The following is a board report delivered by Matt Ghan at the March Board of Trustees meeting at Emanu-El Senior Youth.
The first thought that most people have when they hear NFTY Convention is “What is that?” NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth. In February, NFTY held its bi- annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia with 1,000 teens and 300 staff members, or youth professionals, in attendance. The theme “Myself, My Community and My World” was the perfect definition of everything that we were about to explore in our journey throughout the weekend.
It’s hard to put into words the impact of NFTY Convention. Attending this event is one of the moments in my life that I know will lead to me always being involved in the Jewish community. My best friends, brothers and sisters stem from this very community of teens and will remain my best friends for the rest of my life.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed by NFTY/URJ staff members and rode busses to the hotel. The plane ride may have been exhausting, but the weekend was about to make us forget about that.
First event was Shabbat. We experienced different T’filah options that challenged what it meant to pray in a communal environment. In addition, we explored what God means to us. For my Friday night Shabbat Service I chose “Shabbat Around the World” which gave me and other participants the opportunity to explore the common melodies and songs that we know around the world in different languages. We learned about Shabbat in places like France and The United Kingdom from our very own NFTY Regional Directors who came to America. The highlight of course was when we all came together with the added fun of camp music and melodies that lasted all night.
The interactive workshops not only gave me the opportunity to challenge my beliefs, but learn the beliefs of those all across North America. One of my workshops was “Anti-Semitism in Europe.” The speaker gave his own thoughts that started a debate in the room from different perspectives that I have never thought about before. This workshop also gave examples showing how living in California, we are more liberal and diverse and only deal with Anti-Semitism sometimes, or at least think that we do. Participants from Texas talked about the type of abuse they deal with being Jewish. It shows how lucky we are to live in a place like California.
Other workshops included leadership development and ways to strengthen youth groups from the core. These workshops ranged from Marketing to Program Development and so much more. These workshops were led by youth professionals that work for the URJ, NFTY and local synagogues. I took a workshop called “Doubling Your Youth Group in a Year Ain’t so Hard”. I learned about tools to use and how to build relationships through phone calls and through in-person relationships. In addition, I took a workshop all about marketing. EESY has so many places to grow and I cannot wait to see all our teens wearing EESY shirts, lanyards and pins in the future.
We also learned about how to take a stand for Israel through the ARZA – The World Zionest Congress. Many of us did not even know what that was until we heard the speech and learned how important our vote is. As teens, we are often times so busy with our school and social lives that we forget what Israel is going through. We need to make it a point to be informed on Israel so that when we hear from those with different perspectives on Israel we have the tools to present respectful, truthful facts.
One can only be in the hotel so much. Am I right?? The experience continued with offsite trips in Atlanta and of course ending with some fun which you might not expect. We had the opportunity to choose from about 20 different offsite trips, ranging from colleges in the area, to the largest service organizations in the Atlanta like “Medshare” and everything in between (like the church where Martin Luther King belonged to and spoke at when he changed our country for the better). I went to “Medshare,” which is a non-profit organization that sends medical supplies all across the world. Along with 30 other NFTYites we learned about the relief effort that is taking place in Africa with the Ebola effort, and even boxed all sorts of medical supplies to be shipped to doctors helping fight the cause. After a morning of work, the day continued when we all collided at the Atlanta Zoo for the some animal seeing, pre-party and to close out the fabulous day with a Dan Nicolas concert. Jewish teens partying and celebrating who we are is something no-one should miss out on! Wait, did I mention that it was NFTY-only access to Atlanta Zoo before the concert occurred, and it was 29 degrees? Brrrrr!
Did I even mention the speakers yet? NFTY Convention had the most exciting and engaging speakers for the youth movement. The weekend started off with Eric Lesser. You may not recognize the name, but you probably recognize what he has done. Lesser worked for President Obama during his first campaign and then his presidency, and currently is a Massachusetts State Senator. He is probably best known for starting the now Annual White House Seder. He told us how open President Obama was to this tradition. In addition, we heard from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism about how NFTY is growing and moving toward the URJ 2020 vision. One of the most impactful speakers for me especially was Colin Goddard, a Virginia Tech shooting survivor who was shot 3 times. He is not only surviving, but fighting for gun violence prevention, and wants to change the norm of hearing about school shootings and gun-related deaths daily in our country. His personal story, with the harsh statistics of 33 people being killed by a gun everyday, was inspiring and made everyone in the room want to fight alongside him. NFTY Convention brings different issues and challenges all of us to fight for a better world.
One of my favorite parts of convention was the joint afternoon programming of NFTY and BBYO. That’s right, nearly 4,000 Jewish teens in one room to celebrate being Jewish in the world and fighting for a better one. This the first time in history both movements have come together in such a large capacity to learn, pray and send Judaism into the 21st century. This was the largest gathering of Jewish teens in the world. The afternoon started with a kickoff from leaders of both movements, including the presidents of NFTY, and BBYO, then a study session from the week’s Torah potion concluding with joint workshops. These workshops ranged from how to double the size of our chapters/Temple youth groups to how to fight for Israel in a confused society. We often forget the goal of youth engagement and worry about the name of the organization. The goal is to EMPOWER youth with a strong Jewish community and strengthen our world in the 21st century.
From this convention I was so moved and inspired by the respect, love and community that NFTY provides. NFTY is a symbol for those who have found there voice in Judaism. We are the next generation of leaders. I hope I will see many of my friends at URJ Conventions as we take our places in our temple communities. The future of NFTY looks amazing, and convention showed me and many other Jewish teens what being Jewish really means. The tears at the end of the weekend were the perfect representation of how these moments touch the lives of teens around the world. For me, every tear is one of inspiration that came straight from my NFTY family.