By Andrew Keene, NFTY President
It was so meaningful to provide an update on NFTY in the company of so many friends, supporters, and alumni of NFTY at the URJ board meeting this past week. And equally meaningful to be gathered in a city where the Reform movement has such deep roots. It was in Cincinnati, just down the road, where NFTY leaders gathered in 1939 for the first time to establish NFTY as a Jewish teen movement. NFTY looked very different in 1939 when it was founded by the Women of Reform Judaism. It was for college age teens, it had no governing document, or history of leadership but what was the same was the excitement, passion, and commitment to shaping the Reform Jewish experience for young people. 75 and a half years later, there has truly never been a more exciting time to be a NFTYite. Just a few weekends ago, over 2,000 teenagers representing 232 URJ congregations were engaged in NFTY programming. This past weekend, one of the largest in recent memory, illuminated the fact NFTY’s registrations are up 5% over last year. Not only that, every NFTYite who wanted to attend a NFTY regional event was able to. Wait lists and registration caps no longer keep teens at home when they have the opportunity to be with NFTY.
One of the most unique things I saw this year was the tipping point where the Campaign for Youth Engagement became campaign championed by TEENS. We are so thankful to our adult partners who have worked so tirelessly to make me and my peers a priority in the movement. But I have to say, the most amazing thing is that now my peers are standing up and working just as hard in this partnership to engage our own peers. THAT is a win for the campaign. For example – we know cost is a major barrier to entry into NFTY and Jewish engagement. NFTY’s New York Area region, led by president Jack Nienaltow in partnership with regional director of youth engagement, Mike Fuld, challenged his region to raise $10,000 such that any teen could attend his/her first NFTY event at no cost. Through donations ranging from $10 to $5000, they have already surpassed the $15,000 mark and are now working towards $50,000. This initiative is just one example of how teens are taking ownership of shaping our movement using the framework of the CYE.
In February, six regional leaders of NFTY were elected by their peers to serve on the North American Board of NFTY for the next year. These six individuals are alumni of the URJ Kutz Camp, HUC Study Weekends, URJ Biennials, NFTY Conventions, and all took very unique paths of leadership before being elected to serve in this leadership role. One of these newly elected leaders is Debbie Rabinovich who will be serving as NFTY’s 75th North American President. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina and a two-year regional board member, Debbie has also served on the URJ Resolutions Committee, spent a summer in the regional board leadership track at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY, and is the first female NFTY President in 5 years! Debbie brings a unique ability to truly connect with her peers, build consensus, and challenge the status quo. In a movement recalibrated toward building relationships and networks amongst teens, her leadership will be instrumental in moving us toward a new definition of NFTY leadership and I am excited she will be able to share her insight and skills with this group of our movement’s leadership throughout the year. Debbie will be critical in the planning of an historic NFTY Convention, in partnership with our friends at colleagues at BBYO. And to echo the efforts of our partners in ARZA, the incoming NFTY Board is ready to mobilize teens in preparation for the WZO election of which the results will deeply impact the Israel our NFTY teens care so deeply about. Debbie and her board will be installed at NFTY Mechina, our movement’s leadership preparation event later this month at the URJ Kutz Camp.
This year, I had the honor and privilege to take a gap year to dedicate my year to NFTY, teen leadership, and the Reform Movement. This flexibility and time allowed me to truly engage with NFTY on the ground, and work with these communities our teens lead. Being able to engage with more than half of our NFTY Regions, 3 L’taken Seminars, dozens of synagogues as well as the Reform Jewish teen experience in London and Israel has opened my eyes to what NFTY and Reform Jewish teens really looks like across the world. I learned three crucial things I want to share with you: Teen leaders are most successful when they work in partnership with skilled mentors and adults. Teen movements are most successful when values inform priorities, teens have the forum to share their skills and expertise, and teens are empowered to build relationships to bring more young people into our holy work. And finally, teens are most engaged when Judaism is in sync with the 21st century
There has never been a more exciting time to be a NFTYite. And there has never been a more exciting time to be connected to NFTY. I urge you to not wait until Debbie delivers this in December in San Antonio to find out what NFTY is doing. See for yourself the amazing work of NFTY in your synagogue and NFTY region. Your mentorship and support is invaluable and NFTY is only enriched when it is supported by our movement’s highest leadership. Thank you.