The Days of Awe, Community, and “Relational Judaism”

Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, a distinguished Hasid, told a parable about the Days of Awe of a man who is lost in the woods. Just when he is losing hope, he runs into another person and is filed with joy, exclaiming “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering for days.” His […]

Read more

Signs of Hope for the Future: A Promising Meeting in Israel

I’m writing from an airplane (for a change!), heading home after an unexpected 36 hours in Israel, including an important meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I was not planning on being in Israel this week. Natan Sharansky called just before Shabbat with a summons to come to Israel to find a way to make real […]

Read more

NFTY Convention Registration Opens October 6th!

Registration for NFTY Convention 2015 and the Youth Summit for congregational professionals and stakeholders will open Monday, October 6th! To make sure your congregation is ready, here are some helpful reminders: Registration is risk-free until November 17. Teens and adults can register and pay only the $75 deposit to secure their space. This deposit is […]

Read more

The Power, Growth, and Continued Success of Mitzvah Corps

“Dad, this is amazing,” my daughter exclaimed on a phone call home from Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua this summer. “There are so many kids on my program who have never heard of NFTY before!” You may think this comment would’ve been discouraging to me: What are we doing wrong that these kids have never heard of […]

Read more

NFTY and BBYO: Two Movements, One Mission

By Ariel Schwartz

NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, and BBYO are two incredible Jewish teen movements that aim to engage Jewish teens across the world. Though they are organized and operate differently, cherish different histories, and engage different types of Jewish teens, ultimately they both work to build a stronger Jewish future. I am proud to be an active member of both BBYO and NFTY. Read more…

A Songleader’s Journey

by Rabbi Ramie Arian

Throughout the nearly four decades of my career, I’ve been privileged to serve the Jewish people in a variety of non-congregational rabbinic roles – national director of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement for most of the 1980s, as well as vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, national director of Young Judaea, and founding executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish journey of my life has been shaped and molded by many influences; NFTY was among the most important. Read more…

“You Say You Want a Revolution”

By Mark S. Anshan

I had the privilege of serving as the National Federation of Temple Youth’s president from 1970-1971. In those years, my wife Brenda (from Bradford, PA) and I (a Torontonian) belonged to NELFTY (North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth), where I had served as president from 1968-1969.

We were witness to many historic and life-changing events during our years in NFTY. During the height of the Vietnam War, as NFTY’s first vice president, I had the unique opportunity of representing NFTY and giving testimony before Senator Edward Kennedy. Many of my friends were dealing with the draft, worried about the numbers they’d receive, and hoping for student deferment (as college students) to avoid serving, rather than going to fight in a war of questionable objectives. Senator Kennedy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure, held committee hearings on the selective service system (the draft), examining its operations, practices, and procedures. Senator Kennedy’s view was that the draft was administered in a discriminatory manner in which poor, black youth with much less opportunity to seek a university education were much more likely to be drafted, especially without the option of student deferment. On November 13, 1969, accompanied by Rabbi Merle Singer, I gave testimony on behalf of NFTY, delivering a written statement that became part of the public record of the committee’s deliberations. Senator Kennedy wrote to thank me for my testimony and sent me a copy of the hearings’ record. Read more…

Reform Leaders Commend President Obama’s Commitment to Stopping the Spread of ISIS

In response to President Obama’s announcement of an expanded military effort against ISIS, Reform Movement leaders issued the following statement:

We commend President Obama’s commitment to stopping the spread of ISIS, which has imposed terror in the Middle East and beyond and whose actions are appalling and offensive to all who value freedom. Already, the Administration has rightly taken action to protect beleaguered religious and ethnic communities suffering under ISIS’s domination. Recognizing that the threat from ISIS is not limited to the region it currently occupies, we applaud President Obama’s leadership in recruiting a global coalition to, in his own words, “degrade and destroy” ISIS. The spread of extremism anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere, and we pray for all of the victims and their families who have been affected by the ISIS regime. We pray too for the safety of American and coalition troops on the front lines of this effort.  As the U.S. continues to lead the international community in addressing the threat from ISIS, we encourage the President and Congress to work closely together to ensure a united front in this vital effort.

