This is My Campaign: The NFTY President Reflects on his Biennial Experiences

“Finally, I want to give a shout-out to… NFTY, I understand, is in the house.”
-Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America

After having the unbelievable privilege of meeting and speaking with President Obama about 30 minutes before he spoke to the URJ Biennial participants, I had a feeling he was going to say something about NFTY. But even having that slight feeling didn’t prepare me for that shout-out to us. The second our four favorite letters came out of his mouth, goosebumps erupted over my entire body and tears welled up in my eyes. NFTY, what was once just something I went to on the occasional weekend…

NFTY, what some people consider just another youth group…

NFTY, what I once thought of as just a bunch of Jewish kids getting together for a little spirituality from time to time…

was now so huge and important that the President of the United States mentions us twice in a speech to over 5,000 Reform Jews.

And boy did the President have it right: NFTY was in the house during the URJ Biennial. There were over 200 of us, making us the largest number of NFTYites at a Biennial in ten years. It was enough to require more pens, more paper, and more hotel rooms than we could ever have imagined. Oh, we were in the house alright.

Forrest greeting Rabbi Eric Yoffie as he prepared to adddress the NFTY Leaders Assembly at Biennial

As with any NFTY event, there were friendships kindled and rekindled when NFTYites arrived on Thursday afternoon. The energy was ever-present. Right off the bat, Subie Banaszynski, Interim NFTY Director, and I introduced Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism. A NFTY Board alumni himself, and a participant during the very fist summer at Kutz in 1965, Rabbi Yoffie welcomed us and urged us to take in and take home as much as we could over the course of the weekend. And those days flew by. In the blink of an eye, NFTYites from every corner of our reaches were deeply engaged in programming on both the NFTY and URJ sides of the event. I had an absolute blast and want to share a few highlights:

• NFTY took up more than 200 seats during the record-breakingly-huge Shabbat t’filah and dinner on Friday night… history in the making!

• NFTY Programming Vice President Liza Moskowitz and I hit the ground running with our new project related to this year’s Study Theme. We’re heading up a book made by NFTYites for NFTYites about being a Reform Jewish teenager, and the participants of the NFTY Leaders Assembly were lucky enough to be the first batch of teens whose work will directly contribute to the book’s creation. Stay tuned to find out how you can be a part of this, too!

• A chaotic organization of all of us on the staircases and a spur-of-the-moment decision to lead the NFTY cheer in front of passing adults (and hotel security) is a moment forever frozen in my mind!

• NFTY Social Action Vice President Avra Bossov’s devotion to the year’s Action Theme shined during our time out in DC, where we identified various human divides related to the monuments while touring. Spending some time in Georgetown for lunch and perusing museums was fun, too!

• Before President Obama arrived, NFTYites entering the ballroom received a standing ovation from the adults and proved, firsthand, the respect that the adults have for our youth movement. Also expressing total support of the Reform movement’s youth, the URJ its incoming president Rabbi Rick Jacobs accepted the Campaign for Youth Engagement as their number one priority for the coming years. All of us are so thrilled to have NFTY as a part of this monumental time in the URJ’s history.

• Meeting our new Director of Youth Engagement, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, who comes to the URJ with a passion for youth and a zest for Jewish life. NFTY is proud to welcome him back home to the URJ, and we look forward to his new role, and his partnership with the youth of our Movement, those in NFTY, and those who choose other ways to meaningfully engage in Reform Jewish life.

At NFTY Convention in Dallas this past February, Rabbi Yoffie reminded us, or perhaps taught us, that being a Reform Jew is not about sitting there and letting life pass us by. Jews have never just let something happen. Whenever injustice or tragedy has plagued a nation or a people, or when there is a need that we can provide, Jews have stood up. NFTY specifically has taken action when we’ve felt it necessary; projects like NFTY Supports Haiti Relief, Nothing But Nets, The Million Quarter Project, and the NFTY-Katrina Challenge have shaped some of NFTY’s proudest moments. Inspired by Rabbi Yoffie’s message from Convention, Avra, along with NFTY Religious and Cultural Vice President Austin Zoot and Membership and Communications Vice Prosident Taylor Lyles put together a program about taking a stand for issues that ignite our passion for justice. Participants opened their eyes to times and topics of action in Jewish and NFTY history and, in the end, proudly exclaimed what they stood for. It was truly an epic moment.

If we can fire up President Obama, we can fire up anyone. Liza, Avra, Austin, Taylor and I know we can. We know you can do anything: fundraise an unheard of amount for your Temple Youth Group, demand that the adults listen to you and your perspectives and the perspectives of your peers who weren’t or aren’t yet engaged in Reform Jewish adolescence, fire up your younger siblings and the future NTTYites to take your place in your youth groups or camp, write or adapt a kick-butt program that will teach or rock the world of your region.

Time in NFTY is short. Even someone who starts at the very beginning and sticks with it to the end only gets four years. Don’t let those years go by without making an impact on someone or something or some place. Don’t you dare let that time slip through your fingers. Go out and take advantage of your NFTY life… grab it by the horns. Don’t you dare sit and wait for your NFTY life to come to you. You aren’t passive. There is no such thing as a passive NFTYite. I’m here to make sure that you reach your personal best while you’re in NFTY… make the most of each and every opportunity available to you while in NFTY… repair as much of the world as you can while you’re in NFTY… change someone’s mind and expand your horizon as many times as you can while you’re in NFTY. While my four fellow board members and I are still in NFTY, we will make absolutely sure that you have access and the ability to do everything you set your mind to.

This is my campaign.

Forrest Yesnes is the NFTY North American President, and a Freshman at the University of Minnesota. He can be found on twitter at @NFTYPresident and on Facebook at nfty.org/NFTYPresident

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