Blog  How NFTY Influenced My Commitment as a Reform Jew

How NFTY Influenced My Commitment as a Reform Jew

Last month, I had the pleasure to reconnect with a predecessor of mine, Mark S. Anshan. Mark served as the NFTY President in 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War. Mark is a native of Canada and NELFTY (NFTY-NEL) and has a rich history of involvement with the community, camps, and synagogues. At NFTY-NEL’s Derech Atid (leadership training event), I was able to present Mark with a certificate of NFTY Lifetime Membership, NFTY’s highest honor. Mark is currently a URJ Board member and embodies the leadership we value in NFTY and for that reason it was an honor to be able to both present Mark with this award as well as hear his incredible NFTY journey of which he shared with the region on Shabbat morning and is detailed below.

Andrew Keene
NFTY President

By Mark S. Anshan, NFTY-NEL Alumni and former NFTY President

Today we begin with Genesis – B’reishit – the beginning of the world according to our Torah – and the beginning of the narratives in Genesis that lead to the beginning of the Jewish people with the story of Abraham and all that follows.

It seems like an appropriate parsha for us to reflect on NFTY and NFTY NEL and to share with you some personal history and thoughts about our Reform youth movement.

Although I wasn’t there at the beginning when NFTY was established in 1939, I was there in the sixties – an interesting and exciting time to be a teenager in North America and active in our youth organization.  In some ways, the sixties was actually a new beginning for NFTY given the change of focus to social justice issues prompted, in no small measure, by what was happening in the United States – the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam war and the changing cultural norms that informed how we lived as young people in those years.  I’m being diplomatic with this comment – it was – as you may well know – quite a wild time – with many of us finding new found freedoms – which given that this is a Shabbat sermon, probably best not to go into too much detail.

My involvement began at a very early age.  My parents had a significant impact on my engagement as a Reform Jew starting with attending religious school at Holy Blossom Temple.  My Consecration and Confirmation class pictures are on the walls of our Temple along with my the class pictures of my sister, brother and my two sons – who are fourth generation members of Holy Blossom.  My Bar Mitzvah – April 11, 1964 – which as it happens is the birthdate of my wife – more about that in a moment – took place at a time when NFTY was undergoing significant changes.  That summer I attended Eisner camp.  The camp was much different then.  It was a formal estate that a wealthy father had built to have a place of peace and serenity for his disabled daughter – according to the history.  There was farming on the site before the URJ bought the site and created Eisen Camp, and we lived in the chicken coups that had been converted into boys cabins.  Social justice issues were emerging as the main focus of our activities, as I mentioned and our programs and projects were for the most directed at tikkun olam.  Kutz Camp opened in 1965 and I went there as a camper in 1967 and remained at Kutz as a Leadership Institute leader, staff and faculty member through to my last summer in 1975.  An old cabin down by the lake was converted into a peace centre and from there we organized programs at camp throughout the summers, prepared resource materials on war and peace issues that were, in turn, circulated to our youth groups through the NFTY regions.

In those years, our regions each had their own unique name.  In this region we were NELFTY – North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth.  NEFLTY’s original name was LEFTY – Lake Erie Federation of Temple.  It was changed in the fifties during the height of the assault on left thinking intellectuals and artists that figured prominently during what has become known as the McCarthy era.  Having served as the President of our junior youth group at Temple, I had the depth of experience to take on leadership roles in NELFTY, first as the Chair of the Goldman Oratorical Contest, Torah Corps Institute and Debates.  The following year – 1968 – I was elected President of NELFTY.  That year, none of our youth groups could host the Spring regional event at which elections took place, so we had our NELFTY spring event at the Sheraton Foxhead hotel in Niagara Falls.  This was years before the casino was built there so we were pretty safe in the hotel except for the large number of NELFTYites who ran around the hotel throughout the night.  Fortunately, we avoided any lawsuits.

