June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Teaneck’s Becky and Avi Katz Establish NCSY’s ‘Katz Family Initiative’

Teaneck residents Becky and Avi Katz have established the “Katz Family Initiative,” a $3 million, multiyear gift, established with NCSY to help support the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Student Union program. JSU is NCSY’s extracurricular club for Jewish teens who attend public high schools in the United States and Canada. Currently, there are over 300 clubs that bring Jewish life and learning to approximately 12,000 teenagers, helping them to connect religiously and spiritually.

Avi Katz said he feels there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential within the JSU platform and sees an opportunity, not just for increased engagement, but also for more relationship building and personal growth for this group of students. “It is an important moment for NCSY in general in terms of its broader development over the last several years where there has been a lot of investment in its staff and a lot of investment in summer programs and other aspects of it.”

It was through Rebbetzin Efrat Sobolofsky that the Katzes initially became close with Rabbi Avi Berman of OU Israel, and Rabbi Steven Burg, who was at the time serving as NCSY’s international director.

Becky Katz explained that after getting to know each other, “my husband was asked to help NCSY better understand the data they were getting from various regions and chapters, and eventually that blossomed into Avi overseeing NCSY as the chairman of NCSY.”

He currently serves as the chairman of the Orthodox Union’s Board of Governors, and previously served as chairman of NCSY. But it was also through various events that the Katzes hosted over the years that they had the chance to get to know the programs that NCSY offers. This gave them unique insight into the JSU, and they quickly realized there was a greater opportunity to engage with the kids on a deeper level which would ultimately have a far greater impact.

“Avi and I have watched NCSY and JSU grow for the better part of a decade and have grown to understand that both are incredibly important organizations that serve a great purpose within the wider Jewish community,” Becky said. “Because of our up-close-and-personal relationship with the organization, we’ve come to see where it could use the help most and are inspired by the potential impact of this initiative.”

As NCSY’s Rabbi Michah Greenland explained, “The goal of JSU is greater engagement of Jewish teens in Jewish communal life in order for them to be better engaged in Jewish life as adults.” The JSU has been running its program for about 20 years and he calls it “an incredible opportunity for us to interact with Jewish teenagers in their public high school environment.”

“NCSY and JSU are such incredible organizations because they help teens experience the beauty of our Torah, our heritage and our customs,” Becky added. “By creating opportunities for positive experiences, it helps to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders.”

The gift will provide funding for a number of strategies that will be implemented, including a JSU Presidents’ Conference and a JSU Teen Leadership Program. Additional staffing including the appointment of Devora Simon to the newly created position of national director of JSU and enhanced staff training to increase engagement and retention are also included in the strategies for this initiative.

The aim of holding a JSU Presidents’ Conference, Rabbi Greenland explains, is to “leverage the teen leaders themselves by engaging them more deeply, giving them a national gathering … meeting like-minded Jewish student leaders around the country and coming back to their club environment much more activated as leaders, passionate about the movement.” The conference will be designed to empower club leaders so that they can return to their clubs with a deeper commitment and eager to drive more engagement.

The JSU Teen Leadership Program will add coaching and mentorship opportunities for club leaders. Current JSU club advisors will be paired up with veterans who have experienced past successes in achieving greater engagement with their members. Together, the two groups will collaborate to come up with approaches that they feel will lead to greater and more meaningful engagement. “We do hope also that there is a sense for developing that next generation of Jewish leaders,” Rabbi Greenland added. “One of the other things we are excited about is this leadership cohort that we are trying to cultivate across these different JSU clubs where we want those teen leaders to basically inspire and empower their own peers in their own clubs.”

Devora Simon comes into her new position with more than a decade of experience in this field, She most recently was director of NCSY/JSU Silicon Valley, and before that held the post in Montreal. In fact, back in 2019 she was tasked with performing a six-month qualitative research study of the JSU program. She set out by surveying its staff, identifying how clear the staff was on the goals of the JSU and how it could be improved. Her study culminated in a presentation to senior NCSY directors at a conference that took place in March 2020. Her findings, Rabbi Greenland said, were on “the need to focus on engagement outside the clubs and the need to implement different strategies that would all be in service of the same goal.”

Adding staff to some of the clubs will essentially divide up responsibilities between club leaders so that some can focus on relationship-building while others focus on the more administrative duties.

Enhanced training will also be offered to staff to help them better understand which programs are best suited for its participants and which ones will have the potential for greatest impact. When participants are matched up with the right programs, it often results in increased retention and engagement among Jewish teens.

“You can have, let’s say 20 or 30 Jewish teens in a public school with 700 or 800 kids, and it is not hard to feel alone,” Avi explained. But he stressed that it can be just as challenging in a larger Jewish community where kids can also feel anonymous. “So whether it is a larger community or a smaller community, you are really creating that sense of relationship and connection with oher Jewish teens.”

He said that building those relationships with this group of teenagers not only helps create greater connections to their Jewish heritage and culture, but also to the State of Israel. “I’ve always been personally struck by the need for community, the need for connection for Jews in all the different far reaches of the U.S. and Canada.” He said that the JSU provides that sense of community no matter how big or small the student body or how many Jewish kids there are in any particular club.

Becky explained how so many of these kids experience a sense of “religious loneliness,” adding, “JSU helps them to feel part of a community of other Jewish teens in their schools and helps them to wear their religion more proudly and to engage with it further. I think our community needs to create a better connection and relationship, through dialogue, to better understand the individual needs of Jewish teens in public schools.”

Said Avi, “I think there are concrete actions we can take to connect with Kol Yisrael and, God willing, that should be an important part of our prayers for this Yomim Noraim.”

“A meaningful first step would be for teens from Jewish day school backgrounds to better understand the impact that they can have on their public school peer’s religious journey,” said Becky. “By creating meaningful relationships and shared Jewish experiences, teens from yeshiva backgrounds can help inspire and connect with their newfound friends who attend public schools. By creating a welcoming environment, our teens will be sharing the beauty of our communities, our religion, and our shared Jewish identity.”

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