NFTY was founded in 1939 as the youth arm of the Union for Reform Judaism (formally known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations). It was created at the urging of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods in order to provide an outlet for young people to engage in the life of their synagogues. NFTY’s early membership was comprised of college-age youth, rather than high school, and its national officers were in their twenties. At that time, there were three NFTY regions—Pennsylvania, Chicago, and New York.
Growth in the number of Temple Youth Groups (TYGs) and NFTY regions continued steadily without significant change until 1948. At that time, NFTY held its last National Convention (until the 1980’s), adopting a new constitution that created major structural changes in the young organization: NFTY Conventions were dropped in favor of summertime Leadership Institutes, the membership of NFTY was dropped from college to high school age, and the regions were given a relatively larger share in determining program and policy.
In 1951, NFTY entered the camping movement by, for the first time ever, holding its Leadership Institute at the Union’s newly purchased camp in Oconomowoc, WI. The camp, which would later come to be known as the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp, was the first of a now thriving group of URJ camps. Since their creation, they have influenced the lives of thousands of NFTYites who have come to the camps for summers of work, study, and fun.
1952 was NFTY’s bar mitzvah year. As a programming gimmick, the idea of emphasizing “mitzvah” programs and projects that “serve others rather than ourselves” was introduced. This idea has influenced NFTY ever since.
1954 was a year of significant expansion. In addition to two National Institutes, the number of regional summer camp sessions exceeded one dozen. The first NFTY Advisor’s Institute was sponsored, and an experimental first NFTY trip to Israel and Europe was launched. The number of regions passed the 15 mark, and the total number of regional conclaves exceeded 100. The NFTY Office published two newsletters and dozens of programmatic resources.
Read more about NFTY in the 1950’s in our blog post, The NFTY 50s.
1960 was NFTY’s 21st birthday, and so it took the theme “Coming of Age,” and marked its coming of age by announcing: “ Naaseh V’Nishma — We Will Do and We Will Hearken.” The Naaseh V’Nishma program was NFTY’s first attempt to guide local TYG programming by providing guidelines for balanced excellence.
In 1961, NFTY inaugurated the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) Program, in which three boys from NFTY went for a semester of study to the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa, Israel, and three Uruguayan girls came to NFTY homes in the United States. Today, this program now called Heller High, is an exceptional High School Semester in Israel program, which usually sends over 100 NFTYites per year to Israel.
From 1962-1965, NFTY focused on innovation in international programming. The NFTY Summer Antiquities Tour brought NFTYites to see the sights and meet the Jewish youth of Europe and Israel. The NFTY Bible Institute provided a thorough touring experience in Israel. Mitzvah Corps programs sprung up in Puerto Rico, Israel, and Mexico, as well as in New York and Chicago. Today, almost every NFTY Region has local a social action program.
In 1965, NFTY acquired a new summer address: its own national camp—the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Beginning that summer, Kutz became the site for NFTY’s Leadership Institutes, Board Meetings, and other national programs.
In the late 1960’s, NFTY’s emphasis on mitzvah led it to the forefront of social action programming. NFTY stressed in all its programming that young people could really make a difference in the world. In addition, the use of guitar in NFTY worship and NFTY songs became an important trademark for NFTY and eventually the Reform Movement as a whole. The number of NFTY Regions in this period totaled 21.
In 1970, NFTY began to offer outreach programming to its alumni on college campuses, with one of its first programs taking place at the Military Academy at West Point. Those programs grew into the URJ’s College Education Department.
Throughout the 1970’s, NFTY’s international program expanded. The NFTY Israel Academy replaced the Bible Institute, and increasing numbers of groups went each summer. While NFTY Mitzvah Corps in Israel grew, NFTY added an Archeological Dig to its summer travel menu. By the end of the decade, hundreds of NFTYites were experiencing Israel each summer.
Starting in 1971 with a one hundred dollar loan for the URJ, NFTY also began to record its music on albums. These albums helped create a sense of movement as the music was now easily distributed throughout North America. Today, NFTY continues this tradition.
The URJ Kutz Camp began a major innovation in 1972. The various programs for fostering leadership skills, Jewish study, and creativity that had each been offered separately were combined into the NFTY National Academy. Noted professionals and scholars were called upon to bring their expertise to NFTY. At the same time, the NFTY National Torah Corps at the Kutz Camp developed a program of serious Jewish study and exploration for leaders seeking to deepen their Jewish knowledge and identity.
In the 1980’s, NFTY’s Naaseh V’Nishma program was replaced by the Chai project, then the Kavod Award, the Tikkun Olam B’Shem Adonai Award Program (TOBA), and then the Tikkun Olam Program. The program offered flexible guidelines for well-rounded TYG programming based on the NFTY Study Theme each year.
In 1983, NFTY reintroduced the NFTY Convention in Washington, DC. NFTY Conventions are now held every other year in a major North American city. The events also created a professional training opportunity to bring together adults who cared about young people under the auspices of the URJ Youth Workers Conference.
In 1993, NFTY and the Association of Reform Zionists in America (ARZA) formalized their relationship, further committing NFTY to Israel and to North American Zionist activity.
In 2005, at the NFTY Convention in Los Angeles California, NFTY finally formalized their relationship with Netzer Olami (Noar Tzioni Reformi), the international Reform Zionist youth movement. In a historic plenary meeting, the youth delegates voted and the resolution passed to become an official snif (branch) of Netzer Olami. NFTY is now proud to boast that they belong to the largest youth movement in the world.
In 2019, the URJ Kutz Camp hosted its final summer leadership institute. While its doors have closed, its influence lives on in Reform Jewish leaders around the world.
Today, NFTY boasts hundreds of TYGs in 19 NFTY Regions throughout the United States and Canada, has both NFTY regional events and NFTYx events run by synagogues and supported by NFTY, and has sent tens of thousands of young people to Israel.
In the more than eighty years of its existence, NFTY has touched the lives of literally thousands of young American Jews through the programs it runs and the relationships it fosters. NFTY has influenced both the Jewish community and the world as it has let its voice be heard on the issues that confront us as Jews and as human beings. NFTY alumni, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have taken their places in the leadership of the Reform and general Jewish community, both in North America and in Israel. Graduates of NFTY Programs are prominent in the creative, communal, political, and Reform Jewish spheres. These alumni agree that NFTY has helped its participants grow as people, as artists, as leaders, and as Reform Jews. We look back at our history with pride and look to our future with hope.