Q & A With Rabbi Steven Burg
After five years working as the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) West Coast regional director, 32-year-old Rabbi Steven Burg is heading back to New York with his wife and children, following his appointment as national NCSY director.
Burg has managed to turn NCSY around with his implementation of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and tapping into 1,000 of the Jewish community’s best resources: its high school-age children
NCSY has been in operation for approximately 50 years and was designed to provide Jewish teenagers with programming that would connect them with their heritage and stem the tide of assimilation.
Once targeted specifically at yeshiva students, NCSY now reaches out to unaffiliated youth, while extending its reach to Israel with similar programs there.
NCSY is divided into 12 regional chapters across the United States and Canada. Local chapters are usually established in synagogues to reach out to teens in the community. It’s only in Los Angeles, as a result of Burg’s initiative, that NCSY reaches out to teenagers in public schools.
The Jewish Student Unions he started meet during lunch, where students get kosher pizza. They also meet guest speakers from various Jewish organizations or hold discussions on Jewish topics. There also are games and other activities with a Jewish bent
Outside of school and after school, JSU sponsors ski trips, Friday night gatherings and an annual trip to New York City. JSU students also participate in community events, including Super Sunday and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.
Burg spoke with The Journal about what he’s already accomplished in Los Angeles, and what he now hopes to accomplish with the Jewish youth throughout the country.
Jewish Journal: In five short years you shifted NCSY’s focus from yeshiva youngsters to unaffiliated ones. What made you think that this was the way to go?
Rabbi Steven Burg: Any Jew today that can go to sleep and not be upset about the assimilation of the Jewish people and the rate of intermarriage, well, I just don’t understand it, or why people are sitting on their hands and doing nothing.
All we [NCSY] do is bring pizza into public schools. Last year, I spent $30,000 on pizza, and it was the best money I spent. I don’t know where the money from Jewish organizations is going, but it’s not going to [connecting with] the unaffiliated. The entire community has blinders on.
JJ: But because it operates under the umbrella of the Orthodox Union, NCSY is to all intents and purposes an Orthodox organization. Your goal isn’t to turn the youngsters into Orthodox Jews?SB: No. We know that’s impossible. Of course, I’d be thrilled if some of them became Orthodox, but we just want them to do something Jewish, anything.
I don’t care what it is. Even if it’s being pro-Israel. The average kid in public school couldn’t even point out Israel on a map. Everyone is talking about anti-Semitism, but all these kids who are acting as human shields in Gaza are our kids, Jewish kids.
JJ: Why do you think that is?
SB: Because we didn’t educate them. It’s our fault. We [NCSY] bring in Israeli soldiers into the [school] clubs, because to many of these kids, they see Israeli soldiers as 6-foot Nazi thugs. But then they see these 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, and then something clicks, and they start to get attuned to what’s going on.
JJ: So what will be your biggest challenge as national director?
SB: Our biggest challenge, in general, is to try as best as we can to change the Jewish people’s perspective on the assimilation problem. Specifically, my job is to get the community to pay attention to high school kids and to raise funds.
JJ: So has your work in Los Angeles been successful?
SB: Well, when we started JSU [we] targeted 1,000 public school kids…. No one had ever done that before. There had been small programs but not the size it is today. But we can’t rest on our laurels. There are 30,000 unaffiliated high school kids in L.A. We have to go out and get those other 29,000. There are so few resources going out to unaffiliated Jews in L.A.
SB: I think that the Jewish people as a whole are focused on the affiliated — the 10 to 15 percent. In the meantime, 85 percent walk out the door. Every 10 years we’ll do a population study and see how everyone’s intermarrying and leaving, and everyone’s going to freak out for a year and then fall asleep for another nine years. And that’s traditionally what’s been going on.
JJ: But you obviously believe something can be done about it. What do you feel needs to change?
SB: The truth is we all suck at outreach. Everyone concentrates on the synagogues, which are 5 or 10 percent of the Jewish population. I can tell you where 99 percent of the 13- to 17-year-old unaffiliated Jewish population is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. They’re all sitting in school. And the synagogue-based youth group model is not effective anymore. What is effective is a school-based youth model.
JJ: Would you say that is what has made NCSY so successful?
SB: Yes. It’s because we are extraordinarily focused on ninth- to 12th-grade kids. Getting the kids at college level isn’t early enough. We’ve been asked to do collegiate programs, but we have found a niche, and it’s a niche no one else is tackling. I’d love to be in a situation where we have to fight to get into a public school to have first crack at the kids, but there’s no one [else] out there.
JJ: Why not?
SB: Groups like [Conservative] USY [United Synagogue Youth] and [Reform] NIFTY [North American Federation of Temple Youth] are heavily synagogue based. They can’t necessarily take on unaffiliated kids.
We have a great relationship with these organizations, but it’s frustrating that they can’t go into the public schools, because they are bound by their synagogues. The new national director of BBYO [B’nai B’rith Youth Organization] is very open to this [programming] but they have budget problems.
JJ: But don’t you also have plans to do outreach in synagogues?
SB: Yes. I believe that synagogues should set aside 5 to 10 percent of their budgets for outreach, so that an unaffiliated person can walk into a synagogue and feel comfortable. And right now, I don’t feel that’s the case. I feel that a lot of synagogues, particularly in L.A., suffer from country club syndrome.
JJ: You clearly have strong leadership skills. Do you think that’s something inherited or learned?
SB: I’m a big believer in God giving people certain gifts. And you have to identify what they are and use them for the greater good. I did terribly in school. I drove my parents insane.
But this is one of the things I can do. If I’ve been successful, it’s because I know what I’m bad at. I’m terribly disorganized, so I employ people who are really good at organizing. I’m also blessed with a great wife; she’s amazing.
JJ: Who else do you admire?
SB: Rabbi Steven Weil at Beth Jacob synagogue. And Rabbi Meyer May, executive director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I can always go to them with questions. And also a tremendous number of lay people here in L.A. who have been supportive when no one else was listening.
JJ: Five years ago, NCSY was rocked to its foundations when then-director Rabbi Baruch Lanner was convicted of sexual abuse. How is NCSY faring these days?
SB: I think the scandal was a really good wake-up call not only for us but also for the entire community. And I think one of the reasons that it’s no longer such a big issue today is that 75 percent of today’s regional directors — including myself — were not here during that scandal. So it’s a very different crowd today.
And the other good thing is that it’s made us make sure everything is constantly in order. As a result, we have audits on a regular basis. In addition, we have an ombudsman and a 1-800 number. So if something happens, people can call an independent third party. We have a proper procedure in place now for complaints. And all our advisers go through training now.
JJ: You will be officially moving to New York at the end of the summer. Do you plan to still spend time on the West Coast?
SB: Definitely. The West Coast will always be a priority. For a long time, we were overlooked. There are 1.3 million Jews on the West Coast. San Francisco’s probably the sixth or seventh largest Jewish population, and there’s not a lot going on up there. We put people in Palo Alto and Oakland for the first time.
JJ: So what will you miss the most about Los Angeles?
SB: The wonderful people here … and the weather.