NFTY

NFTY

I dare any of those who are uneasy about the North American Jewish future to maintain their pessimism after spending, as I have just done, 72 hours with the teen leaders of our Movement at the 2015 NFTY Convention and Youth Summit in Atlanta. I attend a lot of conferences, and I have never walked away from one feeling as inspired and energized as I am today. After spending time with 1,000 teens, upwards of 200 adults and an incredible group of more than 200 volunteers and URJ staff who live and share the values and dreams that we as Reform Jews seek to represent in the world, I am inspired by the power of our community and ready for a spirit-filled future.

I had the honor of sharing the bimah with NFTY's extraordinary president, Debbie Rabinovich from Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, as she and I presented a joint D'var Torah on Shabbat morning. Drawing insightfully on this week's Torah portion, Debbie observed that this convention marks a fundamental turning point for NFTY, as it embraces a more mission-driven future. "Never be afraid to go big! The more focused each of us is - the more change we can make." she said powerfully to a sea of NFTY teens. 

By Josh Leighton

I’m currently in the midst of laundering, organizing, and preparing to fly off to Atlanta for NFTY Convention and the Youth Summit. Along with my clothes and NFTY “swag”, I am also packing and bringing with me my excitement for what is sure to be an amazing, insightful, and fruitful four days. In much the same way as when I was a teen, every two years as a professional I get excited about attending NFTY Convention and immersing myself in the special and unique environment that is created when 1,000 teens and 200 adults come to together to share experiences and celebrate Judaism. Of all of the collaboration, learning, and moments that I am looking forward to over this extended weekend, three stand out above the rest: reconnecting with old friends and networking with new people, being part of the NFTY-BBYO shared moments, and returning home refreshed and re-focused.

Today’s studies and statistics provide proof that engaged youngsters become actively practicing Jewish adults. While practicing remains a matter of degree, anyone who has worked with young people recognizes that relationships built during these formative years facilitate engagement long after the conclusion of temple youth group days. Creating those relationships requires incredibly dedicated adults who see significant value and promise in their work with young people.

But creating a nurturing environment for relationships to flourish requires thoughtful, sometimes subtle planning. There are best practices. There are pitfalls to avoid. How can someone new to youth work gain insights? How can someone who has been working with teens for years be rejuvenated and re-inspired?

If you work with Jewish youth and are asking yourself these questions, I propose you attend the URJ Youth Summit at NFTY Convention in Atlanta, February 13-17. You will have the opportunity to meet like-minded peers, and build professional relationships to share the agonies and ecstasies of youth work!

As we approach the eighth night of Hanukkah, I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve almost reached my fill of latkes! Still, I can never get my fill of family and community gatherings that are bursting with joy, spirituality, and a sense of awe for the enduring, illuminating light of the menorah.

Of all the Jewish holidays, engaging youth and families during Hanukkah always seems to be the most effortless. Maybe it’s the seasonal cheerfulness, the theme of giving, or the focus on family, but the act of lighting the menorah is a mitzvah that still speaks to all Jews – even those who are minimally engaged in Jewish life.

Hanukkah is the annual reminder of our collective ability to persist in the face of adversity, to assemble for religious freedom, and to recognize the light in the midst of darkness. Similar to the teachings of Hanukkah, the URJ’s youth engagement work is ultimately intended to repair the world by fostering a personal commitment to social justice, advocacy, and meaningful values.

There is much to learn from Hanukkah’s inherent methods of youth engagement. Here are eight Hanukkah-inspired strategies that light the way for increased youth engagement in our communities and congregations:

As every parent knows, when your child’s heart is bursting for joy, yours is, too. When your child’s heart is bursting for joy in anticipation before an event occurs, you’ve scored a gold mine. We’re at the “gold mine” level right now, as our daughter Shelby counts down to the upcoming NFTY Convention 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia! As I write this, the convention is just under four months away.

The 2015 convention will be Shelby’s second NFTY Convention; her first was in Los Angeles two years ago. Shelby is now a senior, and has attended almost every regional kallah since becoming a member in ninth grade. She has attended NFTY’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, the past three summers (and pretty much has never wanted to leave!) and is planning to apply to be a staff member in-training this coming summer.

Words cannot begin to describe the incredible impact NFTY has had on Shelby.  But I will try.  To Shelby, NFTY means “home.”  NFTY is a place where she can totally be herself and spread her wings.  Where she can experience everything from laughter to tears, and feel safe in any mode.  Where she can fully embrace her Jewish spirituality and define for herself what she’s comfortable with, without judgment from anyone.

Registration for NFTY Convention 2015 and the Youth Summit for congregational professionals and stakeholders will open Monday, October 6th! To make sure your congregation is ready, here are some helpful reminders:

"Dad, this is amazing," my daughter exclaimed on a phone call home from Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua this summer. "There are so many kids on my program who have never heard of NFTY before!" You may think this comment would've been discouraging to me: What are we doing wrong that these kids have never heard of NFTY?! To the contrary, I felt the complete opposite.

As the High Holidays approach, I've been reflecting on my foremost dream for the URJ's Campaign of Youth Engagement: to exponentially increase the number of teens who are engaged in Jewish life. We had an incredible summer, and one of our strongest accomplishments was the skyrocketing success of Mitzvah Corps, which offers hands-on opportunities for teens to pursue advocacy, adventure, and relationship-building in locations such as Costa Rica, Israel, Nicaragua, New Orleans, Portland, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

By Mark S. Anshan

I had the privilege of serving as the National Federation of Temple Youth’s president from 1970-1971. In those years, my wife Brenda (from Bradford, PA) and I (a Torontonian) belonged to NELFTY (North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth), where I had served as president from 1968-1969.

We were witness to many historic and life-changing events during our years in NFTY. During the height of the Vietnam War, as NFTY’s first vice president, I had the unique opportunity of representing NFTY and giving testimony before Senator Edward Kennedy. Many of my friends were dealing with the draft, worried about the numbers they’d receive, and hoping for student deferment (as college students) to avoid serving, rather than going to fight in a war of questionable objectives.

By Alex Rogers, Avra Bossov, and Matt Liebman

As a central tenet of Reform Judaism, tikkun olam – repairing the world – can seem overwhelming. How does one take on such a task as an individual? For over 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has empowered Jewish teenagers across the continent to infuse this concept into their daily lives. Mitzvah Corps has impacted numerous communities and has thousands of alumni that continue the work that started during their Mitzvah Corps program.

With the Campaign for Youth Engagement’s growing focus on new entry points for teenagers to engage in Jewish life, this summer Mitzvah Corps expanded to include eight sites with over 190 participants. In other words, record levels of engagement. The beauty of Mitzvah Corps is that each summer, around the world, groups of strangers come together to build a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. We pray together, make difficult decisions together, and find the best versions of ourselves while being surrounded by bustling communities moving through their day. In essence, it brings the best of Jewish immersive experiences into the day-to-day experience of cities across the globe.

by Julie Marsh

Many people wonder about the “magic” of NFTY, the power to bring teenagers together, create a holy community, and create lasting relationships. As a regional advisor, I am often asked how, when, and who creates that NFTY “magic.” To many, these questions are complicated, and to be honest, when it comes to my Florida region, NFTY-Southern Tropical Region (NFTY-STR), the answers are simple. The success and “magic” of NFTY-STR is the result of a vast support network. The adage, “It takes a village” could not be truer for us. Our NFTY-STR village is made up of NFTYites, alumni, congregations, and additional stakeholders who we have welcomed into our community over the years.