NFTY of the 1960s
NFTY in the 1960s was remarkably like NFTY today. Except in those areas where it was different.
It was the same because, in most ways, kids are the same.
Adolescence is a tumultuous time when kids are suddenly vulnerable and suddenly sexual. They are desperate to know who cares about them. They want to find a place where they belong. They love their parents, but also can’t stand the sight of their parents. They care too much about clothes and body image. They are caught up in a need to fit in, but also a need to rebel.
When I was in NFTY, the kids were like that. And they are like that today.
But amidst this confusion, rebellion, and uncertainty, kids in our congregations have the most remarkable gifts. They are hungry for direction. They have a thirst for the noble and the spiritual. They are disgusted by hypocrisy and half-hearted commitments. They are willing to think about constructing new identities — including Jewish identities. Again, this was true in the 1960s, and it is true today.
And the NFTY that I was involved in knew how to respond to these kids — and to me. It offered me a refuge from constant adult scrutiny. It offered me unconditional acceptance. And it summoned me to a higher standard. It spoke the language of service, engagement, and commitment.
And it engaged my passion. It approached Judaism the way teenagers approach falling in love. It spoke the language of romance, reaching out to me with music, candles, and ceremonies. It offered me heartfelt music and prayer, authentic rituals, the experience of Shabbat, and most of all, a loving and inclusive community. And I loved it.
Intellect was important too, of course. It was a place where I could say whatever was on my mind and challenge everyone and anyone. It was a place, in other words, that was a little bit subversive, and I loved that too.
But passion was most important. And in every decade, this is what NFTY has been. It draws kids in by making the connection between the passion of youth and the passion of Judaism.
But how was NFTY different in the 1960s?
First, youth groups were more important because life was, in many ways, simpler. I grew up with only four or five television channels, and no DVDs or worldwide web. And, very important, no cell phones. When I wanted to call my mom to pick me up at a store downtown, I had to walk — yes, actually walk — to the nearest pay phone, sometimes 40 or 50 yards away. And while there was pressure to get into college, it was nothing like what it is now: increasing test scores, building resumes, and raising academic competencies had not become the obsession that we see today. In my world of the 1960s, I went to youth group not only because my parents pushed me to go, but because in a less busy world, Jewish youth activities — NFTY, BBYO, Young Judea, and USY — were welcome alternatives to the relative quiet and boredom of our teenage lives.
Second, there was a greater intensity to NFTY because walls still existed between American Jews and other Americans. I grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood; furthermore, when I joined my youth group in 1962, the intermarriage rate in America was 6%. In these circumstances, NFTY was a natural extension of my home and community; we Jews, including Jewish kids, were very much a part of America but, to some degree at least, still lived apart. Of course, that was beginning to change in my TYG years. I remember many heated youth group programs about whether or not dating non-Jewish kids was permissible. Those conversations would be very different today.
Finally, social justice was the heart of NFTY in my days, the priority for every event. It is still vital, and rightly so, but in the 60s, the country was in the midst of a debate on civil rights legislation; rights for African-Americans was a subject that consumed our youth group agenda. And the war in Vietnam was just coming into focus. My first really heated discussions about the justice or injustice of that war took place in youth group settings. On one hand, we probably paid less attention than we should have to matters other than social justice, but on the other hand, youth group created a social justice consciousness that many of us carried with us into the rest of our lives.
NFTY, in many ways, made me what I am; in ways both similar and dissimilar, the same will be true for NFTYites today.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community.
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.