By Rabbi Jonah Pesner
I have been fighting for NFTY since I was a teenager myself. I loved being on the CRaFTY board in the 1980’s. CRaFTY stood for City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth. We were so arrogant as New York City kids, we believed there was only one city. In truth, NFTY connected us to kids from all over North America and Israel, so we used to say it with an ironic smile. I loved being on CRaFTY board because I discovered I had power as a Jew. I learned I could join with other Jewish kids and have a real impact, as we organized conclaves, marched in Washington, travelled to Israel and so much more. It was OUR community – we chose the topics of Judaism we wanted to study, we ourselves became teachers of Torah, and we made choices about the kind of Jewish community we wanted to be.
One day, our wonderful advisor, Rabbi Elaine Zecher told us that “they” were going to close down our region. We demanded to know who “they” were, and how they could possibly do that to us. It was the first I had ever heard of the then UAHC (now the URJ), whose staff had decided we weren’t engaging enough kids in CRaFTY to justify the expense of a regional advisor. We were outraged. We argued back. “What are you going to do about it?” she asked. It was typical of Elaine. She knew the best way to teach us to take responsibility for our community, to become leaders, was to both challenge and provide opportunity. Up to that point she had supported us in learning how to study Jewish sources and then create inspiring learning experiences for our peers; she had opened the doors to Jewish social action and guided us to work for our values. Now she was testing whether we would fight for what we cared most deeply about: our own Jewish community.
“What are you going to do about it?” she repeated. So we organized our peers. Every board member was responsible for recruiting ten kids from school or other networks to bring to CRaFTY events in the future. We were determined to triple the number of kids to show the UAHC people we were serious, and we wouldn’t let them take CRaFTY away. And we won.
It’s time to fight for NFTY again, and for all Jewish teens. In the Reform Movement, only twenty percent of kids who become bar and bat mitzvah are still engaged in temple life by the time they graduate high school. So I hear Elaine Zecher asking me again: “what are you going to do about it?” And I am calling out to NFTY, asking: “what are you going to do about it?” Where are your friends? Where are your peers? How can we keep them engaged?
The Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) is a Reform Movement-wide effort with teens, rabbis, cantors, educators, youth workers, professionals, camp staff, parents, lay leaders, and more, all working together for a common purpose: keeping our kids engaged in our own Jewish community.
Join us. Dream with us. What will it take? What will temples have to do differently? What will rabbis have to change? What will the URJ have to commit to do? Bottom-line: what is NFTY going to do about it? At last year’s NFTY convention in Dallas, hundreds of you helped discuss this issue and shared your vision. Your board is on the Vision Team of the CYE. They are helping to draft a Call to Action for our entire movement. NFTY, you are at the center of that Call. Watch for more detail as we get ready for the URJ biennial and NFTY leaders convention in December, as the Call will go public.
Your day has arrived. It is time to lead!
Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the Director of Presidential Transition at the URJ and Founding Director of Just Congregations. He was the Meyer W. Nathans Scholar at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion where he was ordained in 1997. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Rabbi Pesner is married to Dana S. Gershon. Together they have four daughters, Juliet, Noa, Bobbie and Cate.