What do you get when you mix 1,000 teenagers, musicians, a selfie stick, and uninhibited enthusiasm for social justice?
A few weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege to address NFTY Convention, the largest gathering of Reform Jewish teens in North America. This biennial conference convened teens, young adults, alumni, and congregational leaders for 4 days of learning, celebration, and action, centered on empowering teens with agency to shape the world they want to live in.
As Vice President of Youth for the Union for Reform Judaism, my job often entails answering a lot of questions about youth engagement – why does it matter? How can we meaningfully engage more youth? How do we keep Jewish children and teens connected to the Jewish community as adults? At NFTY Convention, rather than answering the “why,” I watched with amazement as our teens demonstrated the “how.”
Over the course of four days, teens selected a social justice theme that anchored their learning for the entire conference, experimented with different creative expressions (i.e., music, poetry, movement, etc.), and ventured out into Chicago in pursuit of tikkun olam. They willingly engaged with tough issues – racial justice, pluralism in Israel, immigration and economic injustice, and more.
One of the most moving experiences was watching our teens lead each other. 17-year-old Joe Lichtenstein, winner of the Wendy Blickstein D’var Torah competition, gave a beautiful d’var Torah about what Torah has taught him about leadership. Sophomore Jacob Rubin won NFTY’s song competition with an original composition about the importance of standing up for others, even when it means challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone. And on Shabbat morning, NFTY President Kathryn Fleisher gave a d’var Torah with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, rallying NFTY teens to lead our Movement and heed the call to build a more just, whole, and compassionate world.
At NFTY Convention, every room I walked into was filled with music. Throughout the hotel, teens sang and played guitar together; the plenary hall erupted in song each night with Alan Goodis and Dan Nichols; attendees cheered on their friends as they shared original music inspired by Torah and the winner of the NFTY song competition brought down the house. Powerful speakers inspired our teens and brought them to their feet. Pastor Chris Harris underscored the importance of interfaith relations and moved us all with his powerful rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of Character Day, shared her approach to creating global social change, asking teens, “What will you will into existence?”
NFTY Convention was an incredible gift that together we gave our young leaders. As one teen reflected, “Here I am, sitting next to people I’ve never met…these so-called strangers don’t feel like strangers anymore but like an incredible family that I finally had the chance to join.” WRJ was a critical partner, as you have been for more than 75 years since the founding of NFTY, in offering our teens the space to create the Jewish community they crave. Through the YES Fund’s support of NFTY Convention, scholarships to attend 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and generous support of Kutz Camp, the teen leadership academy, WRJ has long been at the forefront of ensuring that our youth develop deep, personal connections to Reform Judaism.
When I think about some of the questions I often get asked, such as “How do we keep teens meaningfully engaged in Jewish community?” I only must listen to the reflections of our teens to find my own answers. Together with your partnership, NFTY Convention created a space for our teens to unlock their potential – as Jews, as the young leaders of today, and as the world-shapers of tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
What NFTY Convention Attendees are Saying:
“People were excited to be with their friends, learning about things they cared about, and dedicating themselves to the movement. It was a beautiful feeling to be surrounded by so many people who are passionate about the same things I am, all connected by Judaism, but with so many unique pieces.” – Lauren, NFTY Convention Fellow
“My favorite moment at one of the plenaries was when Pastor Chris Harris spoke. He had so much energy and passion that it really got the entire room up and they were quite attentive to him... It was very empowering to hear that there are people outside of the Jewish community who are involved in Israel.” – Zoe, NFTY Convention Fellow
Miriam Chilton, Vice President/Youth, has worked at the URJ for the past nine years in a variety of functions. Most recently she served as Director of Strategy, Finance and Operations for Youth, Camp and Israel Programs.