How to Empower Teens to Build a Just Future

Inside Leadership

How to Empower Teens to Build a Just Future

NFTY convention participants enjoying the gathering

“As leaders and as change-makers, we can get so caught up in what we are pursuing individually that we forget the real strength of leadership comes from the love that leads to listening, sharing, working together, and realizing that what we will accomplish together is greater than anything we can ever do alone.”

I got chills down my spine as 17-year-old Joe Lichtenstein read the words above from his winning essay in this year’s Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Competition, standing in front of 1,400 peers at NFTY Convention, the largest gathering of Reform Jewish teens in North America.

At its core, NFTY Convention embodied and realized the Reform Movement’s values, bringing together 1,400 teens, young adults, alumni, and congregational professionals to build a more just, whole, and compassionate world. Teens immersed themselves in various social justice workshops, learning about interfaith relations, LGBTQ equality, mental health, pluralism in Israel, and more. In creative expression labs, they explored new ways to voice opinions and advocate on behalf of these issues. They explored Chicago, engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslim teens, choreographed dance moves that spoke to their spirituality, and created models for sports tournaments to give back to their communities. Over the course of four days, teens filled the halls with joyous singing, raucous laughter, and an overwhelming commitment to action and agency – to being the change they wish to see in the world.

What struck me most about NFTY Convention, however, wasn’t what happened on stage or in workshops. More than all the learning, singing, and laughing, I felt an immense collective embrace of support. Our teens didn’t simply say they cared, they showed it. They didn’t simply say they wanted to change the world, they actively set out to do so. They used their arms to welcome, their hands to cheer, and their spirits to lift each other up. This foundation of support is what truly empowers young people to find and use their voice.

And what a remarkable voice it is.

It’s the voice we heard on Shabbat morning, when NFTY President Kathryn Fleisher, alongside Rabbi Rick Jacobs, offered a d’var Torah about the importance of diversity in the Jewish community.

It’s the voice the NFTYites used to debate and explore social justice issues from freedom of religion to environmental stewardship and from pluralism in Israel to LGBTQ equality.

It’s a voice that carries an amazing sense of self that itches to unfold when it reaches a safe space.

It’s the collective voice that launched NFTY’s Racial Justice Campaign, a teen-led initiative to turn faith into action and bring equality to all.

In his d’var Torah, Joe teaches us an important lesson about building communities in service to one another. Everywhere I looked at NFTY Convention, I saw these communities in action. Because our teens understand they are cared for and loved, they celebrate the good in each other. Through the support from their Jewish communities, they find the confidence and the power that spurs them to action – even in the face of daunting challenges. And, they learn to pass on that support to their friends and peers who need it. Indeed, we can all learn from their example.

Our teens left Chicago newly empowered and inspired to put their ideas and ideals into action in the world. They left knowing they will be cheered on when they work to make their dreams a reality.

As I left NFTY Convention, I charged them – and all of us who attended the gathering – to bring their energy and enthusiasm home into their congregations. These teens love being part of the Jewish community because we offer them support and empower them to build the future they envision.

What can we do to build on their enthusiasm?

  1. Bring NFTY’s Racial Justice Campaign to your congregation. Visit the website, nominate a teen to become a Racial Justice Campaign Ambassador, and work with your teens to act on this key issue.
  2. Invite teens to share their NFTY Convention experiences. In Chicago, our teens grappled with social justice issues, explored new ways to act, built incredible community, and inspired each other. Invite these empowered and empowering young people to share their experiences with your congregation and encourage them to continue to engage in their pursuit of social justice.
  3. Ask them “What’s next?” Look at the videos, photos, and social media feeds from NFTY Convention to see just how much our teens love being part of the Jewish community. Together, let’s help them find the next opportunity – and there are many – to build on their enthusiasm and advance their engagement.

Our teens have returned from NFTY Convention empowered and truly ready to make a difference. Join me in embracing them and their enthusiasm, and working together to create a world of wholeness, justice, and peace.

Read more about the launch of NFTY's Racial Justice campaign and the URJ Youth Summit, which ran parallel to NFTY Convention and offered educators opportunities to hone their skills around supporting, nurturing, and educating teens.

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Miriam T. Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of youth; she previoulsy served as director of strategy, operations, and finance, for URJ Youth, Camp and Israel Programs. Miriam holds a master of arts in business administration and a master of science in information systems from Boston University, as well as a bachelor of arts in political science from Ithaca College. When she's not out in the field trying to engage more young people, Miriam is an active member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

Miriam T. Chilton

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