Read more…

Teen Talk: What We Can Learn from the Marketing Techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

The reality of today’s online participatory culture, is that teens (and yes, adults, too) like to show what they’re doing. While sometimes this can be a “for better or worse” situation, when it comes to raising awareness for a good cause, you can’t find a better place to rally for attention than on the stream of your Facebook mini-feed. We saw this rapidly unfold with the enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising campaign. The challenge was successful for a multitude of reasons—but what’s significant to us is the way in which some of these Ice Bucket Challenge marketing tools can be used to help us better understand and engage our own teens.

For starters, a very significant aspect of the challenge was its ability to bridge the inter-generational gap between youth and adults. Teens were just as happy to share themselves dumping ice buckets on their heads as adults were, and the low barrier to entry meant that anybody could get involved. In this particular fundraising situation, the subject matter was fused with a universal sense of “playfulness” which played a big factor in the ability for teens and adults to relate. In reviewing the Ice Bucket Challenge techniques, the call to action: pour a bucket of ice water over your head, and the ensuing nominations strategy: designate friends to keep on performing the challenge, were the greatest attention-grabbing tools of them all. By directing teens to perform a specific deed with an implied time limit (24 hours) to share with their Facebook friends, communities worldwide were able to rally around one cause with extraordinary results.

Here are a few takeaways we can apply from the swift marketing techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge to boost teen engagement within communities.

1. Utilize the power of sharing on social media between youth and adults

Teens today build off of responses from peers in a way that is unprecedented and unchartered; their proclivity for sharing comes from our new community-based culture—one that rests on group building from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. When teens receive a “like” on Facebook they are more likely to forge connections and common ground with peers and adults.

If we share what we’re doing in our congregations in our virtual communities, teens will be much more apt to engage in important conversations. Rabbi Danny Burkeman of the Community Synagogue honed in on the efficiency of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and in the spirit of the High Holidays, formed his own mission: the Elul Challenge. His congregants were called upon to record a 30-second video performing any mitzvah of their choice, and instructed to nominate three friends and share on Facebook. According to Rabbi Burkeman, “Teens have definitely been engaging in the challenge. We’ve seen a number of them post videos on their Facebook pages, challenging their friends, but interestingly, also adults in the Jewish community.” The highly successful strategies of sharing and nominating not only unites teens, but bridges the gap between youth and adults for more accessible and direct dialogue.

2. Engage teens by “tagging” them with personal invitations AKA “nominations”

There’s no doubt that this generation of teens likes to call attention to themselves—and they do this by using social media as their main podium of expression. In this case, the Ice Bucket Challenge honed in on the nominations technique by applying “Facebook tagging” as way of personally inviting friends to engage in the challenge. Not only does this get the teen excited about seeing a Facebook notification pop up on their phone, it also gives him or her greater impetus to complete any challenge directed their way, because it appears on their Facebook wall. By having their friends actually see the nomination, a certain level of expectation develops for the teen, along with a heightened sense of responsibility to get the job done.

URJ NFTY-Michigan’s teens were inspired by the ALS challenge’s tagging technique in promoting their upcoming NFTY weekend event in Mackinaw City. Their regional board posted on social media with the hashtag: #Mackattackwednesday. They then listed and tagged a few people and asked them to register, and continued the chain by posting about who they want to see join the event.

Regional Director of Youth Engagement, Barrett Harr, elaborated, “Tagging was a great way to get people to post and spread the word about our event and registration. We will definitely continue to use this tactic in the future.”

The nomination strategy is all about connection, timing, and repetition. In the original Ice Bucket Challenge, nominees only had 24 hours, and the challenge lasted throughout the entire summer. Although the cause and call to action was what initially galvanized the excitement to create the videos, NFTY SoCal Regional Advisor Spencer Hirsch credits a big part of the challenges’ success to its ability to connect people. Again, it all comes back to community, and opening the door to long-term engagement. He explained, “You’re being publicly tagged or honored by a friend. You’re being invited to be a part of an experience. That’s a good strategy. It’s all about intentional timing, and the new nomination tactic makes people feel connected.

