By: Steve Steiner
In June of 1993, at the NCSY National Convention at Camp Sternberg in New York, Micah Greenland was elected president of NCSY. A high school student at Fasman Yeshiva High School in Skokie, IL (the Skokie Yeshiva), young Micah had been a national vice president of NCSY and regional vice president of education.
Twenty years have passed and that same young man — now Rabbi Micah Greenland of Chicago — has been named by the Orthodox Union as International Director of NCSY, the youth movement of the OU. For the past year he has held the title of interim director while succeeding Rabbi Steven Burg, who held the position for eight years before joining the Simon Wiesenthal Center as eastern director.
For 12 years Rabbi Greenland served as director of the Chicago-based NCSY Midwest region, starting in 2001. He assumed the regional director’s role immediately after receiving semicha (ordination) from Yeshiva University, where he also earned his undergraduate degree with a major in mathematics and a Masters in Jewish education. Throughout his six years at Yeshiva University, he was a volunteer NCSY advisor; he first joined NCSY at age nine in his hometown of Rochester, NY.
“With literally a lifetime of involvement in NCSY, Rabbi Micah Greenland is enormously prepared to assume the international leadership of the program,” declared OU President Martin Nachimson of Los Angeles. “In his past year as interim director, he has proven himself – as we knew he would – to be the right person for the job, and so I am delighted that the OU Executive Committee is now removing the “interim” title and enabling Rabbi Greenland to use his charisma and skills in his leadership position for years to come. In recognition of how important our youth are to the future of the Jewish people, the OU will be certain to make available to Rabbi Greenland the resources he needs to carry on his sacred work and to expand the horizons of NCSY even beyond the lofty levels where they are now.”
Allen Fagin, Chair of the OU Youth Commission, which oversees NCSY, also expressed his enthusiasm. “I am personally delighted that Rabbi Greenland’s appointment as International Director of NCSY is now complete,” he said. “Rabbi Greenland brings to this role a rare combination of talents: passion for NCSY’s mission of strengthening Jewish identity and observance among teens; a clear and articulate vision for the organization and its programming; and outstanding skills in managing, training and mentoring our extraordinary professional staff. The recently released Pew study highlights the critical nature of NCSY’s mission and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I am confident that Rabbi Greenland will lead NCSY through these challenges, and enable it to seize the historic opportunities before us, with his characteristic deftness and devotion.”
No More Important Work:
Rabbi Greenland will lead an organization he calls incredibly strong. “We are reaching more than 20,000 students each year with an incredibly talented and dedicated staff around North America and the world,” he said. “The opportunity to work with teenagers in this day and age with the need of inspiring the next generation of Jews and Jewish leaders – there is no more important work today in the Jewish world than the work of NCSY.”
Rabbi Greenland attributes much of the success of NCSY to the work of Rabbi Burg, once his colleague, then his boss. “Rabbi Burg was regional director in Los Angeles while I held the same position in Chicago. He’s a close friend and was an early mentor of mine who counseled me when I was a rookie regional director. Unquestionably when he became my boss it really took our relationship to a new level. I learned a great deal from him and respect him tremendously for his passion, his dedication to the Jewish people and his ambition for always looking for ways for those of us who are organizational leaders to have an ever greater impact on the Jewish people.”
A decade ago, Rabbi Burg came up with the idea of creating the Jewish Student Union (JSU) culture clubs in public high schools, to make contact with teens with little or no background in Judaism; these clubs will also be a part of Rabbi Greenland’s responsibility. The 20,000 teens served by NCSY each year includes the JSU component in 200 high schools across North America, Rabbi Greenland notes. “There are hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens in North America, the vast majority of whom don’t feel a passionate connection to Judaism or a relationship to the Jewish community.
“The best vehicle to reach those Jewish kids is the JSU club network, to meet teens where they are found in a meaningful way; to provide a Jewish role model and a taste of Jewish life to them deepening their relationship with the Jewish community. In many cases that leads to them exploring NCSY programs, such as The Jerusalem Journeyin the summer, or participating in other NCSY programs during the school year. In almost every case it means that they are more likely to engage in Jewish life with more interest and more motivation than they would have without having found JSU.”
