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As we return from the Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's break, we have a natural opportunity to reflect on what was, celebrate all that is, and dream about what will be. This year's holiday "break" for my family was a staycation. One of the many benefits of staying put, other than the obvious benefit of not having to travel, is having the time to do simple things like watching several of the great feature films that are currently playing in movie theaters. We chose to see "Lion," "Manchester By the Sea," and "Jackie." Each had a unique story to tell, but all three shared a common thread expressing the importance of family and relationships and illuminating how each person can make a difference in the world.
Although I was on vacation, I couldn't help but consider the parallel of these themes in the URJ's work of engaging the next generation. Just as each movie had a different story, soundtracks, and settings, so too does the URJ offer many paths for our young people. The parallels reminded me of the recent executive report, How We Gather, from Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile of Harvard Divinity School, which examines the changing landscape of religious affiliation among young people and identifies major themes of successful engagement. This report mirrors our work as Jewish youth professionals and educators. Each of our modalities – local youth groups, regional NFTY events, immersive camps across the continent, and service learning across the world – offers varying lengths and a different focus. But, regardless of which program a teen chooses, they gain the opportunity to:
Help build Jewish community that fosters meaningful connection to Judaism and to each other
Experience personal growth by challenging their body, mind, and spirit
Participate in social change by pursuing justice and service to others
Articulate, clarify, and act on their personal mission in life, seeing themselves as created in the divine image and as partners in the renewal of creation.
Activate their imagination, engage in play, and express their own creativity
Before the holidays, I encountered this beautiful sand art video by The Covenant Foundation that is set to Debbie Friedman's song "And the Youth Shall See Visions," reminding me the importance of our work as youth professionals in empowering and supporting those visions. To better understand the powerful impact you help make happen, here are a just a few stories from the paths of our youth this past year:
A Lilith Magazine article featured NFTY's gun violence prevention efforts
A Mitzvah Corps participant moved us with his reflection piece about racial injustice. Fittingly, this will be NFTY's major social justice focus this coming year
URJ Camp Newman teens marched in Pride, as they celebrated LGBTQ inclusion
A NFTY-PAR teen spoke up in response to the Orlando shooting we all witnessed on the news
URJ Jacobs Camp assisted with flood relief in Baton Rouge, where many thousands of homes were left destroyed
The blockbuster movies we watched this past year were once only scripts on paper, with stories waiting to be told. As we begin another year, let us dare to teach, learn, and yes – sometimes, even play in the sand. You never know what piece of art your work could create, or how it can help and inspire others.
Happy new year,
Miriam T. Chilton
Vice President, URJ Youth