhance the NCSY experience for thousands of New York teenagers.”
Rabbi Black and his wife, physician assistant Aliza Berkowitz Black, send their four children to the Moriah School in Englewood.
When asked to pinpoint the area in which today’s Jewish teenagers need the most guidance, Rabbi Black was silent for a few moments as he composed a thoughtful response.
“They need guidance on how to take their parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism and make it their own,” he said. “To view something that seems ancient — maybe even beautiful, maybe even precious, with wonderful family associations — not as something from the past, like an heirloom that belongs on the mantlepiece with the family photos, but as something really relevant to their day-to-day living.
“We want them to view that tradition that their families may have not as being antiquated or irrelevant, but as essential and life affirming. As long as they view it only as part of their history, but not integral to their present lives, then it won’t become part of their future.”