Informal vs. Formal:
NCSY’s informal education contrasts with the formalized education of the yeshiva, and therein lays a challenge and an opportunity for NCSY. “The Orthodox Jewish community is in somewhat of a crisis of lack of spirituality and lack of meaningful connection of its own, in which the student populations in Orthodox communities are not relating to their Judaism as inspiring, meaningful and relevant, at least at the rate at which we wish they were. NCSY has an increasingly prominent role we can play in making Judaism alive for the youth of the Orthodox Jewish world in addition to the youth of the general Jewish community.”
NCSY cannot accomplish this goal alone, he emphasizes. “We need to partner with the Orthodox Jewish communal leadership – rabbis, principals, parents, community leaders — to develop the unique role NCSY can play. School is a formal environment and there is a unique role for schools to play; NCSY is a more informal environment – we have our own unique role to play. By reaching out to one another and by developing those close relationships, the increased impact will be exponentially greater.”
Rabbi Greenland emphasizes that “informal” Jewish education does not mean watered down education, or “Judaism Lite.” At Latte & Learning, for example, held at Starbucks or Coffee Bean, Rabbi Greenland describes the atmosphere “as one of exploration. Everything is in bounds; nothing is taboo; kids can ask any question they want and they can forge their own unique relationship with a Judaism and Torah they feel passionate about and they feel inspired by. This needs to be encouraged in every environment; accomplished by hiring staff people who are well versed and open, who can be role models and an address for the Jewish exploration that every teenager is going through in one way or another.”
NCSY has always been known for its extraordinarily dedicated staff of young men and women advisors, and Rabbi Greenland will work to strengthen and train this staff to an even higher level. NCSY early utilized the changing technology that so intrigues teenagers and made use of the Internet, email, iPods and iPads, Facebook, Twitter and the like to connect with teens. Since technology changes so rapidly, it is a given that NCSY will adapt along with it.
“With technology today, I’d love to see our reach increase geometrically (he is a former math major, don’t forget) through use of technology disseminating information to a broader base of Jewish kids,” he declares. “We have very talented and creative staff people who are experts in technology. To be specific, everybody uses their phones when they used to be using laptops or personal computers; today everything is on the phone. That’s a challenge, but an opening – for example, the way we produce game technology which can engage kids in the same type of trivia or play that they do on their phones, but to do it on a Jewish platform with Jewish content. That’s an opportunity for us. It’s the same with watching videos on their phones, if the video production we are doing rises to a level they are interested in watching to increase our reach.”
Rabbi Greenland can easily visualize where he wants NCSY to be when Chanukah rolls around next year. “I’d like to believe that by then we will have accomplished a number of the goals, such as by forging deeper relationships with the leadership stakeholders within the Orthodox community to maximize the opportunity for partnership and the potential to reach yeshiva day school kids in a more meaningful way. I expect that our use of technology will be even stronger than today to cast a wider net and to impact a larger segment of the Jewish teen population. And I hope our current staff will be even stronger as they themselves continue to grow and develop. Our staff is our biggest asset; we have to grow and develop our staff even more successfully than we do now to help them to aspire to greatness in terms of how they relate to teens.”
In his position, Rabbi Greenland will continue to reside in the West Rogers Park section of Chicago with his wife of 15 years, Rivkie; of course, they met as Midwest NCSY advisors. They have five children: Meira, 14; Shimon, 13; Mordechai, 11; Noam, 8; Daniel, 3. He will log many air miles, however, visiting the other regions, attending major events, and coming to OU national headquarters in New York. As he goes about the continent, travels to Europe, Israel and even Latin America where there is a Chile/Argentina chapter, Micah Greenland will keep NCSY’s long-range goals fully in mind.
Looking ahead five years, to 2018, he says, “NCSY’s responsibility is so profound in the Jewish world today because the next generation of the Jewish community is going to be shaped by the next five years of our Jewish teenagers. We collectively need to be inspiring the hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens who are out there today to a passionate and meaningful connection to Judaism. I believe if we work strategically and mindfully to that goal, there is no question that the impact of NCSY five years from now will be felt in a dramatically different way, as together with the partnerships we currently have and those we will forge, we will be reaching as many as possible of those hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens.”
And among them, there are certainly future student presidents of NCSY. Just like Micah Greenland.