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By Rabbi Michael A. White
I recently returned from a magical week as a faculty member at the URJ Kutz Camp, the Reform Movement's teen leadership institute at the foothills of the Catskills in Warwick, N.Y. My week at Kutz brought back memories of my first visit some 37 years ago.
Nearly four decades ago, one of my high school classmates convinced me to attend a regional youth group event at Kutz, and off I went. Until that weekend, Shabbat, to me, meant sitting in a hard pew while listening to organ music. Shabbat at Kutz camp was refreshingly different, to say the least!
During Shabbat at Kutz that first year, we ate greasy chicken and delicious doughy challah. Services were energizing and informal, led by a cool guy with long hair, a mustache, and a guitar. We draped our arms around each other's shoulders, and we sang our hearts out. We talked through the night. And just before we left, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement, Al Vorspan, challenged us to fight to end apartheid in South Africa, for women's rights, for Israel. He told us that we were the future, that we could make a difference, and that we could heal the world.
That first weekend at camp, I became a committed, enthusiastic Reform Jew.
Like most teenagers, I was tentative, excruciatingly self-critical, easily bruised by social slights, afraid of girls, afraid of being left out, afraid of just about everything. It was in the intentional, warm, welcoming community of youth group and camp that I found my voice and my confidence, a sense of purpose and mission, and friends I came to love.
These days, I certainly do not consider myself old, but I am old enough to be concerned about Jewish leadership after I’m gone, about who will draw our kids into the nonjudgmental Reform Jewish teenage community of the next generation. That's why I have agreed to chair “Leading the Jewish Future: The Campaign for the URJ Kutz Camp.”
At 50 years old, Kutz Camp is too small, too dated, and in need of massive refurbishment and expansion. Our collective alumni vision is to transform Kutz into a year-round center for teenagers, college students, and young adults. Throughout the year, Jewish youth will come to Kutz for exceptional leadership training; they will learn about the Torah's commitment to heal the world, about God, prayer, Israel, and Jewish ethics. Artistic and musically inclined kids will come to create the next iteration of Jewish music and art. College kids will learn to combat the anti-Israel cancer that plagues so many of their campuses, and Birthright alumni will have their reunions at Kutz, learning to make the transition from new lovers of Israel to ardent American Zionists. And finally, youth professionals will come to gain vital professional development.
That is our vision for Kutz. It’s a daunting challenge, and we are just getting started, assembling a national team to find the necessary resources.
I recently wandered into the office of my colleague at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Andy Gordon, who was meeting with one of our outstanding teen leaders, Maya Faye Gordon, as she prepared to become a bat mitzvah on our congregation’s teen pilgrimage to Israel. Together, they were excitedly discussing her Torah portion, Terumah, which translates as "sacred gifts for the construction of the temple." Maya told me it was a perfect portion for her: “The gifts of Judaism, of Jewish community, of youth group, of Israel, the obligation to use her gifts to improve her community and world… it's just perfect!”
Rabbi Gordon was clearly very proud of his student. For me, it was an encounter that affirmed the priority Temple Sinai pays to our teen community, and it also affirmed the importance of securing the future of URJ Kutz Camp. We need strong synagogues for all the future Mayas to find their Jewish home, and we need places like Kutz to ensure that gifted leaders and mentors will be there to inspire them.
Rabbi Michael A. White serves Temple Sinai of Roslyn in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. If you are interested in contributing to help secure the next generation of Reform Jewish leadership, please contact him by commenting on this post.