Beyond Nostalgia: Looking Back at More Than 50 Years of USY

by Danny Siegel

Not Mere Nostalgia – USY Was Real

As we became more and more involved in USY, we came to realize that USY was The Real Thing.

Of course, we did our homework and kept up our grades. Long before teenagers felt compelled to attach a four-page bio to their college applications, USY was just something we did.

Oh the letters we wrote, and the days we would come home from school and rush to see who had written back.

Oh the times we reviewed the long-distance phone bills with our parents. (In April 1960, when I was elected Seaboard president, my parents very generously gave me a separate phone line, unheard of in those days.)

Oh the times they dropped us off at Greyhound and Trailways and Union Station and National airport to pack us off for a convention or a visit to see our USY friends from Baltimore to Greensboro, and eventually beyond to Chicago and New York for international events, and to JFK (Idlewild back then) to board a plane to Israel, arriving via Gander, Newfoundland; Shannon, Ireland; and Amsterdam.

Oh the things we learned about being a Jew, the ideas, concepts, and values we discussed, the songs we sang, the magical havdalahs, and so many friends, some of whom would remain our closest friends for life.

This was not mere kid stuff, nor was it simply a phase we would outgrow. Somehow, it dawned on us that this was real substance, something that related to how we would live our lives. There was something in our minds, souls, bones, and kishkas that overtook us.

The Good Things

Fifty years ago two or three international board members went to day schools. Today, the knowledge, involvement, and ruach of the USY leaders is astonishing. Just spend the Shabbat before international convention with them or at the wedding of some former USYers. (I barely can last until the soup or salad because of all the singing and dancing.)

You will find former USYers in all the institutions of advanced Jewish studies: the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Jewish Academy, Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Boston’s Hebrew College Rabbinical School, the Academy for Jewish Studies, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and Mechon Hadar.

Add to those the Conservative Yeshiva (whose rosh yeshiva is Rabbi Richard Lewis a former president of New England region USY), Pardes, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s Kollel in Toronto, Drisha, Rabbi Zalman Schachter’s rabbinical school, the Hartman Institute, Moishe Houses … USYers are there. And then there is the considerable number of students taking Jewish studies courses who also are leaders in Koach and Hillels on campuses everywhere. USYers have been Steinhardt fellows, and Ziv fellows, and Dorot and Wexner fellows. They are students in schools of Jewish communal service, and serve Jews everywhere in many capacities. And at every Jewish camp you will find staff members who were in USY. And, not least of all, the number of former USYers who make aliyah continues to grow. People who have come through USY are leaders in synagogues of every variety, in JCCs, and in many other Jewish communal and nonprofit organizations. As they used to say in Yiddish, dos iz gut far di Yidden – this is good for the Jews.

My Personal Chronology

The international convention this December will represent the 50th anniversary of my election as president. I have missed only three or four conventions since my first in 1959.

Summer 2011 also was the half-century anniversary of my participation in Pilgrimage. I was president of Seaboard at the time, having risen through the ranks from telephone chairman of the Arlington- Fairfax Jewish Center (Virginia) USY chapter, assigned the job of making sure USYers were informed of events and that someone would not forgot to pick up the lox and bagels or potato chips and pretzels for the program.

Two weeks ago I spent a few days with someone I met on Pilgrimage, and while I was there I spoke on the phone with one of my fellow international officers. I am in touch now and again with four of the five officers and several of the board chairs with whom I served.

Just a few days ago I saw another of the pilgrims from way-back-when, when Israel was only 13 years old. In any given year I will see, or speak to, or email at least a half-dozen others. They are among my closest friends, and our intense feelings have not faded over the years.

For nine months in 1972-1973 I drove the Atid-United Synagogue Bookmobile – a Jewish bookstore-truck – around the United States, selling titles and JPS Torah translations and Jewish poetry at 136 synagogues and campuses. (The Bookmobile was the idea of David Shneyer, a former Hagalil regional officer and Atid president.)

I was at JTS from 1962 until 1971, first in the Columbia-JTS combined program and then for a couple of years in rabbinical school. I went to the seminary on the recommendation of my late friend Rabbi Joel Kamsler, z’l, president of Eastern Pennsylvania USY in the late 1950s.

I have been the tzedakah resource person on Pilgrimage for 36 years.

In 1981, I founded the Ziv Tzedakah Fund to teach people the importance of meeting and getting involved with the work of mitzvah heroes, rebbis in tikkun olam.

A considerable percentage of my life, as you can see, is a result of USY.


I had three inspiring and inspired teachers at my synagogue in Arlington, Virginia: Rabbi Noah Golinkin, z’l, Mrs. Rachel Reinitz, z’l, who for years was our Hebrew school teacher, and Mr. Harold Schlaffer, principal of our Hebrew high school. In addition there was Tanta Bluma, Blanche Davidson, z’l, Seaboard region’s USY director. Even now, whenever we meet, we speak of her. Aside from the power of the experiences she organized, she taught us to strive for menschlichkeit and fairness, to preserve our idealism beyond USY, and to hold on to the central importance of being Jewish because Judaism had something important to say about our lives.

Over these years, I worked with four directors of United Synagogue’s department of youth activities. Dr. Morton Siegel, with his brilliant mind, was determined that we go beyond ourselves. Joseph Cohen, z’l, taught us that it was indeed possible to be gentle and ziess – sweet – and still command respect. Rabbi Paul Freedman is tireless and kind to the nth degree. Jules Gutin, teacher and friend, is admired and loved. Rebbis all of them. It is a blessing to have so many.

And, by now, add the more than 100 mitzvah heroes whom I have met, who demonstrate by their actions the intimate connection between tikkun olam and life.

The Great Jewish Inventions

Let me list the Great Inventions that came during my time or a little bit before:

USY on Wheels. Former Wheelniks tell me that this experience is a major contributing factor to their serious commitment to things Jewish. Pilgrimage, which has expanded far beyond just a trip to Israel. Rabbi Jonathan Porath began bringing Pilgrimage groups to Soviet Russia in the late 1960s. Nativ. International conventions, regional conventions, and regional encampments. Koach. The Conservative Yeshiva. And within and without United Synagogue: bar/bat mitzvah mitzvah projects (and as a result high school requirements for community service). Both have contributed to USYers being far ahead of their peers in the quality of their experiences with older people, people with physical and mental disabilities, and the poor and homeless. The Hebrew Reading Marathon, which was invented by my rabbi, Noah Golinkin. Adult bar and bat mitzvah.

The Good and the Worrisome

The Worrisome: Clearly, high school students today are over-programmed. Many are sleep-deprived and strung out from the pressure. (I recall a story of a parent explaining why her child might have to miss religious school because of tennis or soccer or band or dance. The rabbi’s rather blunt response: “Will you want her epitaph to read, ‘She was well-rounded’?”)

I have asked thousands of USY parents what they want their kids to be when they grow up. The four most common answers are happy, healthy, a mensch, and a Jew. But when I ask the teenagers what they can do to please their parents, the near universal answer is get good grades.

Assimilation, intermarriage, and falling-off- the-edge-of-the-Jewish-earth have taken their toll. And while I generally subscribe to the maxim that we should not worry about numbers, we cannot hide from this devastating phenomenon.

I would submit on this 60th anniversary of glorious USY that we reinforce it and expand it and fund it to whatever extent is needed. Let us raise up more generations of kinderlach with the real things we so clearly acquired way back when.

Danny Siegel was international president of USY in 1962. He is a freelance author, poet, and lecturer who talks about tikkum olam and Jewish values to Jewish communities across North America.

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