May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

OU’s NCSY Gala Celebrates Resilience Amid Relentless Antisemitism

Evening honored three couples for their outstanding contributions to NCSY.

(Courtesy of OU) At a time when Jewish public school teens are grappling with relentless antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, Jewish Student Union (JSU) culture clubs in their schools have served as their literal safe havens, by helping students to cultivate a strong sense of Jewish pride and equipping them with the tools to respond to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incidents both in and out of school.

A program of the Orthodox Union’s NCSY, JSU is a network of after-school Jewish culture clubs for North American Jewish students in public schools and non-Jewish private schools. JSU staff engage over 17,000 teens at 316 schools across the country in meaningful discussions, education and celebrations centering on Judaism and Israel, and help interested teens to develop relationships with their Jewish heritage, identities and values. JSUs are open to non-Jewish students as well, with the goal of fostering an understanding of, and allyship with, their Jewish peers.

IDF paratrooper Sergeant Major Noam Buskila, a singer serving on Israel’s northern border, entertains a lively crowd at NY & NJ NCSY’s Evening of Strength.

Since October 7, 30 new JSU clubs have launched across the U.S alone, including eight in New York and New Jersey, where JSU impacted 6300 teens in 2023, a 40% increase from 2022.

Sofie is president of her high school’s JSU. The East Meadow, New Jersey, resident says that JSU is the one place in her school where she feels most comfortable and safe.

“Because of the daily antisemitism at my school, it’s such a great feeling to be able to walk into a space where everybody is accepting of our Judaism and our religion,” she said. “Everybody there attends for the same reason: to find a Jewish community.”

In her leadership position, Sofie has brought in staff from StandWithUs and other organizations to inspire JSU members to take pride in their Judaism and support of Israel.

Rabbi Aryeh and Yael Wielgus

“The antisemitism I encountered at school was the reason I decided to speak out,” she said. “I feel it’s my responsibility to be that voice for the Jewish people.”

Earlier this month, Sofie and fellow JSU teens everywhere were celebrated for their courage and resilience at New York and New Jersey NCSY’s Evening of Strength. Held at a hall in Lawrence, New York, and chaired by Rabbi Dov and Rina Emerson, and Jeremy and Dana Frenkel, the gala dinner also honored esteemed community pillars David and Stephanie Sokol of Woodmere, New York; Rabbi Aryeh and Yael Wielgus of Bergenfield, New Jersey;and Rabbi Tuvya and Sara Fried of Far Rockaway, New York, for their dedication to NCSY.

Dalia Sokol describes her parents, David and Stephanie, as “the Avraham and Sara of hachnasas orchim,” continually hosting people for Shabbos and holidays and trying to bring others closer to Hashem.

Former NCSY New Jersey Regional Director Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus is known by his colleagues for his passion, authenticity, spontaneity and “crazy schemes.” One summer, an organization called Athletes for Israel brought the Auburn Tigers, a Division 1 basketball team from Alabama, to Israel, to play against the country’s national team. Filling the stands at their biggest game, were 400 NCSY Kollel participants, whom Rabbi Wielgus had brought in to watch. The yeshiva boys, he recalls, garnered more attention at the live broadcast than the basketball players.

That fall, Rabbi Wielgus created a tournament and Shabbaton in Auburn, Alabama, for more than 120 yeshiva day school student athletes. The group also attended an Auburn Tigers’ home game in appreciation of Auburn Tigers’ Coach Bruce Pearl for his support of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Tuvya and Sara Fried

Rabbi Wielgus is most proud of overseeing the creation of NCSY’s 4G (For Girls) program, which caters to a broad spectrum of Modern Orthodox and Bais Yaakov high school girls. The success of the initiative, he said, surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams.

NCSY Managing Director Rabbi Moshe Benovitz says the couple have impacted more people than almost anybody he knows in the world of NCSY.

“They do it out of their incredible capacity for love, generosity and ability to connect to such a wide variety of people, with a goodness of spirit and energy that is absolutely contagious,” he said.

Rabbi Tuvya Fried has been a dedicated, driving force in NCSY for 22 years, seeing past people’s appearances and into their neshamos as NCSY’s Great Neck Educator. For decades, he and Sara opened their home to dozens of NCSYers who became part of their family.

Described by his colleagues as a coach, athlete, mashpia, rebbe and person who is willing to take on any job at NCSY’s Camp Sports, Rabbi Fried first influenced NCSY Camp Sports Assistant Director Rabbi Dani Cooper in 1996.

The Frieds see NCSY as a wonderful tool to educate teens and contribute to their religious growth and inspiration.

“NCSY is so important to us and to all of Bnei Yisrael because it connects our youth who are not affiliated with their Jewish roots in a very emotional way,” said Rabbi Fried. “NCSY does something that no one else can do with teenagers; it gets them to love Torah and mitzvos. That’s the magic of NCSY.”

The gala included entertainment by IDF paratrooper Sergeant Major Noam Buskila, a singer serving on Israel’s northern border, and an address by New York and New Jersey NCSY CEO Rabbi Gideon Black.

Reflecting on the evening, all agree that it was extremely special to be celebrated alongside public school teens for their resilience in the face of persistent harassment.

“The first week I began working at NCSY nine years ago, a JSU club president called me about a swastika that had been drawn on the school’s football field,” recalled Rabbi Wielgus. “That was an isolated incident back then and JSU responded. In light of what our public school students are experiencing now, … it’s incredible to see them rising above it. To be celebrating alongside them was tremendously rewarding and humbling.”

Rabbi Fried agreed.

“In today’s troubling times where Jewish public school teenagers face daily antisemitism, we must give them strength and knowledge of the beauty of Judaism,” he said. “The teens’ resilience proves to me that there is a great future for the Jewish people and a great need for NCSY.”

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