‘The best investment’ NCSY leader seeks to save youth

‘The best investment’ NCSY leader seeks to save youth

Teaneck's Joseph Stechler named chairman of Orthodox youth commission

Joseph (Yossi) Stechler of Teaneck, the newly appointed chairman of the Orthodox Union’s National Youth Commission, envisions the movement’s NCSY as a massive life preserver for “Jewish teens floating away from the Jewish people without knowing anything about the beauty of Jewish tradition.”

At the helm of the international youth movement, founded in 1954, he hopes to shore up these floundering youth, with whom he can identify.

The public school-educated son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Stechler recalls feeling “very impacted by the fact that my father and mother would cry for forgiveness on Yom Kippur despite the horrific experiences in their childhoods” and determined to learn more about Judaism.

After Yeshiva University and a brief law career on Wall Street, Stechler built a successful investment firm and raised four children with his wife, Gail. “I decided, as a form of thanks to God for helping us to build a beautiful Jewish family, that I needed to help other Jewish kids who knew little about their heritage to make educated choices,” he says.

Joseph Stechler, chairman of NCSY, standing, with Teaneck High School student Aaron Karp and Rael Blumenthal, an NCSY adviser.

He joined the leadership of NCSY about 25 years ago, when it consisted mainly of Orthodox synagogue-based youth groups, and advocated creating “cool” educational programs for Jewish public high school students.

“Over the years, I’ve been astounded by the extraordinary success NCSY has had in letting teens experience a taste of the warmth of Judaism and instilling in them a love of Israel,” he says. “Thirty-five thousand kids went through NCSY programs, and many have become observant, many have made aliyah, and virtually everyone has had a positive experience and built a stronger attachment to the Jewish people.”

The organization has chapters in 28 states, and in Israel, Canada, Germany, and Chile. In northern New Jersey, it has chapters in Hackensack, Fair Lawn, Teaneck, Passaic, and Paramus.

Stechler aims to expand NCSY’s informal education programs, one-on-one learning, Shabbatons, and Israel summer and university programs to reach additional unaffiliated Jewish teens, as well as day school and yeshiva students who have a knowledge base but lack a strong emotional commitment to Jewish observance.

“We need to touch the heart of every Jewish teen,” he says. “Everyone has to decide on his or her own future and level of observance, but we can give them the education and experiences to make the best decisions.”

That effort will require money as well as dedication. “During World War II, it was almost impossible to buy Jewish lives – even if one was willing to pay those trying to kill them – but now it’s easy,” he says. “For a $1,000 scholarship, for example, we can get an additional teen into an extraordinary Israel summer experience.”

One of his favorites is the four-week NCSY Jerusalem Journey for Jewish public high school students. He and his wife greet each one with home-baked chocolate-chip cookies at their second home in Zichron Yaacov, on the Mediterranean shore.

“One young man on that program asked me why we were providing scholarships to them. I said, ‘I’m in the investment field and you’re the best investment I can make,'” recalls Stechler.

He also hopes to use NCSY’s huge alumni base to build Jewish activity centers at major college campuses, working in tandem with the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and other groups. “I want to get more Jewish college kids involved with Shabbat meals, study programs, lectures, and trips to Israel,” he says.

NCSY has become one of the leading and fastest-growing providers of Birthright trips, giving thousands of college students an intense learning experience over 10 free days in Israel.

Stechler is not hesitant to address the 2000 scandal that rocked NCSY when Fair Lawn resident Baruch Lanner, then NCSY’s director of regions, was accused (and eventually convicted on several counts) of sexual and physical abuse by former NCSYers and students at a Deal yeshiva where he had been principal. NCSY subsequently formulated guidelines to assure “an environment in which NCSYers, NCSY volunteers, and NCSY professionals can grow and learn … free from unwelcome attention and any other form of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse.”

Stechler says that when the accusations first surfaced, he and his wife immediately urged the OU to fire Lanner. Today, all NCSY leaders have Stechler’s emergency contact information in case of issues regarding inappropriate behavior.

“The safety of all the children is my first responsibility and that is the policy of the OU,” he says. “I believe NCSY learned a painful lesson and has grown dramatically since that time with a very important emphasis on the safety and growth of the kids entrusted to us.”

The Stechlers – who have also taken leadership roles in Jewish educational and outreach organizations including Yeshiva College, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, The Moriah School, Nishmat, and Ohr Torah – have four grown children, two of whom teach at Jewish day schools.

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