EARLY USY MEMORIES
By Rabbi Kassel Abelson
I would like to share with you some of my memories of the early years of USY. It is now history, for me intensely personal history. As a consequence some of my insights will be autobiographical, and others will touch on the history of the Conservative movement in, what may sound like a long time ago, but as history goes was really only a short time. I was a student in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1943 to 1948. In 1947 a new development in the Conservative Movement played an unexpected role in the birth of USY. In 1947 the Seminary asked a group of students, including myself and Shirley Raskin z”l, who later became my wife, to go the wilds of Northern Wisconsin to a small vacant resort, near Conover, on the shores of Buckatabon Lake, later known to us as Boker Tov lake. Our assignment was to help implement the dream of several Rabbis and lay leaders from the Chicago area. We were to establish a Hebrew camp, called Ramah, for pre-teen and teenaged children.
We worked together with an elite group of counselors, on what seemed to be an impossible task, to New York born counselors, to develop a Hebrew educational program that would transform an ordinary Midwestern youngster into a knowledgeable and devoted Jew who would return home and become a positive Jewish influence on his/her peers. I quickly learned that the ordinary Midwestern youngster was not so ordinary, and could compare favorably to young Jews from New York and elsewhere in the country. In fact, the Midwest gave birth to two of the most successful youth activities in the Conservative movement, Camp Ramah and USY.
The success of the first Ramah in the Midwest has transformed the world Conservative Jewish scene. This first Camp Ramah had 90 campers, 15 staff members and a dream. This dream was fulfilled beyond expectations. Today there are 7 overnight Ramahs, and an eighth, Ramah in the Rockies, that was recently opened. There are five day camps and there are Ramah Israel programs. In addition there are camps bearing the name Ramah, in England, France, Russia, South America and Israel. Ramah in North America serves some 5,000 campers and employs 1500 staff. And overseas there will be an additional 5,000 participating in Ramah programs.
USY did not exist before 1948. There were no organized conservative synagogue youth groups anywhere in the country. Some synagogues had individual youth canteens where teenagers would be brought together. There would be a juke box, chaperons and the opportunity for teenagers to meet other Jewish boys and girls. When I came to Minneapolis for an interview as Assistant Rabbi in the spring of 1948, I met Mrs. Lee Gordon, who was active in the Women’s League. She told me that several of the synagogues in the mid-west had such teen age canteens. We came up with the idea, that if I were to come as an assistant to Rabbi Aronson at Beth El, that we would try to get some of these groups together, to meet one another.
When my late wife, Shirley, and I came to Minneapolis that summer, I met with Rabbi Aronson, who bemoaned the fact that Beth El Synagogue had so little contact with its youth. Most Beth El youngsters attended the community Talmud Torah, not as in other communities, congregational schools. Hence most youngsters, until they began preparing for their Bar Mitzvah, had little reason to come to the synagogue. And when they finished their Bar Mitzvah, they were not seen again, except at an occasional service.
Incidentally, I mentioned Bar Mitzvah and not Bat Mitzvah, because the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was new, and most girls did not have a Bat Mitzvah at that time. To give you a better perspective on the situation, the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony was that of Judith Kaplan, Dr Mordecai Kaplan’s daughter, in the late 1920's. It caused a sensation for, at that time women played no role in the synagogue. The Bat Mitzvah ceremony was slow to catch on, and in the 1940's there would be an occasional Bat Mitzvah ceremony, generally held at a late Friday night service. It was not until the 1970's that it was generally accepted and was held on Shabbat mornings, with girls called to the Torah, at least in the mid-west.
What Kind of Group?
Our Ramah experience made it seem obvious to us that what was needed was a synagogue youth group. But what kind of group? What would its program be? Should it just be social, just run dances for teenagers, or should it have other goals and programs?
In our preliminary discussions we decided that we would not organize a group which would imitate the program ofBnai Brith Youth-AZA which was primarily social and atheletic. Nor would we set up a Zionist group like Young Judaea or Habonim, which would focus on Israel. This would be a synagogue group whose purpose would be to interpret the goals of the synagogue to the younger generation. What were those goals? I would say that there were three goals. The first goal was religious. To put it simply to bring young people into the synagogue and make religion part of their lives. The second goal was to provide the setting to continue Jewish education in an informal way. And the third was to provide the opportunity for Jewish boys and Jewish girls to meet and to get to know one another.
We immediately confronted a major problem. Young people want to feel themselves part of a movement. Hence it would be difficult to organize only one synagogue youth group at Beth El, to stand alone. Hence I met with the Conservative Rabbis of the Twin Cities, Rabbi Morris Gordon of the Adath Jeshuran, and Rabbi Herman Cohen of the Temple of Aaron and explained our vision to them. They agreed to try to transform their Youth Canteens into clubs. Fortunately, the Midwest region of the Women’s League had arranged for a meeting of the various youth canteens in Omaha. It was to be held on Thanksgiving weekend, November 1948. The winter break was already used by AZA for its conventions. Through our Ramah contacts we encouraged other congregations in the region to start groups, or at least get delegates to attend this regional get together.
What do you do at a Convention? We felt that we were to become an organization we needed some business to transact. So, I got together with a group from the Beth El and drew up a platform, which was to be adopted at the conference. It consisted of statements about Teenagers, and Shabbat observance, Synagogue attendance, Jewish study, and Kashrut observance. The goal was to give the young attendees something to argue over, which related to their lives and the choices that they would make. The delegates from Beth El who participated in the drawing up of the platform got excited and were ready for a good argument.
The Omaha Convention
There were plenty of arguments at the Convention about the platform for Jewish living, which was amended, voted upon and passed. I do not know how many young people who attended went back home and lived their lives, guided by the platform, but probably, for the first time, they took these questions seriously, talked about them, argued about them, and voted upon them.
