By Larry Gordon
For most people who attend shul at one of the more than a hundred Young Israel synagogues around the country, the internal shift within the national umbrella organization is probably rarely contemplated.
The important thing is that Young Israel shuls have been a backbone of Orthodox Jewish life in the United States for more than 100 years. Here in the Five Towns, in Brooklyn, and in Queens, membership in YI shuls is, in most cases, vibrant and growing. The Young Israel of Woodmere is touted as the largest such shul in the country, with over 1,100 member families.
With new elections last week, the board and leadership of NCYI have been reconstituted with a new outlook and approach to the role that this organization, with a history reflective of the evolution of Orthodoxy here in the U.S., will assume going forward.
Rabbi David Warshaw, the new National Council of Young Israel chairman, hopes to be able to guide the NCYI back to what it was at its founding—an organization that provides synagogue services and programming ideas for its many shuls.
Over the last week, some Jewish media distorted the reality of what happened here regarding the internal organizational vote that voted out the old board and brought in an entirely new group. One paper reported it as a “coup,” but that was an absolute misrepresentation and just plain fake news.
According to Charlie Miller, a new second vice president of NCYI and a longtime member of the Young Israel of Woodmere, this was a scheduled vote, with 330 delegates from around the country deciding to take the century-old organization in a new direction.
The previous chairman of the board, Farley Weiss of Florida, along with board officers like Dr. Joe Frager and philanthropist Yechezkel Moskowitz, saw the largely dormant national organization and member of the Presidents Conference, with great name recognition, as an opportunity to promote the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, especially over the last four years of a pro-Israel Trump presidency.
As it turns out, those Young Israel members who saw the parent organization as drifting off in an almost exclusive political direction did not agree with that tactic.
Just to clarify, there is certainly nothing wrong with a duly elected board of directors or an organization even of the stature of NCYI deciding to move in an activist pro-Israel political direction as a matter of priority. The state of Israel can always use more support that emanates from the organized U.S. Jewish community. And that was particularly true during the timeframe of the Obama administration, which supported Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt and a deal with Iran that at the end of the process paved the way for that regime hostile to Israel to legally attain nuclear weapons. At that time, organizing national membership in an activist pro-Israel direction may have been exactly what we needed.
Just like that can happen, the reverse of this scenario can also occur. And that is what took place. A majority of delegates decided it was time to return the National Council to its roots—to serving shuls and shul members and to representing the consensus of Young Israel members on the national stage on pertinent issues of the day.
It may not have been specifically articulated, but a big part of the objections to the old board was their extreme pro-President Trump stance, which may not have been balanced enough for many. “A Young Israel dinner should not have been a Trump pep rally,” Charlie Miller said.
According to Miller and Rabbi Warshaw, the Young Israel movement exists to a great extent of small market shuls that can benefit from the guidance of the bigger shuls like those in the Five Towns and in Los Angeles.
Speaking of LA, Rabbi Elazar Muskin has been the rav of the Young Israel of Century City for more than 35 years. On the changes on the board of directors at the NCYI, Rabbi Muskin says that he feels that they were long overdue.
Today his Young Israel shul in the heart of LA features almost 500 families; his shul is one of the largest in the country. He adds that politics and the pandemic has meant that a few dozen families have left LA this past year, with some making aliyah and others moving to Texas or Florida.
Rabbi Muskin says that he and other rabbis across the country were not pleased with the direction in which the NCYI had drifted over the years and that he was glad that it was now in the process of being restored to its original, and what he considers to be central, role in Young Israel shuls.
He adds that one of his members, David Schatz, is vice-chairman of the new board and that he and Rabbi Warshaw in New York will be formulating and organizing YI shuls nationally.
Rabbi Muskin adds that for the last many years he felt that there was too much of an adversarial relationship between Young Israel member shuls and the parent organization. At one point many years ago, the NCYI claimed part ownership of some shul properties and even maintained that they had to be involved in the selection process of new shul rabbis whenever there was an opening. The local shuls did not agree, and as a result there was some friction between the two entities.
The Young Israel movement maintains an important image that is representative of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. who, statistically, are a minority of the Jewish population in this country. The way it works out, Orthodox Jews seem to be under the microscope more than any other co-religionist group. To that end, we all have to be mindful of projecting an image of kiddush Hashem, which does not mean avoiding controversy or difficult issues.
The former board had their hearts and minds in the right place. The new board does, too. There is no reason why the NCYI cannot do both—that is, serve the tens of thousands who are members of their shuls as well as being active and outspoken in the pro-Israel arena. Sacrificing either one for the other was obviously a mistake. A vibrant, forward-looking organization like the National Council of Young Israel can certainly do both effectively and successfully.
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