Dancing My Way Into NFTY
by Sarah Ruben
I am a third-generation NFTYite and URJ camper, so it was a given that once I was old enough, I, too, would participate in NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement. When the time came for my first regional event, however, despite my familiarity with NFTY and my excitement at finally being a part of it, I was shy and nervous.
Until the dance session. When it was announced, I perked up, excited by the idea of doing something I’d been doing since childhood.
An energetic and eccentric young man – let’s face it, we were all somewhat eccentric back then –introduced himself and the session, explaining that we were about to start “Israeli Folk Dancing,” something we would do together at every NFTY-NEL (Northeast Lakes) regional event. Often referred to in Hebrew as rikudei am, or simply Israeli dance, it began in the 1920s as part of an effort to cultivate an Israeli national culture and to celebrate a return to the Jewish homeland. Since then, thousands of dances have been choreographed to Hebrew and popular Israeli music. Familiar with Israeli folk dancing from my summers at the URJ camp, OSRUI, and from a range of other experiences, I was eager to participate in something that was comfortable and beloved. The young man began teaching a dance and as I danced, holding hands with the people next to me and immersing myself in the steps, my anxiety faded away. Looking back, I realize that by the time I left the dance session, I was much more comfortable and confident than when it began.
A few months later – as the time approached for the next year’s regional leaders to be selected – I overheard one of my acquaintances ask another about who might be a new dance leader. I’ll never know if I was meant to overhear those comments, but I spoke up, expressing a strong desire to facilitate Israeli dancing, and highlighted my qualifications, including familiarity with a repertoire of Israeli folk dances and past experience as an assistant dance teacher at my ballet studio. With my acquaintances’ encouragement, at the next regional event, I auditioned for and was appointed as one of the regional dance leaders.
That year as a dance leader set me on a leadership path within NFTY that culminated in a year on the NFTY North American Board as the Programming Vice President. To this day, I don’t know if I would have forayed into official leadership positions without that prompting or the opportunity to connect through dance.
Over the years, I continued to lead Israeli dancing. In college, I developed an experiential course framing Israeli folk dance as a lens through which to view Israeli culture and history. For example, I taught early circle dances and we discussed how the circle, in which everyone is equidistant from the center, represents the social equality that was sought by the kibbutzim (collectives founded in the early years of the modern state of Israel). Later in the course, I shared dances set to contemporary music, and we examined translated lyrics to gain modern perspectives on Zionism. In time, I taught a similar course to teens at the URJ Kutz Camp. Many of the participants went on to incorporate Israeli dancing into programming in their own temple youth groups and NFTY regions. For many of these teens, as it was for me, dance was a way to connect.
Some people connect through conversation, others through singing. Some people work toward social justice, others study traditional texts. I dance. I am incredibly fortunate that my NFTY region incorporated Israeli dancing into every event. In this context, dance made me comfortable and gave me access to learning, growth, and leadership opportunities I might otherwise not have had. NFTY recognizes, of course, that not everyone dances, but rather that each person develops his or her own modes of connection. Throughout its programming, NFTY incorporates diverse ways for us to connect, offering myriad ways for us to grow individually and communally.
Sarah Ruben works in experiential Jewish education as an early childhood teacher at the JCC Manhattan. In 2005-2006, she served as the NFTY Programming Vice President.