3. Hone in on the urgency of a “deadline”

Teens are constantly inundated with information via the internet, and it’s increasingly difficult to grab their attention and keep it. By instituting a deadline for participation, such as the 24-hour cut off with the Ice Bucket Challenge, we can summon a unique sense of urgency. Not only does this bring the issue front and center in a swift way, but it also makes the teen feel like they have to fit in the “task” as a priority. They receive an immediate feeling of gratification from completing and posting their challenge, which simultaneously expands their web identity/presence. Adam Blum, the fundraising Vice-President of NFTY-CWR, is a teen who is currently working in partnership with NFTY to develop a more productive way for teens to sign up for NFTY Convention 2015. With the success of the nominations strategy modeled by the Ice Bucket Challenge, the NFTY team plans to employ this tactic to combat issues of late attendee registration, and to expand the NFTY convention participant pool. “What is really important about this idea is not the challenge, but that we are thinking about nomination strategies as a way to raise awareness and drive registration. Hopefully the nomination component will keep NFTY members active and connected, and maybe attract a new audience as well.”


Jillian Scheinfeld is the Writer and PR Associate for the URJ Youth Communications team. She has been published in the New York Observer, Tablet Magazine, JTA, Kveller, and Jewcy.


A New Vision for Youth Shabbat

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Nearly four years ago, I walked into the youth lounge at The Community Synagogue, excited to spend one of our monthly “lounge nights” with a small and mighty group of POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth) teens. I observed the members of our program as they sat, surrounded by the embrace of our safe and cozy space, happily expressing their thoughts and feelings over shared snacks and treats. I saw them laughing and enjoying the company of Jewish friends, developing their identities as people, and as Jews.

While reflecting on our small community that met one Tuesday per month for “lounge night”—bonding time that supplements our larger youth events and programs–I saw an opportunity to expand and enrich programs we were already providing our members. If the teens were happy to spend their evenings with their Jewish friends, committing their personal time to a relaxing evening spent breaking bread and learning and laughing together, why was I hosting a lounge night on a Tuesday? Why wasn’t I able to find a way to adjust these evenings so that they provided more Jewish content, more meaning, and more fun?  Why shouldn’t I be hosting a POWTY Shabbat program on a Friday?

Switching POWTY’s monthly lounge nights to POWTY Shabbat–our monthly youth Shabbat program—was one of the greatest risks I’ve ever taken as Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue, and it was all it took to transform our evenings into opportunities for meaningful Jewish ritual, prayer, and rejoicing. The POWTY Shabbat program completely revitalized our teen community, providing new learning opportunities, and chances for our participants to make connections to their heritage, religion, and Jewish selves.

What began as a handful of members who were excited to spend Shabbat evenings with POWTY is now an established monthly POWTY Shabbat program that our teens look forward to and enjoy. Upon the great success of our POWTY Shabbat programs, I have spoken with many of our current members and alumni about their POWTY Shabbat experiences. I am constantly learning from the Jewish youth I work with, and I think that their stories about their own experiences are rich with important lessons for my goals of meaningfully engaging them with Judaism. I hope these words of wisdom from our POWTY members and alumni will encourage other professionals working with Jewish youth to consider the opportunities that Shabbat can give us to engage today’s Jewish youth.

Teens get to connect with people they may never have had a change to get to know.
Jesse Epstein, Current POWTY Co-President:“POWTY

Shabbat is one of my favorite events to attend. It feels great when we are all sitting around the table in the youth lounge, talking and engaging in all our special POWTY traditions. These events have definitely brought me a lot closer to other young people in the community that I might have not have otherwise gotten to know, and I know that my life would be very different without them.”

When Shabbat is celebrated with friends, it becomes a priority for teens.
Emily Shlafmitz, a POWTY alum:

As a teenager in high school there were a number of ways I could have chosen to spend my Friday nights—however, attending POWTY Shabbats was always a top priority. Going to POWTY Shabbats was meaningful for me because I got to participate in reciting prayers and performing various rituals, such as the blessing over the challah, and new rituals that we as a POWTY created together. These dinners have provided me with so many amazing experiences, great friends, and intelligent conversations that I will carry with me as I enter college this coming fall, and for the rest of my life.”These cherished POWTY family rituals Emily references, such as shouting “Oh, what a beautiful challah!” as we prepare to say the motzi, and sharing the best part of each of our weeks as we enjoy our meal together, define our community, and become traditions that our members find themselves longing to hold onto.

