The NFTY 50’s

By Eleanor Schwartz

Excerpted from “Ani V’atah” NFTY Newsletter, February 2005.

This decade was a Golden Era for NFTY; a time of innovation and creative energy, a search for and development of identity with an agenda for action within the congregation; the affirmation that teens and the Temple Youth Group (TYG) had come of age.

This actually started in the late 40s after the end of World War II, when Rabbi Samuel Cook became the NFTY Director. He had the vision that post-confirmation teens needed to “grow up Jewishly” in an environment of their choice, a program of their choice, and with responsibility for their actions. The then young adult NFTY Board shared this vision and in 1948 took action to change the age profile of NFTY to post-confirmation throughout school. Having banished themselves as NFTY members, many of these “retirees” became TYG or regional advisors and faculty members at NFTY events.

Rabbi Cook’s vision included the necessity of training TYG and regional leaders, leading to developing North American leaders as well as developing programs, projects, and events as central to learning and growth. With the creative and motivational energy of Rabbi (then student) Eugene Borowitz, the National Leadership Institute was created. Held first in 1948, honed from ’49-’51, it burst forth in 1952, under the longest lasting deanship of Rabbis Maurice David and Jack Stern, reflecting daring innovations: a sermon in dance, an international fundraiser for “Bricks for Baeck” (to build a chapel at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, Israel), recognizing the guitar as the replacement for the biblical lyre, truly creative worship services and so much more. Perhaps the most startling aspect was the phenomenal success of creating a religious community and its program and governance by the participants within the broad parameters of theme and structure set by the NFTY officers, directors, and deans. This was the pattern and basis of leadership training transportable to local TYGs and regions.

Rabbi Cook’s vision always included camps as permanent homes for NFTY events and for year round regional conclaves, adult retreats and summer programs for children. This goal was launched in the late 40’s, and finally in winter 1952, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin was selected as the first camp “home,” which would be known as the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. A few years later, reality dictated a centralized home — just for NFTY — and Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York came to life.

Between 1948 and 1960, over 2500 TYGers came to camp leadership institutes and other specialized learning events. They returned home to hundreds of congregation and communities in North America transformed by the discovery of their own talents and abilities, proud of skills learned, eager to share with their own groups, pleased with new friends and new horizons.

During this era the Mitzvah Corps was developed to work on social action matters, as was the Eisendrath International Exchange between North American and Israeli youth (which later became the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel) and study-travel trips to Israel.

These accomplishments justify saying “Dayeinu,” (Hebrew for “it would have been enough) but there is more. The structure for adult advisors and faculty for NFTY activities required special attention.

Implicit in selecting each rabbinic faculty team was the hope that their own interaction would be dynamic and creative and be motivational for youth. Rabbis soon began courting invitations and noting their NFTY involvement on their resumes. The majority of TYG advisors came from within their congregations. They had the desire, personality, and energy, but needed skills and activity direction. So advisor training was launched and flourished. Dayeinu.

And then at last, NFTY Presidents, officers, and leaders became rabbis, cantors, or HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) faculty, launching the future and continuing flood of applicants. Uncountable numbers of NFTY members became presidents of congregations, sisterhoods and brotherhoods, religious school faculty, leaders of Jewish communities in politics and public service. Dayeinu.

In Judaism and in Jewish life there cannot be a final, “Dayeinu.” There will always be problems to be solved, sorrows and injustices to repair. The 50’s had McCarthyism, the Korean War, the Rosenberg Trial, the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and the struggle to develop the new State of Israel. NFTY was not without hope: There was a vision — it became a reality. The 50’s foundation was solidly built — and the opportunity to grow up Jewishly remains for each tomorrow.

The 50’s was a Golden Age — 24 karats. Dayeinu.

Eleanor Schwartz was Executive Director of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods from 1976-1992, now WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism), and helped to found the National Federation of Temple Youth (now NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement) in 1939. In 1964, she was honored with NFTY Lifetime Membership.

We are grateful to Women of Reform Judaism who have supported NFTY for 75 years and continue their generosity as Inaugural Donors to the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

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One Response to “The NFTY 50’s”

  1. avatar
    Stephan G. Lynn, MD Reply March 11, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Beautifully written. As a former President of a suburban Chicago Temple Youth Group (Beth El in Hammond, IN), I attended numerous C(hicago)FTY conclaves and went to Oconomowoc in its original form. I have since become a Synagogue President and a part-time non-Rabbinic student at HUC NYC. Your message was nostalgic but mostly trully inspring. How important URJ’s continued interest in youth engagement is.

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