NFTY in the 90s
by Rabbi Eve Rudin
CAFTY, CFTY, CNYFTY, CRaFTY, JFTY, LIFTY, MAFTY, MoVFTY, MSTY, NEFTY, NELFTY, NOFTY, OVFTY, PAFTY, SCFTY, SEFTY, SOFTY, SWFTY, TOFTY, WEFTY, WESTY.
Those are the names of the 21 NFTY Regions I grew up with in the 80s. And, yes, we used to have contests to see who could recite them the fastest. When I was active on the North American level, I knew what each “–FTY” stood for.
But there was a problem. There’s a saying in Hebrew, hu meiveen yaveen (he who understands understands), and in this case, only an elite few knew that all 21 regions were actually all part of one organization―a Movement. Stories would pour into the NFTY office about people who would meet on college campuses and say, for example, “I grew up in MSTY” or “I grew up in CRaFTY.” While they would “kinda sorta” figure out that they were similar groups, it was never explicitly clear that they were, in fact, part of the same Youth Movement, one with a shared mission, vision, and set of core values.
In 1994, NFTY President Jeff Berger and his officers decided that it was time to unify NFTY. They understood the importance of every single NFTYite feeling connected to something much larger than themselves. As a result, at the February, 1994 NFTY Board meeting, the NFTY Board lobbied for a shift in name for all regions to “NFTY (name).” The resolution passed, which explains the regional names we use today. Jeff Berger’s hope that every Temple Youth Group (TYG) would adopt the NFTY name in front of its own resulted in a greater sense of cohesiveness―of being part of a Movement and its mission.
As the mid-90s introduced email, IMing, and the internet (it was still pre-Facebook), the sense of NFTY as a Movement was boosted by NFTYites’ new capabilities to communicate with one another, and en masse. Today, it’s hard to imagine NFTY (and the world) without it, but in “days of yore,” NFTY communicated via snail mail, paper newsletters, and the occasional telephone call. New communication technologies accelerated the pace of NFTY activity and gave TYGs direct access to additional resources. Most importantly, advanced communication offered NFTYites more time to connect with one another.
It’s no surprise that just five years after the unifying name change and the advent of email, attendance at the NFTY Convention jumped dramatically ― from 800 NFTYites in 1999, to more than 1,500 in the following years. The numbers have remained at that level ever since.
Popular songs in the early 90s included Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” and En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind.” Bookshelves were filled with spiritual guides and self-help titles. Like much of America, NFTYites experienced a turn inward and often focused on issues of spirituality and religious meaning, with study themes such as “Tifllah: An Exploration of Our Jewish Identity.” URJ Kutz Camp campers learned from Mishnah B’rachot 5:1 about the rabbis not praying until they were fully ready in their hearts and minds. This lead to the (still popular) practice at NFTY services of singing Craig Taubman’s Adonai S’Fatai Tiftach nigun and waiting for the entire NFTY community to be ready to pray. This religious turn was officially marked through the addition of the Religious and Cultural Vice President (RCVP) position on the North American, Regional, and TYG levels. And while Christian rock was already immensely popular amongst Christian youth, it was at a 1999 NFTY Southeast Event that I first saw Dan Nichols, who brought new and updated religious Jewish music to the NFTY scene.
The 90s also witnessed a renewed interest in Israel. In 1993, NFTY became the official youth arm of ARZA. EIE Semester in Israel numbers rose, and NFTY in Israel numbers rose to 1,400 in 1999 and 2000.
NFTY has a lot to be proud of from its work in the 1990s, which helped set the stage for the continually vibrant NFTY of today!
Rabbi Eve Rudin is the Director of the Congregational School at the Park Avenue Synagogue. She previously served as the Director of the URJ Kutz Camp, the Director of NFTY, and the Executive Vice President of NFTY in 1988-1989. She hails from CRaFTY, the NFTY Region formerly known as City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth.