At Francis Lewis High School on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens, the hallways ring with calls of “L’Chaims” and “Mazel Tov” from the jean-clad, largely non-Jewish teenagers watching as Rabbi Steven Burg, dressed in a suit and a yarmulke, ambles along with his rabbinic colleagues carrying pizza, donuts and Coke. Together the rabbis enter a classroom, bearing food and Jewish lessons for a meeting of the Jewish Student Union, a national project that hopes to bring a measure of Judaism to unaffiliated students in public schools.
The students give a respectful and enthusiastic greeting to Rabbi Burg and the other rabbis, standing up and cheering.
Rabbi Burg is a stout man in his mid-30s with a boyish face and a perpetual smile who interacts easily with teens. After his colleagues give some Jewish instruction, and much pizza is consumed, he speaks with some of the students, mainly Bukharian Jews, recent immigrants or their children who’ve had little exposure to Jewish life before this club. He is impressed that the club’s president wants to be a plastic surgeon, the co-president an orthodontist.
“You see these kids mensch out,” Rabbi Burg says later in the hallway, in his typical laid-back manner. “Is the Jewish community there to make our case as these kids are becoming adults?”
Rabbi Burg started with NCSY, which runs the JSU, as a teenager himself, and is now the international director. He did stints directing programs and doing outreach in California and Detroit before returning to his hometown of New York three and a half years ago with his wife and five children, the traces of a Midwestern accent still lingering.
He is quick-witted and open to change, modernizing the way the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization of NCSY, shapes the next wave of Jewish kids.
“Our generation looks at things differently, we’re not afraid of throwing out something just because we’ve always done it,” he says.
The JSU got started in 2001 and represents a shift in NCSY’s mission. It was known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, but at a time when synagogues are the last places to find young people, the group has rebranded, calling itself simply NCSY: Inspiring the Jewish Future. Long known for its educational work with yeshiva students, NCSY now cultivates programs like the JSU, which brings unaffiliated kids in public schools closer to Judaism. The unions, which number 218 across the country including more than 40 in the New York metro area, traffic in pizza (spending $30,000 a year — “the best money we spend!”) and socializing, meeting kids where they are, whether in public schools or Starbucks, where Rabbi Burg and others hold “Latte and Learning” meetings to instill Jewish values and identity.
“If they’re in Starbucks, let’s go to Starbucks, if they’re in school, let’s go to school,” he says.
From his office in the Orthodox Union headquarters in downtown Manhattan, Rabbi Burg often ponders the interplay between secular and religious Jews, searching for ways to bring them closer together. Still, he recognizes that the relationship can be difficult, or even antagonistic.
“The big question in the ‘80s was, ‘who is a Jew?’” he explains. “But while we were fighting, in the ‘90s a bunch of Jews walked out the door.” Now that major outreach efforts are focused on reaching unaffiliated Jews, Rabbi Burg questions whether the Jewish community is braced for an influx of unaffiliated Jews, should that happen. But he doesn’t let that worry him.
“My goal is a simple goal,” he says — “to create passionate Jews.”
The JSU has garnered criticism from across the Jewish spectrum for flouting the separation of church and state, but the law allows for such clubs to meet in public schools. The Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, assures that schools receiving federal aid and hosting any student-led non-curriculum club must allow additional clubs to meet, including those with religious content. The 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, located in upstate New York, reinforced the EAA, ruling that barring the Good News Club, which wanted to use the school’s facilities to teach morals and values from a Christian perspective, would violate the club’s First Amendment rights to free speech.
The JSU is open to curious Jewish and non-Jewish kids, regardless of their backgrounds, seeking to instill a kind of Jewish identity. And its leader embodies the openness necessary to meet kids where they are on their journey.
Rabbi Burg is the kind of guy who will be sitting in a room of 100 people when the speaker’s microphone goes out and, as the tech staff scrambles to fix the problem, will coolly walk up to the podium with a replacement microphone. He’s the kind of person who makes everyone who meets him feel as though they have a close, personal relationship, according to those who know him, like David Bardo.
Bardo first met Rabbi Burg at a regional NCSY convention when he was an 11th grader at North Hollywood High School. He made a point to go up to the rabbi to speak one-on-one with him, and when he did, “I remember being very taken aback by how charismatic and magnetic he was, I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like this guy.’”
Bardo says that in addition to his charm, his teaching is serious but never comes off as such.
“It never seems textual or stodgy,” says Bardo, who went on to college at UCLA and is now studying to be a rabbi at Yeshiva University, a task Rabbi Burg warned him would be the hardest thing he would ever endure, as well as the most worthwhile. He is finding it to be just that.
Another former student, Rhonda Spector Bergman, met Rabbi Burg in 1995 when he was working in Detroit and she was attending a public high school in Michigan.
“He was really just there for me, sort of like an older brother or a family member, but also as a mentor,” she says. “Because of him I was able to explore my Judaism more and really flourish in many ways,” says Bergman, who adds that she wouldn’t have been able to marry the person she did and have the religious lifestyle they share, which she refers to as being “super-duper Jewish,” without Rabbi Burg’s guidance.
“I think a lot of things have traced back to him, he helped me out and helped me find what I wanted in life.”
Inspiration seems central to Burg’s life, both what he gives to others and what he finds in others as well. In addition to being moved by rabbinic sources, Rabbi Burg has recently found unlikely inspiration in the message and election of Barack Obama, whose poster he keeps on the bookshelf in his office.
“Obama hit on something that we need to hit on as well – people want to be inspired. There’s too much cynicism, we have to show that people can be passionate,” he says, speaking not just of an America poised at the brink of change, but also a changing Judaism as well. “A person who lives their life without passion, it’s not a life.”