It’s Time to Drop the Nostalgia

May 8, 2024Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

In the early days of the 21st century, Gloria Steinem, the great feminist icon and "shero" to thousands of Jewish women, said, "Nostalgia can be disempowering." Years later, she declared, "Nostalgia is a form of obstructionism."

I am reminded of these statements every time I hear laments about the "end" of NFTY. They come in different forms: "NFTY isn't the same as it was"; "What happened to NFTY?"; "I heard NFTY is dead, is it?" My heart wants to reach out when I hear these refrains and offer comfort. Yes, it is hard and sad when things aren't the same as they used to be. It is hard for folks to move forward when it feels like the present is a rebuke of the past. I get it.

But here is what my head wants to say: "Can I introduce you to Henry or Frogby so they can tell you about THEIR experience as a leader in NFTY at both the regional and North American levels? Can I introduce you to Cameron and they can tell you about their activism ignited by their involvement in the RAC Teen Justice Youth Fellowship and NFTY? Can I introduce you to Rabbi Kelly Whitehead, who leads the Teen Jews of Color Fellowship for our movement, growing a new generation of leaders from often overlooked and marginalized communities?"

When I want to be slightly agitational, this is what I want to say: "Stop being nostalgic for the past and start helping to build what is already happening, because it's happening, with or without you. And we want you with us."

What is happening with Reform Jewish youth today?

  • The 2023 Collab, our premier North American leadership gathering for NFTY teens, more than doubled its participation over the previous year. There was a waitlist. We are anticipating hundreds of teens when we meet at URJ Camp Coleman in October 2024.
  • 200 NFTY Teen Fellowship leaders hosted and participated in projects and events that address some of the most pressing issues of our time, including: gun violence prevention, antisemitism in their high schools, social activism, and digital literacy in the current climate.
  • Over 100 teens are working in the US and Canada as part of the Teen Israel Organizing Fellowship & Immersive and bringing their peers into their work.
  • 703 NFTY teens attended nine regional events across North America this spring.

These are just some basic facts on the ground. I realize that not every one of you reading this will see evidence of these facts in your community or congregation. It takes time to rebuild and grow. If that is the case, I invite you to reach out to partner with us to figure out how we can work together to make our teen-led youth movement stronger.

Every day, on a North American and regional level, our dedicated staff, NFTY leaders, and NFTY alumni continue to rebuild and think strategically about how to create a world in which our teens experience peace and wholeness, justice and equity, and belonging and joy. Here are the some of the ways we are leaning into this work:

Alumni engagement: One of the greatest assets of the Reform Movement are our people, especially those who identify strongly as NFTY alumni. We are working on leaning into that and thinking expansively about what alumni support for NFTY looks like as we build our first alumni council.

Partnership with Congregations: In our attempt to rebuild NFTY and respond to the challenges of Covid, we focused more on building relationships with teens than with congregations, clergy, educators, and youth professionals. That was a mistake. Now, we are focusing on those relationships and adding resources for our staff team so we can support this crucial work.

We continue to look for ways to work creatively and collaboratively with willing partners, reimagining what regional work looks like. For example, we are currently exploring hiring a full-time NFTY position, funded by a local federation, in partnership with a congregation.

Grassroots Fundraising: We have begun to grow our muscles in grassroots fundraising and empowering our teens to be advocates and stewards of this work. This past November, we ran our first grassroots giving campaign led by NFTY teen leaders. That campaign brought in over $20,000. We plan to continue to grow this work by increasing overall donations and getting more teens involved in fundraising, leading to an even greater number of donors.

One thing that has never and will never change about NFTY is the feeling it creates. Teens can authentically be who they are and gain the skills to build the world they want to see. The youth in NFTY feel seen, heard, known, and loved by each other and the adults who have the privilege of working with them. To our joy, NFTY is a diverse group of teens, including Teens of Color and LGBTQ+ teens, and spanning diverse ritual practices, social classes, geography, and, yes, even viewpoints on Israel.

And the one thing that will ALWAYS change about NFTY is how we meet the evolving needs of teenagers. How many of you reading this can say you did things the same way as your parents or grandparents?

When Gloria Steinem gets asked, "Who will you be passing your torch to?" she says: "I'm not giving up my torch, but using it to light the torches of others, because if we each have a torch, there's a lot more light."

This world needs a lot more light from our teens and you. Join us by using your light to light the torches of others. Help us expand the sacred task of l'dor va'dor, from generation to generation, by helping build a community led by teens who are creating a world in which we all want to live.

If you'd like to add your light to our work, email Rabbi Esther L. Lederman. 

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