1968 was also a very important year for me personally.  At our summer conclave at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ontario, I met for the first time Brenda Spiegler.  She was from Bradford Pa, one of our smaller communities but they had a wonderful youth group and an amazing rabbi, Allan Levine who served as NELFTY’s rabbinic advisor.  Brenda and I – well – what can I say – we became as they say “an item” after camp.  Brenda takes great delight in reminding me I was with someone else during that camp conclave.  What can I say?  Brenda came to Kutz the following summer when I served as chair of a leadership institute.  We ended our time at Kutz on our first formal date – seeing the broadway show “1776”.  Brenda’s mother wasn’t so sure about all of this so we had to meet at the theatre.  We went our separate ways after that – because I was stupid – Brenda went to Brown and then did her Ph.D and began her career in Washington.  I did graduate work, entered the Canadian foreign service for several years, and went back to law school, becoming a lawyer in 1984 – the year we got back together.  We married in 1987.  We have two sons.  Our first son Micah was born in 1989.  In thinking about boys names, there was nothing to think about because Brenda and I had decided back in 1969 (when we were at Kutz) that if we married and had a son, we would name him Micah.  So when Micah was born, that was one decision already checked off.  Adam was born in 1992.   Both boys went to Camp George – a project I helped create in 1999.  Adam has remained with Camp as a camper and staff member and this past summer was the first summer he missed as he went to Israel as a member of the Canadian rugby team for the Maccabiah games.

Back to NFTY.  Following my year as NELFTY President, I was elected NFTY first vice-president in 1969.  My dear friend Doug Kahn was President and we remain very close friends.  Doug is a rabbi and serves as the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.  We worked very closely together that year and with another NFTY officer, our third Vice-President, David Barish (from Houston) who also remains a close friend, we arranged for NFTY to support Abie Nathan’s Peace Ship project, and we visited him on the ship before it was retrofitted and left New York for the waters off Israel.   Abie Nathan was an Israeli humanitarian and peace activist, having served as a pilot in the 1948 War of Independence and devoting his life to securing peace for Israel.  He bought an old cargo ship and converted it into an offshore radio station called “Voice of Peace”.  He bought the ship with the help of John Lennon and sailed it outside Israeli territorial waters. The station broadcast 24 hours a day, mostly English-language programs that mainly included popular music, and promoting messages of peace to Israeli and Arabs.

In 2005 he was voted the 44th-greatest Israeli of all time in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet to determine whom the general public considered the 200 greatest Israelis. On 10 June 2007 the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality passed a resolution to post a commemorative plaque on the Tel-Aviv boardwalk at Gordon Beach, opposite where the Peace Ship had been anchored. This memorial plays recordings of the Voice Of Peace, including the station callsign in Nathan’s voice and an explanation in both Hebrew and English.

We supported Abie Nathan because we believed strongly that Israel’s security – it’s future rested on achieving peace – this was just two years after the 1967 Six Day War – Israel was very much on our minds.  Interesting though is the fact that while we were supportive of Nathan and peace for Israel, NFTY’s engagement with Israel didn’t reach the level of intensity until a few years later.  Other that the Eisendrath International Exchange program, we did not have any significant travel programs to Israel until the early 70s when Rabbi Stephen Schafer and Rabbi Allan Smith – also a good friend of mine – brought Israel front and centre to NFTY.  The establishment of our Kibbutzim – Yahel and Lotan in the Arava – was the beginning of our permanent presence in Israel.  The founding garin for Yahel were made up of friends from NFTY and Israelis who wanted to be part of the Reform creation of settlement in the land of Israel.

In 1969 Doug and I – together with our beloved NFTY director – Rabbi Hank Skirball – led the first NFTY contingent to the URJ (then known as the UAHC) Biennial in Miami Beach at the Fountainbleu hotel.  Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of the Union supported the attendance of the sixty NFTYites who came with us and let the delegates know often during the convention that we were there.  Doug gave a keynote address to the assembly and we spent late evenings singing in the hotel lobby with Theodore Bikel, the famous singer and actor who has performed more than 2000 times as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Just before we went to Miami for the Biennial, NFTY responded to a request for submissions to a Senate hearing being held in Washington.  Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure was holding hearings of this subcommittee in an effort to gather evidence to show that the Nixon administration was administering the draft in a discriminatory manner.  No other NFTY officer was available to travel to Washington so I – a Canadian – was asked to appear on behalf of NFTY.  Senator Kennedy was very concerned with the discriminatory aspects of the draft in that college deferments were available to students from the upper echelons of American society and discriminated against poor people, the majority of whom were black and not able to attend university.  Our position was at variance to the Senator’s and we had an interesting exchange.  Months later I received a thank you note from Senator Kennedy with a copy of the proceedings.