Creating Shabbat rituals helps us to instill a positive foundation for teens, who will continue to seek out Shabbat experiences.
Miles Kurtz, a POWTY alum:

“POWTY Shabbat has allowed me to develop a meaningful relationship with Shabbat. With POWTY, Shabbat was no longer an intangible holiday, but an experience that involved some of my best friends and the synagogue where I grew up. It became a genuinely relaxing way to end my week, and that is the first time I really felt peace on Shabbat, which, after all, is what it is supposed to bring.”

Teens learn to be resourseful when it comes to celebrating Jewish holidays; if they can’t find the Shabbat experiences they desire, they’ll have the confidence and knowledge to cultivate their own.
Jenna Lipman, POWTY alum:

“I left home and moved all the way across the country to attend Santa Clara University, a Catholic school. At the beginning of my freshman year, I felt that I had lost my Jewish community. Once I started to meet other Jewish students on campus, it became clear to me that we needed a way to casually get together and stay connected to Judaism. I began inviting all of my Jewish friends, and all of our non-Jewish friends, to Shabbat at my apartment. This was a way for us all to be together and show our friends that being Jewish can be practical and inclusive, and has allowed me to find that same community that guided me through high school. Without the initial experience of POWTY Shabbat dinners, there would be no Shabbat at my apartment, and thus possibly no connection to the Jewish community I left at home. Our monthly Shabbat evenings, that began as pasta dinners for a few teens around a small table, have grown into themed evenings for dozens of POWTY members packed into our youth lounge. Our Shabbat programs now include special meals, programs, and suprises, such as Pinata Shabbata, where we enjoyed Tex-Mex for dinner, and Shabbushi, our sushi Shabbat program.   After seeing how accessible I could make Shabbat for our adolescent members, I realized I could create fun, exciting, and unconventional programs built around Shabbat experiences for all of our members. Last year, POWTY hosted our first ever All POWTY Shabbat for grades 4-12, and almost 60 members shared a Shabbat meal before leading services for our entire synagogue community.

Having older teens connect to and mentor younger teens during Shabbat helps in the developmental and engagement processes for both adolescents and children.
Jackie Kindler, a current POWTY Board member and past POWTY Religious Affairs Chair:

“Having Senior POWTY members talk with the younger kids about things they enjoy, while being at a fun themed POWTY Shabbat creates an atmosphere that gives room for kids to get down and deeply explore their religion. I know that being in such an amazing environment has helped me to thrive into the POWTY member that I am, and even learn things from the littler kids.

As a result of the successful implementation of our ALL POWTY Shabbat programs, I introduced JPOW (Junior POWTY) Shabbat programs created specifically for our members in grades 4-6 with “Pump It Up Shabbat”. Thirty of our JPOW members loaded onto a bus and took Shabbat on the road!  We spend our Shabbat evening at a local Pump It Up location, before sharing an upbeat, unique Shabbat service and dinner in their party space.

This year, POWTY will be hosting its first ever JPOW Sha-GAGA (Shabbat at Ultimate Gaga!) program, and we plan to make our All POWTY Shabbat for entire group in grades 4-12 even bigger and better than last years.

As I’ve continued to develop our Shabbat programming throughout the past few years, I have been fortunate to see how children and young adults have been meaningfully engaged with Judaism through the program, which has evolved into a central focus of our entire youth engagement program at The Community Synagogue. As our alumni bless me with stories of their continued enjoyment and engagement with Shabbat as reform Jews within our greater community, my inspiration for further innovation and creativity grows.

Moving our monthly Tuesday lounge nights to Friday evening Shabbat programs was a giant risk that has fortunately reaped great rewards for POWTY Youth Programs. Creativity, teamwork, and attentiveness to child and adolescent interests have helped us find ways to make Jewish rituals and observance something our kids enjoy, look forward to, prioritize, and refuse to leave behind. Our POWTY Shabbat program has inspired a new vision for what Jewish youth engagement can look like in our community, and has renewed an excitement for our members’ Jewish futures.


