By Jacob Georginow, NFTY Religious and Cultural Vice President
Throughout Jewish life there are many benchmarks. Some are optional, and some come with tradition. The path I have taken has definitely been one of structure. First there was the bris, than there was Sunday school, then Hebrew school, then my Bar Mitzvah, then Mitzvah Corps, then Confirmation, then NFTY-STR regional board, and now North American Board.
By the end of one’s B’nai Mitzvah, many Jewish youth simply stop taking a Jewish path. Trends show us that around 80% of Jewish teens just stop being…well, Jewish. For those of us who have found our post-bar/bat mitzvah niche, it seems like a wild idea- to just simply stop living a Jewishly structured life.
So there are two big questions: how and why? WHY? It could be a multitude of things.
At the URJ Kutz Fellowship this summer, I had the opportunity to observe and take notes on the Kutz Fellowship program, in which they broke down these stages of childhood and teenage reform Jewish life. The participants were questioned about their own experiences through Hebrew school, and their families’ engagement in Jewish life and the Synagogue thereafter. I heard things like, “My family never pushed me to continue…” or, “My parents promised me that I could stop after I did my Bar Mitzvah.”
WHY do these young Reform Jews develop a negative view on maintaining a Jewish life through their adolescent years? Another type of answer I heard (which upset me because I had a vastly different experience) was, “I hated Hebrew School. It was so boring and it was such a drag. It was a chore to go.” This answer wasn’t universal, but many of the participants in the group I was in shared this sentiment.
HOW do we change this? How do we make it so that NFTY as a movement can stand strong at 10,000 members, or more? How do we reach those teens that are uninspired to become engaged in their Reform Jewish lives? We need to start reaching them earlier. Those of us in Temple Youth Groups have a responsibility as the grassroots movement of NFTY to create amazing programming and fun activities for those younger groups of Jewish children, so that by the time they reach the end of their Bar Mitzvah, instead of saying, “Whew, glad this is over,” they can say, “Whew, now on to the next step!”
So how do we inspire those to join us who haven’t yet been inspired? There is a leadership model that I encountered this summer that explains the difference between pulling and pushing in our our movement. As the North American Board, Regional Board members, and TYG board members, we can pull our regions along as much as we want, but they’ll never go farther than where we pull them. But, if we get under them and push them, there is no telling how far we’ll go and how much success we will achieve.
As my teenage Jewish journey comes to an end, I reflect back on the experiences that have shaped who I am. Regional board was an experience that I will never forget. It allowed me to understand the important connections that TYGs make to their congregations. North American board, even though I am just beginning my term, has already taught me so much. One lesson I’ve learned is particularly important: when we reach a place of leadership, it is no longer about the goals that we own that we see fit for our respective homes. The needs of our constituents become our own, and we shape the movement in their vision.
When my term officially ends next June, it will mark the end of my five year NFTY Journey. I am truly honored and grateful to be one of five NFTY-ites who get this extra year of opportunity. NFTY has been my safety net for keeping a Reform Jewish life, and I am a bit nervous about leaving it behind in my sophomore year of college.
What other experiences lay ahead for me in the Jewish world? Hillel and Chabad perhaps, maybe even a Jewish fraternity. It is all brand new, but I know that because of NFTY, I will have the skills it takes to create yet another meaningful Jewish experience. I will be forever grateful to our movement for providing teens like me with those skills.
It is time for us to start broadening our horizons. It is time for all seven thousand of us to get with our TYGs, have a meeting, and say “NFTY is a great place, but what does NFTY need? How can we make Youth Group event even better than it is now?” We need to start asking, “How can we broaden our Jewish identities, and what would we love to experience in a Jewish light that we may have not been exposed to yet?” All of these questions will strengthen our movement, and create a positive space for those who will soon be acquiring this great land of opportunity after we’ve departed.
Jacob is from West Palm Beach Florida, where he was an active member of NFTY-STR in high school. He is currently a Freshman at the Univeristy of Central Florida. Follow Jacob on Facebook (NFTY-RCVP) and Twitter (@NFTYRCVP).
Continue the conversation at www.reformjudaismmag.org/teens, where four other teens from across the nation share their experiences as Jewish youth. Comment on their stories and let your voice be heard!