By Lauren Lev
“I’d like to go to NFTY convention.”
So says my sixteen year old son in anticipation of February 2013 in Los Angeles, California. In these few words he reflects the depth of his involvement with all things Jewish –especially Jewish youth. But the journey didn’t start (nor end) here.
Flashback to 1:40 PM on a Friday—once in the fall, then winter, then spring. I am introducing (and reintroducing) myself to the East Meadow High School attendance officer, awaiting the beginning of period nine. The halls are filled with backpacks and high fives as Lathan and his excuse pass arrive. We make our way out of the building to the car in the adjoining lot. His weekend has begun.
For the next 48 hours, from early afternoon Friday to late afternoon Sunday he is no longer tortured by Trigonometry. Rather, he will be with peers from his temple youth group (BNTY of Temple B’nai Torah, Wantagh, NY), his region (NFTY-NAR), as well as his greater Jewish youth community and he will be enriched and nourished by their presence.
Most call this “Kallah”, Lathan calls it home.
What’s remarkable about these weekends is the way students like Lathan will get away… to get back and give back. Post-bar mitzvah, it is no longer what we as elder Jews can do for him, but what he can and will do to extend Jewish values for his temple community from the ethical and moral principles explored on these retreats. Lathan and his cohorts take this role seriously.
We drive and arrive at the meeting point for weekend departure and Lathan embarks the bus to socialize with an amazing group of young Jewish leaders– a task as important as the planned activities to come. He has vividly described this moment in the past– the anticipation, the camaraderie — as he recognizes more and more participants every time he returns. There is a light from within him brightening with each friend’s arrival – a brilliance that no “high scoring test grade” or winning goal can match.
Furthermore, the expectations of the weekend do not fail him. There is Shabbat services and dinner, programs with those his own age and then all ages, deep personal conversations, official meetings, songs, dancing, more meals and services. All act as life lessons that help shape his identity and balance what is sacred and secular for a teen in 2012.
When he returns he is rejuvenated for another three months and he seems a lot more invested in the Jewish world around him.
At temple his involvement is stronger. He sings the now recognized and memorized NFTY tunes, music that we, the congregation, are learning for the first time. He invokes the essence of equality among peers when working as a Madrahim/student aide with third graders in our religious school. He runs for youth group religious and cultural vice president and wins. He attends a monthly rituals committee meeting or volunteers for a fund raiser and recognizes that temple commitment is not easy. He rationally understands why other kids dropped religious study after their thirteenth birthday, but in his heart he is sorry that they don’t see what he’s seen and get to feel what he feels. And he wears his youthful association to NFTY on a t-shirt and a rubber bracelet (the standard uniform of my teenager) explaining the initials to anyone who asks.
In a recent thank you to the temple for its continued support, Lathan explained what makes a Kallah so precious:
…We still have the photos, the memories and the inside jokes that will last a lifetime. But as great as NFTY is, the part that makes it more special is that not only are these times fun, but they are times that most certainly need to be seized.
All in all, from shouting the NFTY cheer to saying Berkat ha Mazon with the table bangings, NFTY is a place that I always say is where “there are no egos and just friends. It is a very special place to me and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
NFTY is where Lathan’s character is further developed and tested. It is where his identity endures and grows. And it’s safe among the friends he’s yet to meet in California next year.