The following is a speech former NFTY President Forrest Yesnes gave to the Women of Reform Judaism as the 2011 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial at the Gaylord National Convention Center in Washington, DC.
By Forrest Yesnes, NFTY President
Thank you. My name is Forrest Yesnes and I’m this year’s NFTY President. I am a freshman at the University of Minnesota and my family has belonged to Temple Israel in Minneapolis since 1964. In 3 unbelievably short years I have transformed from an awkward, boring high school sophomore with few goals and not a lot tying me down to a confident, driven, passionate, inspired young man with a much stronger idea of who he is and what he wants to do with his life. And I have NFTY to thank for everything.
NFTY… for some, it’s just an outlet from school, a chance to be someone else for a few weekends at a time and escape the everyday stresses of life back home. Others attend kallot to see friends from camp again, to reminisce about the last summer and express excitement about the coming one. Some NFTYites have siblings who laid the groundwork for them to be involved, others create their own identity as they go. Some label NFTY their only connection to Judaism, others say it’s one of many. For everyone, though, NFTY is a second home, a place where they can come with opinions, leave with more open minds, expand their horizons when it comes to working towards tikkun olam. NFTY engages teens in youth-written programming, relevant study, and t’filah that, before NFTY, was never considered, like services where we text our opinions and feelings about prayers or dress up in costumes or share pictures from our trips to Israel. For developing and sometimes confused adolescents, this speaks to us.
There is another classification of NFTYite, however: the one who cannot get enough. This girl or boy could never imagine missing a kallah or a Temple Youth Group event; he would be the first one to sign up; she would be the last one on the bus when they head home. These are the leaders of our movement… and not just NFTY, but the entire Union. These are the young people who want to be sitting in your seats in 20 or 30 years, the young people who can’t wait to graduate from an undergraduate program so they can enroll in HUC to be the clergy members that they have looked up to for so long. These are the ones who are here with us in Washington DC this week as a part of the NFTY Leadership Assembly.
And not one of the over 200 NFTYites in DC this weekend are required to be here. They are not forced to be in NFTY, no one is required to attend NFTY events or participate in NFTY functions. These teens, the hundreds, thousands involved, go out and make a difference in the community or in the lives of others because they want to. Each of them is here because they want to be. Teens engaged in camp and NFTY choose their own level of involvement. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s unbelievably phenomenal how these teens volunteer their time to perpetuate their own Jewish journeys forward in the direction they please.
And their passion is not wasted this year. The NFTY board, me and my four colleagues (who, by the way, you will regret not meeting if you walk away from this event without having done so) are not taking these NFTYites’ dedication for granted. We are all working on projects… initiatives we have put together. Liza, our Programming Vice President, and I, with the help of NFTYites from every corner of our reaches, are putting together a NFTY book. A perfect outlet for NFTY’s Study Theme this year, “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li, If I Am Not For Myself, Who Will Be For Me: NFTY Studies the Power of Personal Expression”, and knowing that the emotional ties to NFTY make it difficult for our participants to explain and define its importance, we’re hoping this NFTY book will show adults and future NFTYites alike what it means to live and die N-F-T-Y.
Avra, our Social Action Vice President, has been inspiring her network of regional counterparts to teach about this year’s NFTY Action Theme: “Mishpacha: Family, How Does NFTY Fit Into Our Greater Community? NFTY Addresses Human Divides.” Looking at the segregation of minorities like those who are disabled, gay, poverty-stricken and more, NFTYites do their best to knock down the walls responsible for these human divides. We all look forward to the inaugural NFTY Mitzvah Day where Temple Youth Groups across North America will engage in meaningful service learning projects related to the Action Theme.
Austin, our Religious and Cultural Vice President, and Taylor, our Membership and Communications Vice President, are both collaborating with URJ staff to make NFTY more edgy and green… Austin is striving to make creating services more user-friendly by instigating an online program for writing t’filah. And Taylor is transitioning NFTY publications to an online magazine for easier access and less paper usage. Together, the five of us gather the strength to pursue our goals and ambitions to make NFTY that much more enjoyable to its members. But we wouldn’t have been able to this without the WRJ.
The initial support in establishing NFTY, and the continued support of NFTY from the WRJ is changing the lives of these kids, opening up options and possibilities that would be impossible without you all. It is no secret that the WRJ’s focus is on the youth, and that NFTY has so much to thank you for. For one, thank you for your phenomenal donation to the Campaign for Youth Engagement for $90,000 dollars. No words can describe the recognition you deserve. Also thank you for your support of the URJ Kutz Camp through YES grants. NFTY’s Summer Home has been crucial in the development of many of these teens at our Biennial and across the country. A congratulations is in order as well. With your impending Centennial celebration in 2013, you can bet NFTY will be there to celebrate with you all just like you were there to wish us a happy 70th a few years ago.
I would be remiss if I didn’t personally thank the WRJ wholeheartedly. Every part of who I am today is because of NFTY, any successes that I will have down the road will be, too. The same is true for NFTYites across the United States and Canada, and we would not have encountered NFTY without the Women of Reform Judaism.
Peseekta de Rav Kahana said “Of all the tzadikim, the righteous ones, the most beloved are the joyful and sincere teachers of the youth, who shall sit at my right hand.” Everyone sitting here are the tzadikim, the righteous ones, so let’s join our hands together and continue this partnership together. Thank you.