Empowering Tomorrow: The Enduring Impact of Youth & Teens in Reform Judaism's 150-Year Journey

January 5, 2024Rabbi Rick Jacobs


Over the past 150 years, the impact of our youth has been nothing short of remarkable. As we reflect on the past, we can't help but take pride in the transformative influence of programs like URJ camps, NFTY, Heller High School in Israel, Yallah! Israel powered by NFTY, and L'Taken Social Justice Seminars.

Looking back, it's evident that many of our Reform Movement leaders emerged from these youth programs. Many rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and Jewish educators found their initial connection to Reform Judaism through these immersive experiences.

If it hadn't been for my own experience at URJ camps, I would not have made Judaism the cornerstone of my life. That's where prayer and Shabbat first came alive and where I began to nurture my lifelong commitment to social justice.

Debbie Friedman's remarkable career as a songwriter and performer would have been unimaginable without URJ camps and NFTY. In one of her most iconic songs based on Joel 3:1, she wrote, "And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions, and our hopes shall rise up to the sky." Our Reform Jewish youth have been "dreaming dreams and seeing visions" over the decades and continue to be the beating heart of our Reform Movement.

Ambassador Tom Nides, who just completed his time as the US ambassador to Israel, credits his experience in NOFTY (now NFTY Northern) and his NFTY in Israel trip with forging his deep connection with and commitment to the Jewish people and Israel.

Through overnight summer camping, Jewish youth groups, semesters and summers in Israel, and opportunities for young adults to advocate for change, we are cultivating generations of passionate, inspired, and educated Jewish leaders. Our Movement has provided our young people with decades of great adventures, creative learning, enchanting music and prayer, deep connections to Israel, and dedication to social justice. To truly appreciate the sheer breadth of our impact today, one must understand the journey that brought us to this place.

At the behest of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism - WRJ), The North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) was established in Chicago, and later in New York and Philadelphia, to engage college-age students in congregational life, college activities, and social justice endeavors. Because of the shifting demographic and numbers of young people being drafted at the time, the organization shifted its focus towards high school students by the end of its first decade. Young leaders felt a connection to the emerging state of Israel, participated in domestic and international social justice initiatives, and capitalized on the vision and energy of their peers to help transform the world.

In the 1940s, there was a desire to provide immersive spaces for Jewish young people, many of whom were children of immigrants, to connect with and normalize American culture. In the spring of 1947, a group of young people from congregations in northern California with a common love and passion for Reform Judaism and sacred community convened near Lake Tahoe for an extended social and spiritual gathering. This is where the idea of our Jewish summer camp movement was born.

Three years later, the UAHC purchased land in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. In 1952, our first camp, Union Institute, welcomed campers for our very first summer of Reform Jewish overnight camping. Fifteen summers later, the camp was named Olin-Sang Union Institute (1967), and five years later became Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (1972).

Since that time, Jewish Summer Camp has been the cornerstone of our youth engagement, providing immersive and communal experiences that foster leadership, resilience, and a deep connection to Reform Judaism. This impact cannot be overstated, as these experiences contribute not only to the vitality of our youth, but to the overall vibrancy of the Reform Movement.

The growth of welcoming communities, the inclusion of those who identify as LGBTQ+, Campers of Color, and those with special needs ensured a more inclusive Movement. The broad challenge to come was continuing to grow, attract, and engage more young people to expand our camp population and potential impact. Today, our 11 regional camps and three specialty camps across North America serve more than 10,000 young people and employ more than 3,000 staff members each year.

NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, with its dynamic and inclusive approach, has likewise empowered countless young individuals to explore their Jewish identity, cultivate leadership skills, and build lasting connections with like-minded peers.

Over the decades, NFTY leaders have been at the forefront of Jewish leadership, championing social justice causes from the Vietnam War to Soviet Jewry, raising AIDS awareness, promoting LGBTQ+ equality, dismantling refugee crises, advocating for racial justice, and supporting gun violence prevention.

Today, NFTY has local youth groups in 19 regions across the United States and Canada and hosts over 100 regional events per year. Thanks in large part to the support of our Reform congregations, NFTY engages thousands of teens in leadership development, learning, prayer and music. Even after 85 years, NFTY is still bringing young people together, encouraging them to be the best versions of themselves, and preparing them to lead our Movement.

For more than 50 years, our Israel programs, URJ Heller High School (formerly Eisendrath International Exchange) semester in Israel and Yallah! Israel (formerly NFTY in Israel), have played a pivotal role in connecting thousands of teens with the intersection of Reform Judaism and Zionism in a unique and impactful way. These programs bring young peoples' personal Israel journeys to life, helping them develop deep connections to the people and land of Israel. The experiences gained through these programs serve as powerful catalysts for lifelong engagement, which contribute to the continuity and vibrancy of Reform Judaism, Reform Zionism, and our enduring support of a Jewish homeland.

L'Taken Social Justice Seminars at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) have engaged thousands of teens in the holy work of advocacy and diplomacy on a variety of social justice issues. This program empowers our young people to develop position statements and lobby their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. Congregational confirmation trips to L'taken Seminars have inspired scores of social justice warriors for decades, championing causes that make the world a more whole and just place for the Jewish people and all people.

These remarkable programs have served as a cornerstone of how we engage young people, providing immersive and communal experiences that foster leadership, resilience, and a deep connection to Reform Judaism. This impact cannot be overstated, as these experiences contribute to the vitality of our youth and the overall vibrancy of our Reform Movement. We have watched in awe as our young people have championed causes, led the way in creating spaces of belonging, and spoken out with conviction and purpose.

The late 1930s were an incredibly challenging and problematic time for Jews all over the world, yet that was the exact moment the trajectory of our movement changed for the better. Now, 150 years after the genesis of Reform Judaism in North America, we face another very difficult moment for Jews worldwide, even as we recommit to nurturing and growing the next 150 years of dedicated Reform Jewish leaders.

This is our shared story and the collective experience of generations whose Jewish lives were inspired by NFTY, URJ camps, Israel Immersive experiences, and L'Taken Social Justice Seminars. This is the story of the enduring impact of youth and teens on Reform Judaism's 150 year past and its bright future. As we celebrate the rich history of the URJ, we recognize that how we show up for our young people serves as the lifeblood of our movement, providing the energy and growth that will undoubtedly ensure a vibrant future. The legacy of the past 150 years is one of celebration and serves as a testament to the enduring impact and importance of our youth in shaping the future of Reform Judaism and building a world filled with compassion, equity, and shared humanity.

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