The National Council of Young Israel, commonly referred to simply as Young Israel, is an umbrella organization for 146 Orthodox congregations with approximately 25,000 member families in North America. Its sister organization, Yisrael Hatzair – the Young Israel Movement in Israel – has more than 50 synagogues under its aegis. It is headquartered in New York City with regional offices in Florida, California, New Jersey, and Jerusalem. At the beginning of 2006, Shlomo Z. Mostofsky was national president and Rabbi Pesach Lerner was executive vice president.
The National Council's stated mission is to "broaden the appeal of the traditional community synagogue as the central address for Jewish communal life by providing educational, religious, social, spiritual, and communal programming," and
The National Council perceives itself as a grass roots association directed by input from lay leadership, including the national board, delegates from each branch synagogue, branch rabbis and presidents and professional staff. The organization holds an annual national banquet, rabbinic and lay leadership conferences, political missions to Washington, D.C., and various rallies and other events to keep members involved and inspired. Among the programs are synagogue support services; the Council of Rabbis; youth programs; rabbinic training and placement; kashrut education and services; the American Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers; the Eretz Yisrael Commission; the Samuel Zucker Synagogue Revolving Loan Fund; the Women's Division; Lay Leadership Development; Senior League; and various publications (Viewpoint Magazine, weekly Divrei Torah Bulletins).
The organization was founded about 20 years after the massive flood of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York in the late 19th century to provide a bridge between the old Jewish world and America by creating a positive Orthodox synagogue experience for the immigrants' growing group of Americanized children. Among its founders was Mordecai Kaplan, then an Orthodox rabbi, who saw in the Young Israel a vehicle for strengthening the Jewish identity of the American-born and/or English-speaking young Jews. Sermons were in English, not Yiddish, and there was no charge for honors in the synagogue. The immigrants began to establish their American lives, but it was difficult for observant Jews to get jobs if they refused to work on Shabbat. By then, these Jewish parents, who struggled to lift themselves from poverty, wanted desperately for their children to become economic successes accepted into American society while maintaining traditional practice. It was an almost impossible demand. Yiddish was the lingua franca in most Orthodox synagogues, and the atmosphere was very Eastern European, so that these English-speaking first-generation American Jews began to avoid going to traditional synagogues, because they simply could not connect, and became classic "High Holy Day Jews."
To combat this growing problem, in 1912 15 young men and women decided to form Young Israel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their first activities offered a series of Friday night lectures, presented in English, on Jewish topics. By 1915, they had established a prototypical congregation that would attract young American Jews, did not demand payment for any synagogue honors, and structured itself as a Jewish community center to service a diverse group of Jews within the realm of traditional Jewish observance.
The organization today sets minimum halakhic requirements for meḥiẓah, a practice that put it at odds with the OU, which in the 1950s was less stringent regarding the separation of men and women, a practice that has changed as Orthodoxy moved rightward. Young Israel does not allow synagogue parking on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays and requires that all synagogue officers in member congregations be Orthodox Jewish Sabbath observers. The National Council of Young Israel's mission further states:
The aims and purposes of the organization shall be to foster and maintain a program of spiritual, cultural, social and communal activity towards the advancement and perpetuation of traditional Torah-true Judaism; and to instill into American Jewish youth an understanding and appreciation of the high ethical and spiritual values of Judaism and demonstrate the compatibility of the ancient faith of Israel with good Americanism.
The organization shall promote cooperation among the constituent branches now existing and which may hereafter be formed, establish a close bond of kinship to the end that their individual and common problems may more easily be solved, and act as the federated and central body for the Young Israel Movement so that its influence as a force in Jewry may be felt and recognized in America and the world over.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.