I remember one meeting of a committee whose assignment was to come in with a name for the new organization. We sat around and talked different names were suggested. One young delegate said thoughtfully, “we come from congregations that belong to the United Synagogue, why don’t we call ourselves ‘United Synagogue Youth?”’ Whereupon another spoke up and said, “Yeah, we can call ourselves for short ‘USY’. It sounded right, and was passed overwhelmingly. We also referred to ourselves as the Midwest region of the United Synagogue Youth, prayerfully hopeful that other regions would someday be organized.
Women’s League Board
We, both the youth and the advisors were very excited and promised to see one another at the next convention, which would be held again over the Thanksgiving weekend. The board of the regional Women’s league received the news of the birth of USY with great excitement. They realized that a new organization needed some kind of finances and assessed each of the region’s Women’s League groups at the rate of $.50 per member to provide startup funding. They also set up a regional youth commission to assist in the process of building a youth region.
Leaders Training Institute
It quickly became clear that the newly born USY could go in different directions unless there was a nucleus of trained youth leaders who would have a common background and common goals. But how do you get such a group? Again our Ramah experience was helpful. What better way was there than a camp program? We arranged with the Minneapolis JCC to use Council Camp for a Leaders Training Institute, which was popularly called LTI. Since Shirley and I were going to Camp Ramah we held it the week before we had to be in Camp Ramah. For counselors we recruited largely personal friends: Morton Leifman later to head the Cantor’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who had grown up at Beth El, Rabbi Simha Kling and his wife Edith, who had graduated the Seminary with Shirley and myself, and two young Minneapolitans from Beth El, later to marry and live in Israel Jesse Shapiro and Frayda Butwin.
We shared the camp with a group of Golden Agers from the JCC. It was a wonderful combination, grandparents mixing, dancing and singing with teenagers. The services were fabulous, with a choir organized by Mort Leifman, spirited singing and dancing, and classes in various aspects of Judaism and leadership skills. It was also the opportunity to plan for the expansion of USY.
We had a meeting of all those at LTI who were going to Wisconsin Ramah and spoke to them about spreading the word about Ramah to the campers from Chicago and elsewhere. At Camp Ramah, their enthusiasm was infectious. I spoke to the staff members and visiting Rabbis. When the camp season was over, the campers and staff returned home, and we began to hear about new chapters being formed in Chicago and elsewhere in the region served by Ramah.
Returning to Minneapolis presented new choices and creative possibilities. What was the chapter to be like? We had no model. We looked at the chapters of AZA and BBG, which had groups of like minded boys and girls organized into clubs. We looked at the local JCC, which was very small at the time, and saw that it had interest groups. We thought of a large chapter meeting together for cultural and social activities, and saw that it had the advantage of togetherness, everybody would know everybody.
We decided that we would try all of them simultaneously. We organized the chapter, to which everyone had to belong. It had its officers and overall programs. We then allowed groups of boys and girls to organize small groups that would meet regularly, and soon there were a half dozen such groups. Each individual group had a youth leader working with it. We had interest groups; photography and basketball were the successful ones. The basketball team entered the church league and actually came in first, one year.
The USY took responsibility for the youth congregation, and did an excellent job organizing it and providing young people to conduct the services. They took over and ran the Purim carnival, and did an excellent job.
Leaders Training Fellowship
An additional facet of the program should be mentioned. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan the founder of the Reconstructionist movement suggested the creation of a Leadership Training Fellowship be established. The purpose of the LTF was to develop “future leadership in the American Jewish community (including) rabbis, teachers, Jewish social workers, and informed laymen and laywomen”. The LTF program differed across North America, yet standards consisting of a minimum of six hours of Judaic education a week, leadership in one community activity, and participation in regional, local, and national Kinnusim (conventions) were required of full members. This was not meant to be a youth group, but rather a national high school.
In 1946, the LTF was set up nationally and it began to meet in Minneapolis in 1948 when I came to Minneapolis. It was organized in the three Twin Cities congregations, and the members met together once a month in one of the synagogues. It was tremendously successful, perhaps because three, or four Rabbis, set aside that time to meet with the young people. In addition, every second Shabbat afternoon the group met in our home for study. Most of the young people attended Talmud Torah and met the six hour Judaic study requirement. They could meet the leadership requirement through participation in USY, as an officer, board member, or committee chairperson, or by giving leadership in the youth congregation. We also tied Camp Ramah into the picture, by offering partial scholarships to LTF members. The Machon at Wisconsin Ramah helped by organizing LTF Kallot and Kinnusim, which strengthened the education programs, and incidentally served to strengthen USY.
In 1951 I was called to serve as a Chaplain in the USAF. But the story did not end with my leaving Beth El. Rabbi Aronson and I contacted Dr Simon Greenberg, who at that time was the national director of the United Synagogue and asked him to introduce a resolution at the National United Synagogue Convention calling for the setting up of a national conservative youth organization. At the 1952 Biennial convention of the United Synagogue convention Dr Greenberg presented a series of resolutions which gained national recognition for the United Synagogue Youth and called upon all conservative congregations to institute a youth program and that these groups become affiliated with the United Synagogue Youth. At that time I was in Morocco with the USAF, and did not experience the beginnings of National USY.
Today, USY has some 15,000 members organized into close to 450 chapters. There are an additional 1500 youngsters in Noam the Noar Masorti, of Israel. There is USY on wheels, USY Europe and Israel programs, as well as Nativ the college leadership program in Israel.
Several years ago I remember sitting with a group of younger Rabbinic colleagues at a meeting. The leader of the session posed the question: “what influenced you to become a Rabbi?” Almost every one of the Rabbis replied “USY” and some said “Ramah”. I simply said I was overwhelmed by the responses.