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Earlier this winter, my synagogue played host to NFTY-NAR’s Winter Kallah. Because we’re of the “go big or go home” belief, our cantor arranged for Jewish musician Dan Nichols to be our artist-in-residence the same weekend. Ever a consummate mensch, Dan participated the entire weekend in activities with NFTY, the religious school, and programs for our adult congregants.
Beginning Thursday evening, Dan rehearsed with our adult, teen, and youth choirs for our Friday night service. On Friday evening just before Shabbat, more than 130 teens and their NFTY-NAR advisors started to arrive by car, by minivan, and by bus. As months of tireless and careful planning came into play, the weekend began to take on a life of its own. There are not enough words to express the gratitude to these dedicated people who do so much for our youth beyond planning such kallot.
The weekend was, in a word, awesome. It began Friday night, with Dan leading our congregation in a musical Shabbat service. I have been going through some soul-searching recently, and Dan’s music, paired with the NFTYites’ reactions to it, gave me reason to take a step back and feel as though I might have found some of what I’d been looking for.
After Friday night service, host families waited patiently in the social hall to receive the names of our teen guests and to pick them up for the start of the event. You’d think we were expecting the arrival of our firstborn children! “Did you get boys or girls?” “How many are you hosting?” “What are you feeding them on Saturday night?” Among the host families were the usual suspects – those who currently have teenagers in the youth group. There were also a large number of hosts whose children were long gone from youth group, as well as families with no youth group members past or present – and even a single, senior member of our congregation who took on 10 teen boys, God bless her! (My son was in her house, and by Saturday morning, I already received a phone call yelling me how wonderful the boys were. Upon arriving home on Sunday, my son told me she was a terrific hostess. What a match!).
My family learned we’d be hosting six 9th-grade girls. My son had given my wife and me specific instructions about what to expect for the weekend and from the teenage houseguests we hosted. His advice? Give them wifi and plenty of junk food, but most of all, leave them alone to enjoy their time together. He was right on target.
By Saturday morning, I felt a little like Tevye, only I had six daughters plus my own. By Sunday, I didn’t want them to leave! The girls were polite, and each brought our family a gift of thanks. After feeding “my girls” breakfast, my daughter and I drove them to the temple for morning worship with Dan and a day of activities created by the NFTY board. I spent the day prepping allergy-sensitive dinner, and as we ate together that night, they relayed their opinions on the day. After dinner, we headed back to temple for Dan Nichols and Eighteen in concert. As soon as Havdalah was over and Dan hit the first chord, I felt like I was at a Springsteen concert. The NFTYites stood, danced in the aisles, and never sat down.
On Sunday, I said a quick goodbye to my new daughters when I dropped them off at temple for the end of their weekend. My wife and I picked up our exhausted-yet-enthusiastic son, who, after showering, filled out an application to work at URJ Eisner Camp this summer. He refuses to let go of the ruach, spirit, that powers NFTY events.
For the past four-plus years, I only got as close to NFTY as listening to my son’s stories. This year, I got a little closer. I have so many fond memories: catching our guests laughing as they took photos of my son as a young boy, to being comfortable enough in our home to popcorn in the microwave, to taking over my living room and making it their temporary dorm room. Is there such thing as a NFTY Kallah for adults? The love these teens have for Judaism is contagious!