NFTY at 75 – Think Big
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.
–Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Kol Dodi Dofek, (based on RaMBaM’s Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)
At the first CFTY leadership training institute that I ever attended, I took away a simple and direct meta-message: Think big. Don’t settle for mediocrity, and stop doing the same things over and over again. It was an exciting time, just days after the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton as they came together to sign the Declaration of Principles – part of the Oslo accords. CFTY quickly got organized and put together 5,000 signatures on our “Megillat Shalom,” which affirmed our commitment and support for (what we thought would be a lasting) peace in the Middle East. Signatures in hand, we took our scrolls to New York. With the help of then ARZA Director Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, we presented them to both the UN’s Israeli Ambassador and the UN’s official Palestinian Mission.
For a youth movement, ‘think big’ means not accepting the status quo. During my NFTY years, and especially while I was president of the Chicago Area region, we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to be a Reform Jew. We debated the oft-quoted seemingly cliché catch phrase “choice through knowledge.” We realized that for most of our peers, that phrase symbolized a convenient way to rationalize a do-whatever-you-want approach. In our attempt to ‘think big,’ we wondered what it would mean for members of our movement to take on more ritual observance. Would NFTY make it possible for teens to attend events if they preferred not to drive on Shabbat? Would NFTY accommodate those who kept a different and more stringent policy of kashrut? Would NFTY engage Hebrew speakers or did “inclusion” encourage, if not enforce, a lowest common denominator approach to Jewish life? I knew that the next chapter in my life would be dedicated to answering those questions.
Of course, instead of answers, came more questions. Much has been written about the effects of long-term Israel programs on Jewish identity and involvement. For the past 14 years, the Birthright Israel program (not a long-term experience) has defined the success of a visit to Israel as a force in creating Jewish identity, the core motivating factor behind the existence of the program. My time on EIE and subsequent return visits turned out to be the most meaningful and formative of my identity. I came to feel that we in the Reform movement had missed the boat, and were playing ‘catch up’ to the greatest drama of our people’s collective existence ― one that I wasn’t going to miss. Zionism, for me, became the manifestation of my identity search. Identifying with Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ben Gurion, Kook, and Magnes, I found that there is no Judaism without Israel, and that Israel is a deeply Jewish entity.
In Israel, I found a place where the meta-narrative of the Jewish people is common knowledge, and where the Jewish public culture eliminates the age-old Diasporic minority complex. It was NFTY that brought me to Israel, and it would be through NFTY that I would attempt to impart my love of the Land, the importance of peoplehood, and a deep connection to Jewish culture, literacy, and tradition, by leading trips and teaching Jewish history to younger NFTYites.
I was fortunate to have mentors who taught me how to teach, including Baruch Kraus, Rabbis David Forman z”l and Lee Diamond, Uri Feinberg, and Amy Geller. They showed me what it means to care deeply for what Israel is, and even more for what it could be.
Having come on aliyah, I realized that simply living in Israel was not, as some may argue, a substitute for Jewish living, engagement, and mitzvot. It was incumbent on me to figure out where my ‘red lines’ were and what being Jewish would look like in Israel. Would I still go to synagogue? Would I drive on Shabbat? Would I make ritual and observance decisions differently in Israel than I would have stateside? My answer was yes.
Joining the Reform movement in Israel and congregation Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, I assumed a different level of knowledge and background. Welcomed into a community of youth-movement graduates who had come to Israel looking for the same things that I was seeking, I felt at home. I wanted to become part of this movement that had so much to offer, not only to an ex-Patriot Zionist olim like myself, but to Israelis, for whom the old-time polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular no longer answered the needs of the mainstream.
As I sung Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” while leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a Kiryat Gat boarding school it hit me. I realized that this familiar melody I had grown up with at camp and NFTY, composed by a Reform cantor, was evoking similar feelings in a group of Israeli kids of Ethiopian, North African, and Russian origin ― who had never been part of NFTY, gone to camp, or heard of the composer. At that moment I understood that it was time to take my Reform Zionism to another level. Aliyah was one step. Though I was a century too late to drain the swamps and build the kibbutzim, it was the time to join our movement to help build Reform communities in Israel and offer religious alternatives to those who were searching.
Today, as the President of ARZA, I think back to the simple direct message I got as a teenager. We must think big; we must not settle for mediocrity, and we must utilize our strengths ― to build community and find the right formula for religious existence. Learning from the magic and strength of Israel we must build a Jewish society, and continue to challenge and further what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Fortunately, we can do this together, since our relationship with our Israeli movement is growing and becoming stronger. My single dream for every Jewish high school student is to receive the same gift that I was given – the gift of time and study in Israel. Let’s use these experiences to build and to be built, and not take “no” for an answer.
Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).