NFTY’s Early Years: A Snapshot of the 1940s
By Andrew Keene
Generational Leadership (Hanhagah L’dorot) is the notion that a leader cannot be successful without a true appreciation and understanding of its organization’s past leadership as well as its future generations of leaders; or as the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s (NFTY) homepage states, having “a panoramic view of leadership, learning from those who came before us, and making choices to ensure the existence of the next generation.” While it is hard to predict the future of NFTY, our current leaders have the unique opportunity to learn from and be mentored by NFTY leaders of past generations. Kathryn Kohn Beckman, active in NFTY during the movement’s formative years, provided local NFTYites with a glimpse into the NFTY of the 1940s. Sharing her insights with today’s NFTY leaders is an example of the power of practicing Generational Leadership.
In 1940, after the completion of her post-b’nai mitzvah Confirmation classes, Kathryn joined Ohev Shalom’s Young People’s Temple League in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She quickly moved into a leadership role — the first of many that she held in the fledgling Reform youth movement.
At the time, local rabbis, including Rabbi Samuel Cook (who became the NFTY director in 1946 and led it until retiring in 1967), were encouraging synagogues in Pennsylvania to plan intercity programs where Jewish teenagers like Kathryn could meet one another. In 1942, Kathryn attended a convention in Philadelphia to represent what was then the Pennsylvania Federation of Temple Youth (PAFTY). One of the important items of business was a discussion about inviting synagogues in the nearby cities located outside of Pennsylvania to join PAFTY. This was the catalyst for the name change to the Middle Atlantic Federation of Temple Youth (MAFTY). Baltimore and Washington, D.C. were the first non-Pennsylvania cities to send delegates to the 1942 Labor Day Conclave.
Intercity programming was a great success, hosting events that attracted participants from Lancaster, Harrisburg, York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlantic City. In the ensuing years, western Pennsylvanian cities also joined MAFTY, which engaged teens from Altoona, Johnstown, Pittsburg, and select parts of West Virginia.
MAFTY communities and synagogues were exemplars for the rest of the country, and as a result, intercity programs were initiated in several cities nationwide. The organization then became known as the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) to represent the growing popularity of Reform Jewish youth gatherings. Kathryn was elected to serve as an officer of MAFTY, and subsequently the newly formed NFTY when she attended the first NFTY Convention.
As part of her national leadership role and at the request of Rabbi Samuel Cook, Kathryn traveled to different parts of the country to help organize new NFTY member groups, including the Ohio and Southern Federations. She was also charged with the task of finding a site for a permanent NFTY camp.
Kathryn found land to purchase in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, which is now the site of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). Kathryn served as the first chairperson at the first Leadership Institute at the newly established camp. For over 60 years OSRUI has served as a center for Reform Jewish life, with people of all ages engaging in camp, NFTY, and other interest-based events.
Another noteworthy piece of Kathryn’s NFTY leadership came at a pivotal point in U.S. history — World War II. Many rabbis who were part of NFTY communities across the country were called to service in a variety of capacities, often to serve as chaplains. Kathryn, along with other NFTY members, corresponded with those serving overseas and participated in Shabbat services at military locales within the U.S. When NFTYites were the recipients of unfortunate news from the frontlines, leaders like Kathryn served as information stewards for families and teens.
Kathryn’s leadership in the early days of NFTY helped to build a foundation for the new organization that was rooted in Jewish values, friendship, and camaraderie, and which has allowed the movement to flourish in its 75-year history. In a community that holds Generational Leadership in high esteem, it is an honor to have individuals like Kathryn who provide the context to the holy work we continue to do.
Andrew Keene served as NFTY President from 2013-2014. He based this essay on written narrative, personal accounts, and many inspiring conversations with Kathryn in the last few years.
Kathryn Kohn Beckman has been a resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for over 50 years. She has also lived in Morton Grove, Illinois, where she was an active member of a Reform synagogue. She has four sons, four grandchildren, one great-grandson, and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of identical twin granddaughters. She often embraces Reform Judaism at the Chai Point Independent Living Center in Milwaukee.