“Fostering Wholehearted Loyalty to the Synagogue & Jewish Ideals”: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of NFTY

Inside Leadership

“Fostering Wholehearted Loyalty to the Synagogue & Jewish Ideals”: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of NFTY

By Dr. Gary P. Zola

In the opening verses of this week’s sedra, we come upon a detail in our narrative that is frequently overlooked.  Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ two sons (Gershom and Eliezer) and his wife (Zipporah) to meet him in the wilderness.  At first, this incident seems unremarkable.  It makes sense that Moses would want to have his children and wife accompany him.  Yet, our sages found an important lesson in this detail, for, according to the Midrash, Moses had more in mind than keeping his family close at hand.  The rabbis taught that Moses wanted his children brought to him in the wilderness before he took the Israelites to receive the law at Mt. Sinai.  We learn in this midrash that Jethro questioned Moses’ judgment.  Why, Jethro wondered, would he bring his children from a safe location into the unknown and threatening wilderness?  Moses answered:  “U’vanai, lo yishme’u?” – “Shall not my own children also hear [the words of Torah]?”1   Moses wanted his children to participate in the Sinaitic experience and the remarkable Jewish journey that was about to unfold.

Ever since Sinai, Jews have been following Moses’ footsteps as well as his injunction:  v’sheenantam l’vanekha – “teach your children diligently” – in order to insure that the Jewish heritage will pass l’dor vador, from generation to generation.2  It was this very same impulse that led to the establishment of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) 75 years ago.  A significant collection of primary source materials documenting the history of NFTY are now preserved at The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA), located on the historic Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).  NFTY’s historical collection at the AJA testifies to the fact that many of our Reform Jewish forebears encouraged the movement’s youth to become involved in the life of the synagogue in order to forge the next generation of Reform Jewish leaders.

NFTY’s beginnings may be traced to the organization’s founding convention, which took place in Cincinnati, Ohio over the weekend of January 14-15, 1939.  192 young people attended NFTY’s inaugural convention.  There were 71 registrants from Cincinnati and 121 “out-of-town delegates and visitors."  This historic event began with a Shabbat morning worship service held at Rockdale Temple (K.K. Bene Israel), the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Alleghenies.  The delegates reconvened for lunch at the Sisterhood Dormitory on the campus of Hebrew Union College and, after lunch, “the first convention session was called to order shortly after 2:00 p.m. in the Hebrew Union College Chapel, by Mr. Robert P. Goldman (1890-1976), President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. . . .”3

Today’s NFTYites would be dumbfounded by the nature of the program back in 1939.  Essentially, the delegates spent two days listening to lengthy addresses delivered by rabbis.  Two of the speakers were prominent national figures – Rabbis Samuel Schulman (1864-1955) and Julius Mark (1898-1977).  The young delegates may have been better able to identify with speeches delivered by two recently ordained rabbis, Eugene J. Sacks (1912-1999) and David Polish (1910-1995), who were more or less contemporaries of the attendees.  The convention’s program concluded shortly before 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 15, at which time an ad hoc executive committee appointed officers and outlined a plan to compose the organization’s by-laws.  By the time this post-program meeting adjourned at 7:00 p.m., NFTY – the first national federation of synagogue youth auxiliaries in American history – had been officially established.

It is important to emphasize, however, that the founding of NFTY in 1939 was the fulfillment of an ambition that had been gestating for more than two decades.  Not surprisingly, the drive to create a dynamic national movement for Reform Jewish youth was a response to growing concern that young people were increasingly losing interest in synagogue life.  Some temples discovered that by establishing “youth club” auxiliaries they were able to encourage young people to remain involved even after they had been confirmed.  These temple youth groups seemed promising, and rabbis and lay leaders took note of their appeal.  As early as 1919, for instance, Rabbi Samuel Schulman of New York’s Temple Beth El concluded that “the revival of Judaism [in America] will come, if it come [sic] at all, from our youth.”4

For more than two decades, Schulman spearheaded the drive to establish a national youth association for the Reform movement.  As time went on, many others endorsed Schulman’s idea.  Members of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS)5 were among the most effective advocates for the creation of a national youth movement for Reform Judaism.  In the 1920s, the women of Sisterhood established a “National Committee on Young Folk’s Temple Leagues,” and Isaac Mayer Wise’s daughter, Jean Wise May (1881-1972), served as chair.  May insisted that the future of American Judaism would pivot on the “minds and hearts [of our youth],” and doggedly urged the UAHC to “kindle the spark that shall set aflame [the] hearts and minds [of youth]” by helping them to see that Judaism is “alive, warm, and adventuring.”6

In the concluding lines of his keynote address to the young delegates at NFTY’s founding convention in 1939, Rabbi Schulman predicted that if the fledgling youth organization successfully fulfilled its mandate, not only would young people continue to attend synagogue, but, more importantly, these youth would cause the synagogue “to live anew.”7  NFTY’s remarkable successes over the decades have validated the hopeful anticipations of Schulman and many other early proponents.  To assess the accuracy of this assertion, one merely needs to quantify the percentage of NFTY alumni who today occupy leadership roles – both lay and professional – in the Reform movement, or consider the transformative influence that NFTYites have had on Reform Jewish liturgy, music, education, and social action initiatives.  Indeed, for 75 years NFTY has persistently found new ways to foster “wholehearted loyalty to the synagogue & Jewish ideals.”8

This week we are reminded that Moses insisted that his children accompany him as the Jewish people fulfilled their destiny.  Through the workings of NFTY, North American Reform Judaism has sought to teach its children diligently and convey its timeless message from generation to generation.

  1. Cf., Shemot Rabbah IV: 4.
  2. Deuteronomy 6:7; Isaiah 34:17 and Joel 4:20.
  3. The Official Proceedings of the First Youth Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, January 14-15, 1939 (unpublished manuscript), MS-266, box 1, folder 1, AJA.
  4. Samuel Schulman to Lee J. Levinger, 4 December 1919, MS-90, box 21, folder 7, AJA
  5. In 1993, NFTS 1993 changed its name to Women of Reform Judaism, the Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (WRJ).
  6. Jean Wise May, “Youth Demands a Living Faith,” Topics & Trends 2, no. 3 (March-April 1937): p. 3, MS-73, box K-3, folder 2, AJA.
  7. The Official Proceedings of the First Youth Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, January 14-15, 1939 (unpublished manuscript), p. 8, MS-266, box 1, folder 1, AJA.
  8. The Jewish Youth Circular Letter, no. 3 (February 1925): p. 1, MS-90, box 17, folder 3, AJA.

Dr. Gary P. Zola – an Honorary Lifetime Member of NFTY since 1977 – is currently the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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