NFTY in the early 2000s: Years of Change and Engagement
By Hope Chernak, RJE
The early 2000s provided many opportunities for teen voices and NFTY,the Reform Jewish Youth Movement initiatives to be implemented in the Reform movement. I joined the NFTY staff in 1999 and witnessed incredible moments during my eight years with NFTY’s teen leadership
The first time I saw firsthand how our teens could influence our Reform Movement was in 2001 when NFTY President Ashley Habas established teen task forces at Kutz Camp to work on NFTY programming. The topics covered globalization, teen issues, Israel, and life after NFTY (i.e., college life). The task forces presented the opinions of teens from across North America to the adult leadership of the Reform Movement, which impacted their decisions and shaped NFTY programming. At the same time, NFTY began to use online list servs; monitored by the regional officers, they collected the content to create a NFTY website which became a forum for all Temple Youth Groups to post and share resources.
The 2000s were a time when our world, close to home, changed significantly. It hit us first on September 11. George Davis, a NFTY Regional leader from New York City, reflected in NFTY’s newsletter Ani Va’tah:
September 11th was probably the scariest day of my life. I go to Stuyvesant High School, which is about four blocks away from the towers. I heard the first plane and saw the second plane’s explosion. I didn’t know what to do. Completely randomly, I had the Gates of Grey [sic Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays] with me and decided to pray. The buildings came down across the street from my school and then they decided to evacuate us.
A few years later, our country suffered a different kind of tragedy. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit our southern states in 2005, the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) and NFTY quickly established funds to help our congregations and regions. As part of the NFTY-Katrina Challenge, NFTY Social Action president Jordyn Jacobs urged Temple Youth Groups to raise money for the NFTYites impacted by the disaster, and teens raised funds for both the Reform Movement’s Hurricane relief fund and to help displaced NFTYites travel to NFTY-Southern to attend events throughout the year.
From those dark and challenging moments we can reflect on days of inspiration. At the2003 Biennial Convention, after 130 years, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Before the historic vote, in front of the delegates in the plenary session, NFTY President Alison Tatarsky received a standing ovation for her passion and this statement:
We are the future and we need you ― our parents’ generation ― to give us a name that says who we are.
Led by our NFTY Executive Boards, the 2000s witnessed the expansion of Mitzvah Corps, offering opportunities for students to emerge themselves in tikkun olam projects. At that time, only Urban Mitzvah Corps and URJ’s Kutz Camp were Mitzvah Corps participants, which allowed only a small population of teens to participate. In order to expand the program, the NFTY Board met with the adult leadership of NFTY and URJ Camps, and that initiative launched a Mitzvah Corps program on the west coast. Since then, NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps has continued to offer teen programs in multiple cities and countries.
In 2005, NFTY became a member ― a snif (branch) ― of Netzer Olami (the youth movement of the World Union for Progressive Judaism). Once again, led by the passion of the teen NFTY leadership, we solidified our relationship with Netzer Olami formally within the NFTY constitution and were voted in by their leadership as full members.
That same year, NFTY introduced Birkon Mikdash M’at: NFTY’s Bencher, (Yiddish for a small prayerbook containing the Birkat HaMazon, the prayer said after eating) edited by Religious and Cultural Vice President Jeremy Gimbel, who brought the project to the leadership of the URJ as part of his NFTY platform. He worked closely with me and many members of the NFTY staff (led by Rabbi Matthew Soffer), Rabbis Sue Ann Wasserman, Andrew Davids, Danny Freelander, Michael Friedman, and Eve Rudin, with representatives from CCAR and URJ Press, to produce a booklet filled with prayers and songs to be used on Shabbat. Until then, only Conservative and Orthodox benchers were available. As Jeremy said in 2005:
It is now our turn to change our Reform movement. I hope that Birkon Mikdash M’at will inspire you to help us make our dreams come true.
Today, just as Jeremy had envisioned, NFTY benchers are used across the Reform Movement on Shabbat in homes and synagogues, and at local Youth Group events.
Today, NFTY continues to be a source of inspiration, change, and growth.
Anne Frank once said, “How wonderful that nobody need wait a single moment to improve the world.” I believe that NFTY embraces this quote each and every day as it leads the way for the Reform Movement to make this world a better place! I’m blessed to be part of many of those moments and look forward to seeing what the future holds for our youth movement.
Hope Chernak is currently the Director of Youth & Informal Education at Shaaray Tefila in New York City where she oversees Israel Engagement and Informal Youth Programming. Hope worked for NFTY from 1999-2007, as NFTY-SER Regional Advisor, Director of Youth and Informal Education for the Southeast region, Director of NFTY Regions & Assistant NFTY Director, and then as Managing Director of NFTY.