Lindsay Ganci is the Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, where she has worked since 2010. She is a recent graduate of the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, and received her MA in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also a member of the Reform Youth Professionals Association (RYPA). 


“Ruach Rock” Tefilah: Engaging Teens in Creating Meaningful Prayer Experiences

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Are you an educator or youth professional seeking an innovative approach to teaching teens about prayer? Project-based learning is a great way for teens to explore their own spirituality and create meaningful prayer experiences for themselves and their fellow students.  My advice would be to start by sharing what you find meaningful, as a role model to inspire your students.

Last year, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Arts in Religious Education (MARE) program at HUC-JIR, I completed my Capstone Curriculum, titled “Ruach Rock” Tefilah: A Creative Prayer Curriculum for Teens. Designed specifically for 7th-10th graders, I used my “Ruach Rock” Tefilah as the kickoff session for a semester-long exploration of the reform service liturgy in which teens are encouraged to learn more about the prayers in order to create their own interpretations of them. Recognizing that music is not everyone’s area of creative expertise, I designed the curriculum to use a different mode of approach for each prayer, based on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which has long informed my work with teens. Utilizing a mixture of games, art, technology, writing and movement, students are empowered to explore what is meaningful to them in our tradition and consider how to articulate those feelings and share them with peers.

Last fall at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, we used a project-based learning (PBL) approach to liven up our weekly 8th-12th grade minyan and charged the teens with creating their own service. They formed small groups to pick tunes, set up the space and select/create readings. After a few weeks of planning, we reconvened and they presented their Tefilah – which turned out to be a very traditional Shabbat evening service, nearly twice as long as our typical minyan, in our usual location!

From this experience we realized that it is not so easy for students to think outside the box about prayer.  For them, choosing between two or three familiar tunes for each prayer was the most leeway they felt they had. This experience strengthened my commitment to experiment with the prayer curriculum I was developing for my Capstone which I believed could offer teens a much-needed opportunity to create their own meaningful prayer experience.

So during our minyan on Tuesday nights, I adapted elements from the curriculum into our service:

  • Taking 5-10 minutes each week to creatively explore one of the prayers as it occurred within the service
  • Moving our minyan to a different location in the building
  • Utilizing visual Tefilah which allowed me to refer back to some of our previous creative exercises

Over the weeks, I began to see signs of life from our teens as they engaged in conversations, brainstormed their ideas in groups, and tried out new spaces. I found their singing to be more invigorated, and even drew smiles from them! We managed to find a space in our building that better fit the group size and engaged students who were previously in the building but had abstained from the minyan. I integrated students’ ideas into the service as the weeks went on, so that piece by piece our minyan was transformed to reflect our process.

Given the new energy we were able to bring to our Tefilah experience in such a short amount of time, I am excited to imagine the possibilities of what students could learn and create if they had dedicated time each week to explore our traditions. I am looking forward to continuing to innovate with students to turn what is sometimes the most dreaded part of religious school into something that is meaningful, personal, and engaging.



Jay Rapoport is the new Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in Chicago and a composer/performer of Jewish music. He recently completed his Master’s Degree in Religious Education at HUC-JIR along with his second crowd-funded album of Jewish music for children, teens and families.


Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self

By Alex Rogers, Avra Bossov, and Matt Liebman

As a central tenet of Reform Judaism, tikkun olam – repairing the world – can seem overwhelming. How does one take on such a task as an individual? For over 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has empowered Jewish teenagers across the continent to infuse this concept into their daily lives. Mitzvah Corps has impacted numerous communities and has thousands of alumni that continue the work that started during their Mitzvah Corps program.

With the Campaign for Youth Engagement’s growing focus on new entry points for teenagers to engage in Jewish life, this summer Mitzvah Corps expanded to include eight sites with over 190 participants. In other words, record levels of engagement. The beauty of Mitzvah Corps is that each summer, around the world, groups of strangers come together to build a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. We pray together, make difficult decisions together, and find the best versions of ourselves while being surrounded by bustling communities moving through their day. In essence, it brings the best of Jewish immersive experiences into the day-to-day experience of cities across the globe.

