By Ivy Cohen, Youth Director at Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont & Emanu-El
The last Biennial I attended was in 2007 in San Diego. I did not know what to expect of Biennial and could not imagine just what thousands of Reform Jews looked like. I didn’t know how many of my former camp counselors I would reunite with or what Jewish musical legends would share their talent with the community. I didn’t know what Shabbat would resemble or if it would be as powerful as Shabbat at NFTY convention. I didn’t know if Debbie Friedman z”l would remember meeting me while I was on NFTY in Israel. I had countless uncertainties. On the bright side, I had a long flight from New York to daydream and imagine what Biennial would be like. Even so, upon arrival in San Diego, I was a scared out of my pants college freshman. I was also the Religious and Cultural Vice President of NFTY. That Biennial changed my life. I witnessed the magnificence of Reform Jews in large numbers. I schmoozed and shook hands with the key leaders of our movement. I rode the elevator with Rabbi Yoffie. I led Havdallah along with my board for the whole Biennial, knees shaking and off-key, but it didn’t matter. I was on cloud nine. In that moment, I decided to pursue a career within the Reform Movement.
Yesterday, walking through the doors of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center was somewhat of a daunting moment. I became filled with the same nervousness and excitement I used to feel before each NFTY event or opening day of camp. For the first time my nervousness outweighed my excitement. I have been to my fair share of URJ events, some large some small, ranging from biennials and NFTY conventions to small committee meetings at the New York headquarters. For the first time I am experiencing a URJ event simply as a participant. I am not in charge of creating impact, change or a meaningful experience for anyone but myself, as I select what workshops and sessions I want to attend.
As I approached the registration table I looked down at the vast quantity of ribbons available to tack on to credentials, a small token to show off varying degrees of involvement within the Reform Movement. I started sifting through the mess of ribbons And came across those that applied to me. I couldn’t decide whether to pick and choose, or take all that were applicable. I decided on the latter. URJ Kutz Camp Alum, HUC-JIR Student, NFTY Alum, URJ Camp Alum- Eisner, and NFTY In Israel Alum all explain monumental milestones in my Jewish journey; however, there is one that I know explains a transformational and substantial experience in very few words: NFTY Board Alumni. I know at this biennial, this ribbon is worn by few, and the few who wear it are proud to do so.
I am moved by the Campaign for Youth Engagement more than I could do justice in words. I want more than anything for all Reform Jews to instill the values in their children that my parents found worthwhile. I believe if every child whose parents identified as Reform Jews got to experience even a week at a Reform Jewish summer camp, the world would be an entirely more beautiful place. I cannot put a value in what my Day School education did to shape me as a Jew; however, I know that if my experience at Solomon Schechter was so incredible, a Reform Jewish High School would have been so beyond words. The University of Delaware provided me with a rich environment to become involved in many student organizations, some Jewish others not. Similar to every other phase of my life, most of my friends were Jewish, but they were different. My college friends were so far separated from their Judaism. Rosh Hashanah was nothing more than an excused absence from class and Yom Kippur was a day to go home and eat bagels. The Jewish friends I made who are so utterly disconnected from their Judaism along with my already strong foundation solidified my plan to pursue not only my career but to further my learning. HUC-JIR’s Certificate in Education Specializing in Adolescents and Emerging Adults program has provided me with a forum and incredible network of people who are just as compassionate about the holy work of being a Jewish professional as I am. As a Jewish youth worker, I believe firmly that every congregation should see the value and potential in having a full–time youth professional. Above all else, I am moved by the campaign because I fear the day is all too close where there will be no high-school senior interested in running for NFTY RCVP.
My days of “fame” as a teenage youth leader in the Reform Movement are now years in the past; however, I am more motivated than ever to provide the foundation for the youth of our movement to pursue their Jewish future. There will always be one too many extra curricular activities, and I am forever grateful that fifteen year old me decided I could cut out one of my varsity sports to fulfill the responsibility of youth group President. I only wish more teens would make the same decision. As a NFTY Board alumnus I am privileged to be a member of a distinguished group of individuals, each of whom during their monumental teenage years made the decision to choose youth group over something else. Our youth groups, camps, day and religious schools are worth the battle that our leaders have embarked us on. The road will not be short and free of bumps, but the day when we are touching the lives of all Reform Jewish youth is just on the other side. I am here today as a full- time youth professional, a proud senior staff member of a URJ summer camp and a NFTY board alumnus and I am determined to empower and shape the lives and identities of Jewish teens for many years to come. By 2020 I hope and know it is a real possibility that many teens will aspire to be Jewish leaders. By 2020 I know that instead of our movement continuing on this path of becoming obsolete, we will be able to reach our youth through creative programming and a wealth of opportunities. I know we are capable, and I know we will succeed. This is my campaign.