Blog  How the URJ Camps Prepared Me To Be A NFTY Leader, part 5

How the URJ Camps Prepared Me To Be A NFTY Leader, part 5

Future North American Board members Forrest and Taylor Lyles, at Kutz in 2010

I don’t know how I was ever convinced to go to Kutz. I had attended Mechina (the regional board training event held for five days at Kutz before the official summer session opens) in the summer of 2009, and was planning on attending again in 2010 for my second year on regional board. However, instead of just a small suitcase and carry-on like my first Mechina, in June of 2010 you would have seen me with my huge blue, bursting duffle bag and even larger, invisible bag full of self-doubt and insecurity. I had grown up around kids and parents who swore by Jewish camp. And, in NFTY, there was always the group of teens at events who would compare NFTY to URJ camp life, or kids who didn’t go to NFTY events because they heard it was much too different from camp. So, I obviously had my share of doubts (probably two or three shares) as the bus bringing Mechina participants back to the airport drove out of the gate and the bus bringing the participants from the airport to Kutz for the summer came through the gate and parked on the Kutz driveway. As a seventeen-year-old, my first summer at Jewish camp was about to begin.

I struggled with Kutz for a long time while I was there. At home, I had only just started to become more comfortable with NFTY, and now I was dropped into another, arguably very different community, doomed to have to start over on the awkward journey of acceptance. And worse, since I ultimately made the decision to go to Kutz, I was the one dropping myself into it! I often returned to my bunk at night and complained to my fellow cabin-mates about how uncomfortable I was wrestling with where I fit in at Kutz. I considered myself a leader, yet was I falling by the wayside in Warwick as just another participant? How did I love NFTY so much, and yet couldn’t find my place in NFTY’s summer home?

I soon realized why I was having such a difficult time. In other parts of my life (school, family, friend groups), I always knew what was expected of me. At Kutz, however, because it was a new environment, I wasn’t as familiar with the routine and expectations of its participants. Kutz made me the leader I am today because I controlled my own life there. I perpetuated my own learning. I strengthened my own identity. Kutz’s daily schedule works around majors, minors, electives, t’filah, meals, all-camp programming, and free or cabin time. Each participant forms their own path there. You sign up for a major when you register to attend. Each week, you choose a different minor topic out of handfuls of options, and you stick to it. With each day comes more random and fascinating elective choices. During free time, participants are mentored and empowered to create their own activities for each other. I was used to someone holding my hand through teaching me how new things work. But at Kutz, it was up to me, the participant, to help decide how to make each day unique and special.

I’m a better leader because Kutz taught me, directly, that it’s up to me to decide my own fate. If you don’t grab life by the horns, then someone or something else is going to do it for you. If that happens, who knows where you’ll end up? But, if you do take the reins and mark your way towards a destination, you will end up somewhere that is just right for you. You will end up in a place that challenges you, that rewards you in ways you never could have imagined… a place that will welcome you when you come, and a place that will always be there for you to come back to.

There is a hand-written note on the dry-erase board on Melissa Frey’s office door, indelibly left by former NFTY intern Andrew Morstein. I note that it was left indelibly, because Andrew chose to write it in Sharpie marker rather than the readily available dry-erase marker (I am sure for good reason). It reads, “When it becomes clear that no one around you shares your level of passion, you are where you belong.” That place for me is at the URJ Kutz Camp, 46 Bowen Road, in Warwick, New York 10990, NFTY’s summer home, and mine for many years to come.

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