Finding My Life Role Models at NFTY
When I was growing up, I never met any rabbis other than my congregation’s rabbi. Dr. Renov (we never called him ‘rabbi’) was a scholar. Our congregation, Temple Judea, was small and he served there part-time. Dr. Renov also taught college and perhaps the academic arena was his first love. While he was a nice man, Dr. Renov did not exactly have a way with children or teens. He was formal and reserved. Our confirmation class was made up of three boys. On Sunday mornings, we would meet with Dr. Renov in his small overheated office. I don’t remember what we studied in his class, but I do remember the musty smell of the room, the hiss of the radiator, and struggling to stay awake.
Our temple did not have a youth group and after my Confirmation in 1975, there were no activities for the teens at my temple. Despite Confirmation, I enjoyed being at temple and wanted to find a way to continue to spend time there with my friends. Along with a couple of friends, I started a youth group. We contacted the local region of NFTY, (North American Federation of Temple Youth), then called CRaFTY (City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth). Before long, the CRaFTY regional advisor paid a visit to Temple Judea. Howard Jaffe, the advisor, was a college student at the time. When I became a regional leader, I got to know Howard pretty well. Howard wanted to become a rabbi. Though I was already wondering if this was the career for me, I had never met anyone who wanted to become a rabbi.
Soon I was attending regional NFTY events where I met other people my age who wanted to become rabbis, and some who were a few years older and already in rabbinical school. At places like Kutz Camp and Eisner Camp, I met Eric Gurvis, Elyse Goldstein, and Danny Freelander. Like Howard, they were all going to become rabbis. I met other people who would go on to work in the Jewish community, like Ira Schweitzer, who would become an educator, and Amy Dattner, a song leader.
Though my parents wanted me to become a doctor (what else?), I knew that medicine was not the career for me. Until NFTY, I knew what I did not want to be — but I did not know what I wanted to be. After becoming involved with NFTY, I knew that I, too, wanted to become a rabbi. Many of the people I met through NFTY and at Kutz and Eisner became my role models. They were smart and kind and even funny. And like me, they loved being Jewish.
Of course, not everyone who is involved in NFTY becomes a Jewish professional. My road to the rabbinate was not a direct one. In the decade between my involvement with NFTY and beginning my studies at HUC-JIR, I often worked as a temple youth advisor and religious school teacher. I became an active member of two congregations.
I did not know much about the rabbinate when I decided to become a rabbi. I had only been to a few synagogues and did not know many rabbis. It was the young adults who worked with NFTY who became my role models. Being a rabbi is much more than simply a job or career. When I met Howard, Eric, Elyse, and Danny they were not yet rabbis. More than just career role models, they were my models for the kind of life I envisioned for myself. All these years later, I am still amazed that I am now a colleague of theirs.
Rabbi Victor S. Appell is Congregational Marketing Director and part of the Marketing and Communications team at the Union for Reform Judaism.Rabbi Appell grew up in the Reform Movement, serving as a regional NFTY president and a staff member on Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. Rabbi Appell was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1999, and began working for the URJ in 2005. He, his husband, and their two children live in Metuchen, NJ.
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.