What happens when 5,000 people begin a day together in one building? Well, one thing you could expect is the Starbucks line to be long. But, at the URJ Biennial, magic happened even while waiting in line.
NFTY Texas Oklahoma board member Logan Kramer explains it best in a blog post she wrote while at the Biennial: “I struck up a conversation with the woman behind me [in the Starbucks line] and she didn’t realize I was a high school attendee until about five minutes into our conversation,” says Logan. “Here, I’m not the ‘token teen’ or pushed aside as the youngest in the room. I’m having conversations with rabbis, cantors, educators, temple presidents, and URJ staff. These people want to hear my voice…not just because we are teens, but because we are integral members of the Reform Jewish movement.”
One of the best aspects of the URJ Biennial this year was seeing the presence of youth in what one would assume was an adult leadership conference. We didn’t have a parallel youth track, and we scratched “teen program” out of our lexicon. It was one event for every leader, regardless of age.
Teens participated alongside adults in matters of mutual importance. College students played a crucial role as organizers and staff members. We gathered to speak about Israel, education, fair labor practices, building strong communities, and more. We attended sessions, passed resolutions, and cheered together as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden stood on the stage in our final plenary session, and called out NFTY’s capacity to change the world. “I got to meet the NFTY President,” he said, “and I hope he remembers my name when he is President of the United States.”
But it’s not just about their future. We have brilliant young people in our midst now. We often talk about meeting youth “where they are”, but sometimes forget to articulate why it is so important to do so. The URJ has the unparalleled ability to pair adults and teens and examine “who we have become, and who we might yet be,” as Rabbi Larry Hoffman states in his recent blog entry. Throughout our five days in Orlando, and especially at the Youth Spotlight during a major plenary session, we saw this idea reinforced. I’d like to share a few of many highlights in and out of URJ Biennial and shine a light on the incredible things that happen for teens, the community, and the world when adults and young people work in real, authentic partnership.
- In 2014, NFTY President Jeremy Cronig was part of a small group of three URJ teens and two adult staff members who launched NFTY’s gun violence prevention campaign together. NFTY regions activated their viral power across the United States on social media with a stream of hashtags and photos from teens who stood up for the cause in the #wearingorange campaign. A year and a half later, gun violence prevention has become a main priority of teens, adults, and the Reform Movement as a whole.
- URJ Youth’s Interactive Museum Exhibit: Moving Our Future Forward drew more than 700 visitors of all ages, who entered to see photos, memorabilia, and stories of young Reform Jews at the forefront of major social issues from the past 75+ years. Jewish youth have effected social change in the civil rights movement, the plight of Soviet Jews behind the Iron Curtain, and most recently, in advocating for gun violence prevention. The museum called on all participants to continue taking action and modeled for adult participants the capacity of our youth to make change in the world.
- Former NFTY President Evan Traylor led a session at the URJ Biennial where small groups of participants brainstormed challenges in their Jewish congregations and communities. There was not an empty seat in the room, as adults consulted Evan and he in turn walked them through stages of adaptive leadership, a leadership approach that he is currently studying at Kansas University where he is a senior.
- At Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT, there was a recent dialogue between staff and lay leaders with teens of a dwindling youth program. This partnership is creating a new model to revive the youth group and meet the needs of its teens by giving them professional leadership positions.
- We held a Symposium on Youth and Social Justice at the URJ Biennial that joined 400 lay leaders, professionals, and youth. At the symposium, teens and adults worked in groups and brainstormed strategies to use social justice as a youth engagement tool.
- The Northeast Teen Collective, powered by Eisner and Crane Lake Camps and the Campaign for Youth Engagement, is a new initiative connecting the camp community to a year-round leadership program. The Teen Collective empowers teens to do the planning and execution of local events while adults support them. Their next “pop-up” event is being planned by 17-year-old Julia Cutler, who is organizing a Hanukkah party for the disabled at a congregation in her community, bridging the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Movements. Emily Messinger, director of the Teen Collective and a NFTY alumna herself, is supporting Julia in executing her vision.
- Watch as teens move the entire community in prayer, teaching Torah and leading T’filah for 5,000 Biennial attendees.
As Hanukkah approaches, share your torches of light and join in both leadership and celebration with your teens. They are ready and capable of giving to their community. Through the passion and sense of purpose we witness in our youth when giving them opportunities to shine, I believe, more than ever, that in order to move our future forward, we must open the doors wide to every generation in the room.
Check out our Flickr album to see more of what professionals, lay leaders and teens experienced from URJ Youth at the 2015 URJ Biennial.