The URJ North American Board of Trustees convened in Baltimore, MD this week. As part of their gathering, URJ North American Board Youth Lay Partner, Shelley Niceley Groff; outgoing NFTY President, Lila Greene; and incoming NFTY President, Maya Levy shared the following remarks.
Lila Greene is from Seattle, WA, a member of Temple Beth Am. As a very active participant and leader in her congregation, her journey to regional and North American NFTY leadership was natural. She was a madricha (student teacher) for the religious school, active in many ways in her congregation, and served two terms on NFTY Northwest’s regional board. During this time, she was also a camper at both Camp Kalsman and Kutz Camp for many summers. During her term as NFTY President, Lila championed our efforts to deepen and expand the relationships between leaders of all ages. She and her board were elected in the days following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – and have been leaders in making statements and helping their peers mobilizing in the wake of many gun violence episodes since. Lila has also been active in advocating for deepening our commitment to Israel education and engagement throughout the movement. She will be attending American University starting this fall.
As Lila finishes her term as NFTY President, I am excited to welcome her to share a few words reflecting on her experience and introducing her successor.
Thank you, Shelley. This past year has been a whirlwind of experiences. I was elected three days after the Parkland shooting and was immediately swept up into the incredible and heartbreaking response lead by my friends. As I was preparing for the URJ’s participation in the March For Our Lives event in DC, I remember thinking to myself “this will be the most important thing that happens during my presidency and my term hasn’t even started yet.” While I was correct in thinking that our fight for gun violence prevention would define some of my term, I was mistaken to think that this rest of my year would be anything less than a year full of “the most important things that will happen.” Fast forward to now, I find myself flying into the same airport as I did the weekend of the March. It feels very full circle.
Looking back at my term, I am still awestruck by strength, power, dedication, and love I see my friends leading with every day.
- This year, NFTY held more 400 local and regional gatherings, and close to 3,000 teens had active leadership roles in convening their peers.
- Within those gatherings, NFTYites have logged hundreds of thousands of hours engaged in Israel education, mental health and wellness awareness, and Sexual Violence Prevention work, among many other topics.
- Two thousand teens have returned to our regions and congregations after participating in a L’Taken Social Justice Seminar with the Religious Action Center.
- We are seeing that our overall engagement numbers – both unique participants and return attendees – are trending up.
While these numbers show the incredible outcomes we create and can brag about, I often think about how each of these experiences came to be. Behind each hour of programming is a teen who decided that this was the most important way to spend their time. Behind each event is an incredible board of leaders that dedicated their time to tirelessly plan an amazing gathering for their friends. Behind each statistic we have, there is a face, a voice, a passionate Reform Jewish teen.
This year, I was given the honor of attending seven different NFTY regional events. Each one I attended reminded why I chose to run for this position, and why I chose to be part of and lead this important movement in the first place. There is something special about NFTY and NFTY teens. I used to wonder what was it about this youth group that created this kind of environment? Who is it, or what is it, that taught our teens how to build such an amazing community? I believe the credit belongs to strong emphasis of acceptance, love, and community we are taught in our religious schools, camps, and temple youth programs. How did I end up on this stage? It’s because of the push from my brother to go to my first event and from my camp friends to come back. It’s because my youth advisor encouraged me to run for regional board. It’s because my parents sat me down and told me I should run for North American Board before I’d even brought it up because “it’s obvious how much love and dedication I feel for this youth group.”
It’s easy to think that I am some anomaly of a teen leader – the one that “made it through” all of the drop off points… But I assure you that I’m not. I am the same as the teen you see greeting people before religious school, or volunteering in the temple office, or singing in the choir at services. There are thousands of teens that do what I do every day back in your congregations. I hope that when you go back home this weekend, you take a moment to say hi to that teen to see every week. Ask them why they’re here. Ask them about what excites them, what makes them angry, what they love to talk about – and then find a place for them to participate beyond the traditional youth space! They’re all there for a reason and they want to contribute in ALL parts of synagogue life. My peers are amazing people – and I’m eager to ensure that we continue to increase the number of young voices involved in Reform Jewish leadership – at synagogues, through NFTY, and in as many arenas as possible.
There are so many “thank yous” that I want to share – but mostly, I want to thank you, the URJ Board of Trustees, for your ongoing support of NFTY and youth programming. In particular, I’d like to thank Daryl Messinger (Chair of the North American Board of Trustees). At NFTY Convention this year, my peers created legislation asking URJ leaders to be more transparent to and inclusive of young leaders. The process of proposing this legislation, debating it, discussing it was complicated – and, in the end, the reality was that it was just a recommendation and request to widen the leadership. During our Asefah (business meeting), Daryl and Miriam Chilton, Vice President, Youth, joined us to hear the conversation and participate. At one point, one the NFTY leaders stood up to say, “If we pass this, how do we know it would even result in any action”. At this point, Daryl stood up, introduced herself, and said “As the Chair of the URJ Board, I can assure you that your voices are heard and needed in all of our conversations. And I am committed to working with you to ensure this comes to reality.” Daryl, this moment represents a true commitment to and trust in us as partners. I know you have already been in touch with Maya to talk about how to expand the voices from my peers on the committees that help lead Reform Jewish life. Thank you for being a role model to your peers on how to lead with us – and I’m grateful for your openness and outreach.
As my term concludes, Maya Levy from Tucson, Arizona, NFTY Southwest Region, will take the reins of this great movement. Maya, I am so proud of you and I couldn’t ask for a better friend to be leading NFTY this year. I’m honored to welcome up Maya Levy, the current NFTY President!
Thank you Lila, and thank you all for welcoming me so kindly into this special community! This past year has been one of change and growth within NFTY – and we know that more change and growth is coming. I am immensely excited to continue to help our youth movement do just that – move forward, reach new heights, engage more people, more ages, more regions. Part of my role this year is to be in contact and conversation with teens across North America. I am also eager to help each of you connect with young people to deepen your leadership of our movement – please don’t hesitate to reach out me for help and or support in your outreach to middle and high school students in your synagogue. As Lila mentioned, there are thousands of teens like us who are eager to be at the table, to join the conversation. There are so many ways to think about bringing them into the conversation, but I’ll leave you with one – please consider inviting a teen to join your congregational delegation at Biennial this December. As Rabbi Jacobs said, we want to see you all there – and I hope you’ll help a young person find their way to this event as well. NFTY has a bright future ahead and I am so lucky to be able to watch and support it this year!