The Walkman Generation – NFTY in the ‘80s



By Rabbi Roxanne J. Schneider Shapiro

More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath; the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people. – Ahad Ha’am

When I reflect on NFTY in the ‘80s, I would revise Ha’am’s quote to:

More than Reform Jewish teenagers have kept NFTY; NFTY has kept Reform Jewish teenagers.

I cannot speak for all who were involved in NFTY in the ‘80s, but for me, NFTY was a holy sanctuary – it was what I would refer to as a beit midrash (house of study), beit t’filah (house of prayer), and a beit k’neset (house of meeting), all in one.

Teens in the ‘80s were learning about Judaism ‘on the go.’ We were the “Walkman generation.” Finally, we could take music with us. This represented more than just music on the go ― for us it was the beginning of portable Judaism. I practiced for my bat mitzvah service with a cassette tape in my Walkman. I could play my tapes of NFTY I, II, III, IV, V, and my MoVFTY mix tapes over and over in the car, on a walk, and at NFTY events. Our music and our experiences were not limited to places where a music box could be plugged in; rather, they were everywhere. We were learning that Judaism was not limited to our homes and synagogues―it could be taken with us.

In high school, we learned English, science, and history, but NFTY was where we went to really learn about the world around us. We explored social justice issues that were in our own backyards, not just talk about them. NFTY was a safe space where we could ask questions, be vulnerable, and learn. We explored gender issues, the nuclear arms race, Black-Jewish relations, AIDS, and hunger. We craved the lessons and the chance to learn more―to uncover the truths that the world was not yet speaking about openly. We wrestled over the fact that we used the term “J.A.P” with our Jewish friends, but cringed when we heard others refer to us that way. We were introduced to and inspired by Anselm Rothschild, a young Jewish composer who served as faculty at Kutz, and for many of us, our first connection to someone who would die of AIDS. These discussions and these interactions brought us out of our secular worlds of avoidance of sensitive topics, and helped us to become the shapers of our world.

We were all so committed to believing that “Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha’olam” (You and I can change the world). We sang the song with passion and we believed. We joined hands, studied issues, and we acted. We stood proud for Operation Moses (Ethiopian Jewry) and against apartheid (South Africa), held hands (Hands Across America 1986), and marched on Washington (Soviet Jewry 1987). NFTY resolutions became our mantras. We boycotted grapes and Nestlé products, believing with all our might that if we all joined in, we could make a difference. And when businesses changed their practices for the better, and when people gained their freedoms, we knew that we had played a part.

When I peruse Facebook these days, and consider the lives of all of those who made my NFTY experience what it was, I am impressed by all we have sought to do. From those who now serve their cities and states as elected officials to those who work in social service agencies and as teachers, from those who raise their children to be caring individuals to those running businesses that promote good values and ethics, and, of course, to those who have chosen the Jewish professional world to touch the lives of teens (thanks to those who made a difference in their own lives), I know that it is in no small part due to their experiences with NFTY in the ‘80s.

We thought then that we kept NFTY strong, but really, NFTY made us strong. And I bet, if you ask NFTYites of the 1980s, we will tell you that, despite all the challenges we know we have faced and still will face, ultimately, we believe that together, “you and I can change the world.”

Rabbi Roxanne J. Schneider Shapiro is the rabbi and Director of Life Long Learning at United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis (the only congregation that can boast having two former NFTY Presidents currently serve as its rabbis). After being a devoted MoVFTYite, serving as Regional President and Regional Secretary, she was NFTY’s North American President (1989-1990). She was YGOR (Rockdale Temple) Advisor in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and became a NFTY-OV Life Member in 2001. She has been honored to have a true recognition of what l’dor vador (from generation to generation) means as her former congregant, Andrew Keene, was elected NFTY President this past year.

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