Our team spent two weeks in Portland, Oregon, with 31 incredible teens from around the country. We learned about food justice and sustainability; participated in service learning with three different community partners (PCUN, the Learning Gardens Lab, and The Rebuilding Center); and explored various neighborhoods and communities within the city. As we learned together as a new community, we watched our teens expand their view of the world, and feel empowered to apply their new knowledge immediately as they interacted with the larger Portland community.

As a 34-person community, we were able to practice tikkun olam and tikkun midot. Rabbi Jan Katzew explains these concepts best:

“The practice of tikkun olam does not stand alone. It is necessary, but not sufficient to live up to the ethics of Judaism. Some of us may be so drawn to fixing the outside world that we neglect the inner world of our being. And so Jewish tradition offers us a partner to tikkun olam, a partner that has too often been neglected — the process of internal mending called tikkun midot. Whereas acts of tikkun olam are social and public, acts of tikkun midot are personal and private. As tikkun olam confronts the incompleteness and imperfection of the world around us, tikkun midot addresses the incompleteness and imperfection of our inner self. Tikkun midot enables us to maintain a moral balance. The term midot refers to measures — measures which determine our character. The practice of tikkun midot is a process of defining and refining our moral compass when we are faced with competing urges and do not know which path to follow.” Katzew concludes: “Tikkun midot and tikkun olam are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually dependent and inextricably intertwined; both are necessary to uplift the world. The moral whole is more than the sum of the moral parts. Spiritual awareness and social justice are two sides of the same coin: tikkun midot looks at the moral life from the inside out; tikkun olam approaches the same domain from the outside in. Tikkun midot starts with me; tikkun olam starts with us.”

-Repairing the World from the Inside Out, Reform Judaism, Winter 1999

In addition to our work of confronting the imperfections of the world around us through understanding the broader social issue areas surrounding sustainability of communities from environmental, economic, and social lenses, we also practiced tikkun midot. We challenged ourselves to define the moral standards for our community; we defined our personal “why” statements (a concept leadership expert Simon Sinek identified in his popular TED Talk) in order to reflect externally on our behavior so that we could help each other on our journey of refining our moral compass; and we crafted what our lesson would be if we had ten minutes to teach the entire world something and how that defines who we are and the impact we wish to have.

Our Mitzvah Corps Portland program formed a solid foundation of who we are as individuals and as a community and how we fit into building better communities beyond this experience—at home, in our synagogues, in our schools, in our daily interactions. As Mitzvah Corps expands, it means more teens growing, learning, laughing and being active members of society. It means more youth engaging with Jewish values. It means the harnessing of incredible energy and passion for the betterment of communities across the globe. The work of tikkun olam is not the sole responsibility of an individual, it is in the power of community paired with acts of tikkun midot, in which we can begin the most sacred task of repairing the world.

Alex Rogers is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Program Director and the Youth Engagement Specialist at URJ Camp Newman. Avra Bossov is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Assistant Program Director. Matt Liebman is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Assistant Program Coordinator and the Youth Group Advisor at Temple Emanuel, Denver CO


The NFTY Alumni Gap

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

As someone who has worked with NFTYites for nearly 20 years, I cherish the long term relationships I continue to have with my former youth groupers. I try to keep an eye on their progression through college, their entry into the work force and eventually their weddings, the birth of their children and all of the various life moments, happy and sad, that occur. No matter what their age or stage in life, I always think of them as “former NFTYites.”

I am continually amazed at the impact of NFTY and NFTY friendships on these individuals. It is their NFTY friends who keep appearing in photo albums as the years go by.  I am touched at the number of these former NFTYites who reach out to me, and other youth group advisors, for guidance and advice as they move through life.  I am flattered that these now college students and young adults want to keep up with my life and know my family as it grows along with theirs.

On the one hand, this is what we’ve always been hoping for. Teenagers who have such profound experiences and moments that they create lifelong friendships and meaningful relationships with adult role models.

On the other hand, for too many of our former NFTYites, they never get past the incredible weekends, trips and programs they experienced in NFTY.  Nothing compares to the community they create, the fun they have, the ruach they feel and the smiles that they can’t get off their faces. NFTY has spoiled them by giving them exactly what they want out of their Jewish experience, something that can’t simply be re-created at local congregations.

