Getting Your Teen Involved in Jewish Life: The NFTY Experience
Imagine the scene: To the left, a pile of duffle bags, pillows, and sleeping bags. Front and center, more than 100 Jewish teenagers, arms draped over one another’s shoulders as they say tearful goodbyes and reflect on a weekend together. When they’d joined together just three days earlier, some of them knew no one else in attendance.
Over the course of the weekend, get-to-know you games turned strangers into friends. Technology-obsessed teens who initially ached for their smartphones during Shabbat services found themselves experiencing prayer with new and undistracted perspective, engaging in innovative, peer-led worship. Discussions were Jewishly focused, centered around which Jewish values most impact the teens’ day-to-day lives, what it’s like to be the only Jewish kid in a big group of friends, and how to address global sociopolitical issues – including hunger, global illness, and civil rights – from a Jewish perspective. They took a break from talking in order to put their hands to work in a social action project that directly impacted the local community, laughing and enjoying one another’s company the whole time. By the time the weekend ended, strangers had become friends who had ultimately become a community.
Scenes like this one are a reality across the U.S. and Canada thanks to NFTY - The Reform Jewish Youth Movement. For more than 75 years, Reform Jewish teens from across North America have come together to make new friends, learn about Judaism and the world around them, and live out their Jewish values. While the promise of fun may be the first motivator to join, the long-term effects of the youth group experience drive NFTY’s teens to stay involved in Jewish communal life long after high school has ended.
Not sure if NFTY is right for your teen? Read more and then decide.
Engaging Jewish Teens
Created as a means of providing an outlet for young people to engage in synagogue life, NFTY is the Reform Jewish youth movement, made up of more than 750 local synagogue youth groups and comprising 19 regions throughout the United States and Canada. An affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), NFTY is committed to fostering Jewish leadership at the national, regional, and congregational levels.
Individual NFTY youth groups host their own local youth group events, come together for regional gatherings, and converge with teens from across the continent for larger events. Many engaged “NFTYites,” as they are called, extend their experience by attending Jewish leadership programs such as URJ Kutz Camp and traveling to Israel on Reform youth trips and semester-abroad programs.
Fostering Strong Jewish Connections
“Nine events later, I am here to tell you NFTY has helped to transform an introverted child into a socially conscious, fun loving, actively participating [teen].”
– Cheryl, NFTY parent
NFTY strives to create a holistic Jewish environment that provides meaningful and engaging Jewish youth experiences for Reform teens. Among the organization’s 13 guiding principles are self (tikkun middot), community (kehilah), partnership (shutafut), and fun and spirit (kef v’ruach). Time spent with other Jewish teens, in activities ranging from a few hours to a full weekend long, opens participants’ eyes to the opportunities and challenges of the world and opens their minds to a multitude of perspectives. Teens often attend their first NFTY event without knowing a single other attendee – but leave with new friends and lasting connections.
NFTY’s 13 guiding principles also include history (midor l’dor), the concept of “to learn and to do” (nilmad v’na’aseh), and repair of the world (tikkun olam). Teens participate in programming, written and facilitated by their peers with support from clergy and adult advisors, that ranges from break-out discussion sessions to worship experiences to text studies. Such programming arms teens with resources to continue to live out their Jewish values in their day-to-day lives long after the weekend has ended.
Exploring, Developing, and Owning Jewish Identity
“It is not until now that I realize how much my NFTY years shaped who I am – as a Jew, as a leader, and definitely as a parent. I learned a lot of life lessons those weekends, but what I learned most was who I was and what was important to me.” – Allison, NFTY parent and alumna
NFTY provides a place to discuss and think about social and religious issues that impact teens, ultimately helping them to feel more comfortable with and confident in their Jewish identity. Through teen-initiated and -facilitated programming, NFTY participants explore relevant issues and explore their own relationship to Judaism in a safe learning environment. NFTYites are invited to wrestle with big ideas, share and debate their perspectives, and develop informed opinions that they can carry with them outside of youth group events. The NFTY experience compliments a formal Jewish learning background but also stands alone, welcoming teens of any background to craft a peer-based Jewish experience of their own.
Developing Skills for Post-High School
“The skills I use to lead in my organizations at University of North Carolina –Asheville, I credit to learning through NFTY. Leadership, peer mentoring, event planning, program development, public speaking, and volunteer management, are a few of the important skills I learned through creating and executing events for NFTY.”
– Rachel, NFTY alumna
Throughout their time in NFTY, formal and informal opportunities for leadership are abundant, helping teens to feel empowered to become active and responsible members of their communities. As the result of the myriad leadership opportunities available within NFTY, alumni approach the next phases and stages of their lives with confidence and eagerness. It is no surprise that NFTY alumni often go on to head (and even found) college organizations, become hardworking members of successful teams, pursue meaningful internships and careers, and serve as lay and religious leaders in Jewish communal life, acting as community leaders long after their time in NFTY is complete.
Looking Toward the Future
“One of the greatest things as a post-NFTYite is being able to look at those you helped train to become better leaders & know they have the ability to succeed. Maybe even do better than you did.”
– Rachael, NFTY alumna
With its teens and alumni taking on the world, NFTY values a sense of responsibility for the next generation. NFTYites become familiar with the term “generational leadership” and take seriously the role they play in setting up those who follow them for success. This sense of mentorship extends past participants’ time in NFTY and can be witnessed in the powerful and long-lasting connections alumni maintain. Teens learn that it is not enough to develop their own leadership skills; they must also help new members feel that they, too, have the power – and the obligation – to make a difference.
Setting the Foundation for Lifelong Jewish Commitment
“Over the years, groups of NFTY alumni … join together to celebrate weddings, to take care of each other when someone is sick, to welcome new babies, to cry together at funerals, and to be part of each other’s’ lives. I have always been thankful for the NFTY friends and colleagues who have grown to be part of my chosen family.”
– Beth, NFTY staff and alumna
The decision to help your teen become involved in NFTY is one that sets the foundation for your teen to engage in and build their lifelong Jewish community. The majority of active participants stay connected for life, becoming engaged alumni who celebrate lifecycle events together, visit their NFTY friends in cities all around the world, and support one other as they become the next generation of leaders in their adult Jewish communities. Simply put, NFTYites are friends for life.
Ready to send your teen to the next NFTY event but want to learn more about a typical weekend, adult leadership, health and safety aspects, or some other element of NFTY life? Visit NFTY’s For Parents to get started. The next stage of your teen’s Jewish identity is just a weekend away.