My Youth Campaign, My Children’s Youth Campaign
I was recently going through some old files. To be honest, they were very old files. Amongst reports from high school, I found two Erev Sabbath service outlines. They dated back to when I was the president of my templeyouth group (Temple Judea in the Bronx). They were titled “Folk Sabbath Services” and were dated 1976 and 1977. Many of us in the youth group were veterans of regional NFTY events, including Shabbatons at Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York. In youth group events such as shul-ins, and especially at Kutz, we discovered a different type of Jewish worship. The music was different. The prayers were different. The style was different. It was worship on our own terms and it was very different from anything we experienced in our home congregation.
This was my temple’s first exposure to NFTY, to what we referred to as the youth movement, and to the style of worship that attracted us to NFTY events. I do not recall if anyone played guitar, but I do remember that much of the music was not accompanied by the organ. The songs and prayers we sang were written or arranged by Debbie Freidman and Danny Freelander. Many of the prayers and readings were interpretive versions not found in the “Union Prayer Book.”
We were so proud of our service, imagining that we were bringing revelation to the masses, or at least to Temple Judea. How could they not see that this was meaningful worship and change forever the way they prayed? As you might imagine, the revolution failed and worship did not immediately change. While in a few years a new rabbi would introduce “Gates of Prayer,” and the organ, too costly to repair, would be replaced by a keyboard, worship did not dramatically change at my temple.
Fast forward to 2012 and a couple of weeks ago I attended my temple (Temple Emanu-El in Edison, N.J.) youth group’s Shabbat Service. Note that it was called a Shabbat Service, not a Sabbath Service. So much has changed since my youth group service! Now, our services are often accompanied by drums and guitar. Much of our worship is in Hebrew. My congregation regularly sings music by Dan Nichols and Josh Nelson, as well as by Debbie Friedman and Danny Freelander.
I wondered what would make this Youth Group Shabbat service different from a regular Shabbat service. The youth group introduced one new song, but it was written by Dan Nichols, a musician with whom my congregations is familiar. It is our temple’s 50th anniversary. The youth group interviewed members, those who had been with us for many years and those who had recently joined, members who were in their 70’s and members who were in the religious school. The youth group members asked them why they joined, why they stayed, what they liked the best, and what they hope for the temple’s future.
It was a lovely service and the youth group members lead our worship with skill and grace. Everyone was proud. But when I think about it, it was not so different from a regular Erev Shabbat service at our temple. Most of the music was the same. The readings and prayers were all right out of our siddur. Perhaps the revolution my NFTY friends and I launched so many years ago did succeed. Our “youth campaign” was to change the way we worshiped. It may have taken a while, but it appears that we have won. The URJ is launching the Campaign for Youth Engagement. It is an exciting and innovative approach to connecting with our teens. I wonder what my sons’ campaign will be as they enter their teen years. And I wonder how it will revolutionize Reform Judaism.