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If you’ll allow the generalization, I would argue that every single Jewish youth professional does this work because at some point, they had a positive experience at a youth group event, Jewish summer camp, or synagogue program. That impactful moment set all of us who do this work on the path that has led us to spend sleepless nights at lock-ins, weekends at retreats, and countless hours being a mentor, sibling, and confidant to the children we care for.
We do all of this because someone did it for us, and we have a deep desire to pay it forward – but this desire creates tension in our work and the movement as a whole. The line between honoring our past and forcing the next generation to relive our story is a narrow bridge where the slightest misstep, either way, could have dangerous consequences.
There is no denying that our experiences play a pivotal role in shaping the people we are today, but is it right that those experiences should also shape the next generation?
In his closing keynote address at the 2019 Youth Summit, Dr. David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of The Jewish Education Project, spoke about this struggle. He acknowledged the importance of our past but could not have been clearer about the necessity of the future.
Dr. Bryfman’s words have stayed with me since I left Dallas. He said, “The NFTY of tomorrow cannot, will not, and should not look like the NFTY of today.” The message that change is happening, inevitable, and necessary is a message that is both sobering and liberating at the same time.
Imagine the freedom that comes when we stop trying to hold onto the things that made our experiences important and, instead, by accepting the assurance of a new tomorrow, begin to foster an environment that welcomes that change.
There is no malice intended when a youth professional says, “The last time we ran this event…” – but the implicit meaning in that statement is that if it worked then, it will work now, so let’s not change anything. Doing so, though, causes our youth to dim their creative lights even further in a world that is increasingly asking them to just fit in. Instead, as youth professionals, we should be fostering their creativity, cultivating that light so that it can shine the way for the future of our movement.
As we begin the work of cultivating this bright new future, we must think of Honi planting a carob tree – knowing that he will never see its fruit, but doing the work anyway. Today’s youth are seeds just waiting to grow and flourish, and all we need to do, as youth professionals, is give them the space, the care, and the love to reach their full potential so that, just as there were trees waiting for us and we were the trees waiting for them, they can become the trees of tomorrow.
For more on this topic, get inspired by the work of our Reform Jewith youth in this post, "5 Moments from NFTY Convention 2019 that Will Give You Hope about the Reform Jewish Future."