By: Garrett Layton, NFTY Religious & Cultural Vice President 2018-19
Everything really is bigger in Texas: the Whataburger drinks, the spiders, the attitudes, the campfires (one of which literally lit up the sky Saturday night), the weather, the list I made after visiting NFTY TOR (Texas Oklahoma Region)
The country roads took me to a home I didn’t realize I belonged. While It wasn’t my first time to Greene family camp, this was an experience entirely different from Veida this past February. I saw a different camp, one with a partnership between the Greene community and NFTY that, while not perfect, is strong and supportive. Greene hosted their own Fall Camp for elementary- and middle schoolers – they joined us for tziyyum and Havdalah on Saturday, interweaving a youthful pizazz with the just-as-loud, just-as-playful NFTY TOR community. These were all the same kids, all at different places in their Jewish journey.
Prior to our song session with the younger group, we had the chance to attend an offsite program at a self-sustaining community in the area where we learned about environmentalism and saw how they were using somewhat antiquated craft and agricultural techniques to lower their waste impact on the environment. The opportunity was one I’m happy to have had with the group, as they demonstrated a strong commitment to preventing climate change. When we debriefed on the program back at camp, the participants were eager to find ways they could get involved.
This weekend was also the first opportunity for many of the participants to gather in a Jewish community since last week’s tragic shooting in Pittsburg. I had the chance to watch these teens convene with advisors and staff to have their voices heard, and to discuss their feelings and concerns in the aftermath of a horrible moment. I was inspired to see that the teens didn’t linger on their thoughts of fear; instead, they all mentioned an important transition in their thoughts, wanting to know how they could change things in their community. I felt the same way. I was happy to see that these teens, just a few years from being able to influence decisions in our government as they start to vote, were already eager to start making change and being active participants in civic engagement.
I hadn’t realized fully, until hearing from the teens, that Texas doesn’t have a large Jewish presence. Many teens noted they were one of few, if not the only, Jew at their schools. Their peers in classes don’t know the full story of the Pittsburg shooting, or the dangers we face by outwardly expressing our Jewish identities. But the NFTYites I met in TOR, just like those throughout every region, aren’t afraid; they are motivated like no other group I know to ensure that they will see a significant change in the climate surrounding religious and cultural freedom in their lifetimes.
The teens I met were more than just serious, however. They were also incredibly welcoming, caring, and funny with a brash undertone that seemed consistent throughout the region. The bits and jokes were flying constantly, raw and uncut like the smiles that rarely left everyone’s faces. I was overjoyed to be welcomed into the community and felt just how big that something is when we’re all a part of in NFTY. I felt it when we huddled together under a fireworks show with the Fall Camp participants, staring up at the big-and-bright stars. I know I’ll be counting the days until we can meet again at NFTY Convention 2019, deep in the heart of Texas.