The next year – 1970 – I was honoured by being elected the first Canadian NFTY President.  It was a time of significant change as we were in the process of changing national directors.  I was asked if I would like to work for NFTY and I deferred my entry to university and served full time as NFTY President at the Union office in New York, working alongside our professionals and traveling every weekend to regional events across the country.

Ping pong was an important part of our time at Kutz Camp.  Many of us played the game and were very serious about it, including many of the NFTY Presidents.  In 1971 at the end of my term as NFTY President, the ping pong table at Kutz Camp literally felt apart.  We needed a new one.  But the camp director told me that there was not a budget for a new table.  I called on my close friends, the three who preceded me as NFTY President and together we each donated money, bought the new NFTY President’s Ping Pong Table and put up this plaque on the wall in the common room under the diningroom.  Many years later, on a visit to Kutz Camp someone told me that the plaque was sitting in a desk drawer.  I took it to make sure that it would never be lost and I appointed myself the custodian of this memorable plaque.

In 1973 at the Biennial in New York City, some NFTY friends and I visited Rabbi Eisendrath just before Shabbat began in his suite.  An hour later he passed away of a heart attack and his presidential sermon that evening was delivered by the Vice-President, Rabbi Alexander Schindler.  Those of us from Holy Blossom attended a memorial service on the Sunday – Rabbi Eisendrath was our rabbi before he left Toronto in 1943 to become the Union President.  He was buried at the Holy Blossom cemetery in Toronto the next day.  It was, as you can imagine, a very difficult and sad time for those of us who knew and worked with him.

After becoming a lawyer, I continued my activity and involvement with the movement, serving in many different roles – as Chair of ARZA Canada, Chair of ARZENU – the international body of our Reform Zionist organizations, Chair of the movement’s Jewish education commission, a vice-chair of the Union and for many years I have continued to serve on the Board of Trustees and several of its committees including the National Camp committee and Camp George.  Most recently, I completed my term as President of my Temple.  In all these positions it was a privilege to serve – I learned more from these experiences than I contributed.  And I hope that many of you will do the same when the time comes.

As we were growing up, we were often told by our adult leaders that the future is with us – the next generation.  Indeed, many of my close friends went on to careers in the Reform movement.  You probably know some of them – Paul Reichenbach has been with the Union working and directing the camp and Israel programs since 1974.  Rabbi Dan Freelander became a Union regional director following his ordination and now serves as the Senior Vice-President.   Loui Dobin became the founding director of our Greene Family Camp and still serves in that role.  These are three of many NFTYites who have committed their professional time to the Reform movement.

Now it is for those of my generation to say to each of you – that the future is with you.  Your commitment as Reform Jews – the time you spend at camp, in your synagogues, in Israel – the time you spend with your teachers, your youth advisors, your friends, will set the stage for the exciting and wonderful lives you will live as you begin the next phase of your life journey.  Our hope is that many of you will find the passion and desire to serve either as professionals or lay leaders – as many of us have – to lead our movement – indeed the Jewish community – in order that we – as Jews – will continue to live Jewish lives, identify as Jews, understand the critical importance that Israel is to all of us – yes be leaders for our community – in time you will have families of your own – we hope that you will impart the Jewish values that you have learned and experienced to your children – and that in the fullness of time – you will say to them –  that the future rests with them – and, in doing so, you will have ensured the survival of the Jewish people and, in turn, made certain that we as Jews continue to do our part to make this world a more peaceful and safer place in which we live.

Shabbat shalom