Our NFTY alumni have strong Jewish identities and lots of Jewish friends but very few of them have any type of involvement in an organized Jewish community after they leave the ones in which we’ve engaged them. Our teens often say that NFTY stands for “Never Forget These Years” but for our alumni it might as well be “No Future Temple Years (at least until they are ready to put their own kids into religious school). When I think of these young leaders as “former NFTYites” rather than “active leaders,” there’s a gap between what we have envisioned for our young people beyond high school and what we have delivered.

Instead of placing blame, or simply accepting this as a reality, I challenge us to see this “problem” as a “solution waiting to happen.” What might it look like if outreach to NFTY alumni was a priority for our congregations?

  • Congregations could have “NFTY alumni groups” which would be a natural draw for young professionals who had NFTY experiences. This might be more appealing to many of them than a generic young adult group with some type of catchy name that a committee or marketing consultant suggested. Former NFTYites would know what to expect with an alumni group – they would know they would be accepted, welcomed and with people who share common experiences even if from different regions.
  • In addition to sending holiday care packages to their own college students, congregations could also welcome NFTY alumni at nearby colleges to celebrate holidays together.  This doesn’t work in every city, but many of our congregations are located near colleges and universities. Instead of giving our Reform college students no other choice but to go to Hillel, why not provide a congregational space, and a Reform community, for these students to be together in a setting they are comfortable with. I am inspired by the concept of our congregations as a home away from home (or at least a “Temple away from Temple”) for all of our NFTYites attending college.
  • One of the main reasons for NFTY’s success is the involvement and leadership of its participants. We have a robust pool of alumni with real leadership skills – they can run programs, lead services, engage their peers, and so much more. What would it look like to invite NFTY alumni to create their own “lay” service in the style of what they would have experienced in their high school years?
  • One way to test these models is by incorporating alumni engagement into the portfolio of a youth professional, clergy member or educator.  Could we reconnect more of these young adults to the services, programs and opportunities offered by our congregations? With investment from our professional staff, we would see returns in greater synagogue involvement and membership by NFTY alumni.

At a time when study after study tells us that “membership” is a dirty word, NFTY alumni know from experience how their life was improved by being a member of NFTY. They are not scared of that word nor of that level of commitment. They are eager to find a place that is welcoming, accepting, warm, friendly and fun. When they do, I believe they will join, they will become involved and they will help lead.

NFTY alumni want to find a place where they feel they belong and that belongs to them. They understand that high school is long over and their NFTY days have passed. The opportunity to create new and positive Jewish experiences with those same people and others like them is bigger than ever. Let’s seize it.


Ira Miller is the Director of Informal Education at Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, DC. Learn more about NFTY’s alumni network at

Journal of Youth Engagement

Now Introducing Bonim Kehilah for Jewish Young Adults

Much has been written about millennials and how they’re constructing adult lives: They live at home longer, marry later, and are less likely to affiliate with political and religious institutions than ever before.

It follows that those young adults looking for sustained, meaningful Jewish engagement find few entry points into the current communal landscape. Without parents or Hillel to lead the way into Jewish social, educational, and leadership opportunities, many young adults who grew up engaged in Jewish programming lack a Jewish outlet in their adult lives. While many plan to join congregations once they start their own family, the road to significant Jewish engagement in the years between college and parenthood is less obvious. Taglit-Birthright Israel, Moishe Houses, and many other “next-gen” outreach programs provide introductory opportunities for young adults to engage Jewishly, but what do we offer those seeking higher-level opportunities for learning and leading? Read more…

A Force to be Reckoned With

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute… Read more…

Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics. Read more…

The Challenges of Teaching about Israel

by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world? Read more…

Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables:

  1. Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to the arts, service, current events, and connections to their own passions, hobbies, and commitments.
  2. Consider the program location. It’s important that teens feel comfortable in the synagogue, but by utilizing different locations, we will open programming to a broader group of teens.
  3. Timing, schedule, and duration make a huge impact. It’s essential that what we are offering takes place at different times of the day, and for a variety of durations, in order to connect with the greatest number of young people.
  4. Tap older teens to help plan and recruit their younger peers. We all respond best to personal invitations, and younger teens are always excited when personally invited by an older peer.

Read more…