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The Empowered Generation

Eytan Kobre

In 1959, no one thought Jewish teens would give up social dancing, mixed swimming, or going to a synagogue without a mechitzah. Even the Orthodox congregations were resistant. But Rabbi Pinchas Stolper had a vision — and a core belief: that many battles for Torah could be won by sticking to one’s principles, being honest and consistent about them, and trusting the youth to follow their Jewish conscience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

rabbiAfter half a century of public service, one anecdote from his childhood pretty much sums up Rabbi Pinchas Stolper. As a young boy, he’d spend summers at his grandparents’ home inBrightonBeach, just a block from the ocean. The boardwalk, he recalls, “was filled with Jewish Communists, always arguing, as though they would save the world. Once, when I was 11, I was in shul on Tisha B’Av. I left shul and noticed that at the corner ofConey Island AvenueandBrightonBeach, the Communists had set up a sound track with music. I walked up to the sound track and yelled, ‘How dare you play music on Tisha B’Av, the greatest day of Jewish mourning?!’ Lo and behold, the music stopped.” Even at age 11, Rabbi Stolper stood up for the truth, and has spent the next seven decades helping others to see it too.

“Pioneer of kiruv” is a term that’s bandied about quite a bit, but back in 1959, when Pinchas Stolper took over the reins of a moribund NCSY and began to water the spiritually arid American Jewish desert, he was as authentic a pioneer of kiruv as they come. It was he, in fact, who coined the now-ubiquitous term “teshuvah movement” in a 1963 article in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Life magazine, to describe the nascent success of NCSY. 

By 1977, when Rabbi Stolper stepped down after 18 years as national director of NCSY to take the position of executive vice president of its parent organization, the Orthodox Union, it had become the most vibrant Jewish youth group in the country, boasting nearly 19,000 members in 445 chapters. Today, those numbers are considerably larger, with 35,000 members in its ranks and 200 full-time professional staff. Just two of its plethora of programs: NCSY runs numerous programs each summer in the US, Israel, and Europe that draw close to 1,000 teens, and sponsors Jewish student clubs in 300 American public high schools.

Before we begin to talk about his storied years in kiruv, Rabbi Stolper takes me on a whirlwind tour of what he’s been up to in the 15 years since he left the Orthodox Union. While he’s authored or edited some 40 publications over the years, there seems to be one ten-letter English word he just can’t grasp: “retirement.” More than a decade and a half after most people have gotten their gold watch and begun bringing their most active years in for a landing, Rabbi Stolper’s achievement-filled life is, if anything, shifting into higher gear.


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