9 Ways Reform Teens Are Leading the Way

April 3, 2018Rabbi Rick Jacobs

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.
-- Isaiah 11:6

With this year’s Passover sederim behind us, over the next few months we will celebrate the confirmations and high school graduations of teens, along with the college graduations of some of our movement’s young adults. We have known many, if not most, of these students since their pre-school and elementary school days, and we are vested in them and the roles they play in our communities.

Indeed, they have led us in worship, in sederim, in song, and in countless other ways over the years. Most recently, on Saturday, March 24, 2018, a day that marked a turning point for gun violence prevention in this country, our teens and young adults, in an inspiring moment for our Reform Movement, not only articulated their vision of the future, but also took the lead – powerfully and with grace and poise – to help ensure it becomes a reality.  

In these nine examples, and in others too numerous to count, our movement’s young people are proving their willingness to join together to use the values of our tradition to promote gun safety, fight anti-Semitism and racism, advocate for immigrants, participate in civic engagement, and more, all to promote tikkun olam, repair of our broken world.

  1. Overall, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), led by its young people, helped organize 25 different events worldwide in support of the March for Our Lives, including one in Jerusalem; 300 people attended the Reform Movement’s event in Chicago, and 400 attended a similar gathering in Atlanta. Following the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., attended by nearly 3,000 people, the URJ hosted about 200 college students for Havdalah in partnership with Hillel International.
  1. Julia Feller, president of TaSTY, the youth group at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY, spoke to her congregation from the bimah on the night before the New York City March for Our Lives. As Barri Waltcher, president of Shaaray Tefila noted in this blog post, the congregation, “creates space for teens to lead”...and “help[s] create an environment in which teens are empowered to lead and influence change.”
  1. Together with other Reform Jewish students and their classmates, Matthew Youkilis, a member of Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH, organized nearly 250 students to lobby at the Ohio Statehouse for common-sense gun violence prevention policies. Read Matthew’s remarks from the press conference on March 14.
  1. Many of Reform Judaism’s teen leaders – including Harvey McGuinness, an active member of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, NM, who wrote this reflection on gun violence in America – got their start speaking truth to power by attending a L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. Sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the three-day L’taken events bring teens from throughout the country to Washington, D.C., to learn about social justice, advocacy, and Jewish values. This year L’taken participants have been advocating for gun violence prevention measures, on behalf of DREAMers, and for other causes that align with our tradition’s values.
  1. At the URJ Biennial in Boston, I told my clergy colleagues about a forthcoming RAC fellowship that would offer inspired leadership development and innovation to our movement’s most promising young advocates. To date, 50 of this year’s L’taken participants have elected to participate in the new Teen Justice Fellowship, an online learning opportunity that will focus on building community organizing skills and civic engagement and is designed specifically for L'Taken alumni. Two cohorts of Teen Justice Fellows are set to launch this week and I am confident that this additional training will complement the L’Taken initiative and further empower young people to take on leadership roles. For more information about this new opportunity, contact Lizzie Stein, the RAC’s leadership development associate.
  1. While his friends and peers were involved in March for Our Lives activities in the U.S. Zach Herrmann, president of NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement in North America, was in Israel for the annual international Netzer Leaders Assembly, at which teen leaders from more than 14 countries gathered to discuss and shape the future of the Progressive Youth Movement. Among other activities, the teens attended a rally to protest Israel’s deportation of African refugees.
  1. Last month, Kathryn Fleisher, NFTY’s immediate past president and an alumna of Goldman Union Camp Institute, and URJ Kutz Camp, was the keynote speaker at the Women of Reform Judaism’s Fried Leadership Conference, where she spoke about youth leadership.
  1. It’s not just in gun violence prevention where Reform teens are leading the way. I’m inspired by Ben Sidlofsky, and the role of NFTY and Kutz Camp in his personal story of autism and leadership and also by the way members of the Kutz Camp community stepped up last summer to help raise funds to repair a wall in Warwick, New York’s Jewish cemetery that had been vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti nearly a year earlier.
  1. This month, our teens continue to lead the Movement with the launch of NFTY’s Sexual Violence Prevention Campaign. All month long, NFTY teens will be sharing resources, youth group programs, and action alerts for congregations in pursuit of the Reform Movement’s Resolution on Student on Student Sexual Violence in Schools

I am proud of all our young leaders and the many roles and responsibilities they are taking on to demonstrate their deep commitment to doing their part to create a world of justice, compassion, and wholeness. Yasher koach!

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