Don’t Wait 30 Years to Host a NFTY Conclave!
by Neil Platt
“Will 20 bottles of pasta sauce be enough for 36 pounds of pasta?”
This first text message reminded me why I was nervous about our synagogue hosting Fall Conclave for NFTY’s Texas Oklahoma Region. Sitting on a taxiing plane, I turned on my phone and ping, ping, ping sounds brought more last-minute questions into my inbox.
“Twenty bottles won’t be enough. Get 30!”
I don’t usually get worked up about synagogue functions, but this conclave marked the first time in our congregation’s 30-year existence that we would host a regional youth group event. As a smaller community of about 170 families, it was a big undertaking. As congregational president, I usually have a pretty clear picture of what each event requires of me (greeter, host, organizer, etc.). But this time at a regional youth group event? I didn’t know my role. As soon as I got off the plane, I called the advisor and our adult chairperson with my own last-minute questions. My job, they said, was to “just be there.”
I arrived at our synagogue early Friday and quickly realized our youth leaders had everything under control. I couldn’t just sit, so I began cleaning – and didn’t stop for the next 72 hours. For the full three days of the event, I took out the trash and kept the space as tidy as possible. This also allowed me to move freely in and out of programs under the guise of picking up garbage, when, really, I was also eavesdropping on the programs. (Of course, all that cleanliness also made a good impression on our visitors!)
As I roamed the programs, I was inspired by teens speaking of what the story of the Ten Commandments meant to them, reflecting on how they could take ownership in their lives rather than being followers. In another session, participants spoke energetically about protecting the earth, well aware of their impact on society and their ability to influence others to make the right decisions. I didn’t see a single teen sitting alone or texting.
Over lunch, a barbeque prepared by the men’s club on our congregation’s tree-lined deck, I listened as NFTY advisors spoke of struggles and triumphs at their various synagogues. Several shared programming ideas and strategies for improving spiritual and cultural learning. Though they were at the event to chaperone, these advisors were also identifying and sharing best practices.
While the teens were having fun at their evening social, we held a Havdalah for the host families.
Our rabbi was out, so we had to “wing it,” and as we sat around a campfire singing, we laughed as we realized we had forgotten a few of the Hebrew words. Afterwards, we enjoyed s’mores, played contemporary Jewish music, and talked about our temple, Judaism, and our collective future. Here I found another great reason to host conclave: Our membership was spending real quality time together!
When I got the call that the teens’ party was nearing completion, I went over to help clean up. As the social completed, the teens gathered for their own Havdalah service. The tune was the same as that the adults had sung a few hours earlier, yet something was different: They knew all the words. These teens weren’t just here to socialize; they were also experiencing and expressing their Judaism.
Sunday morning arrived quickly. As we gathered to cook eggs and pancakes, I continued my mission of stealth trashman. The pride I heard resonating through the kitchen and into the social hall was exhilarating. Some were proud of how well our synagogue members had worked together to host the event. Others were proud of our adult leaders and youth advisor for how they’d worked with our teens. As I wandered through the rooms and listened, I realized that everyone was most proud of our synagogue youth – not of any one teen, but of all of them collectively. They had challenged us to allow them to host this event; we took a chance, and our congregation is already stronger for it.
As the conclave drew to a close, song sessions and a slideshow replayed the weekend’s events. Teens sat in the friendship circle and sang songs, and our members watched with pride as the youth cheered. I finally understood one of the last-minute text messages I’d received before the event: “Get Kleenex.” Indeed, there were few dry eyes as we reflected on the weekend – the food, the singing, the programming, and even our past 30 years as a congregation. As adults, we often say we are motivated to do things for our kids. This weekend showed us that they are worth it and that they both appreciate it and plan to “pay it forward.”
Hours after the event, I headed to the airport for yet another trip. While I didn’t get the privilege of having dinner with my own kids, I know they were rightfully proud of themselves and of our synagogue. Thirty years had indeed been too long.
Neil Z. Platt is the current President of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands in The Woodlands, TX.