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NFTY Convention: Where Complete Acceptance Trumps “Mean Girls”

The most amazing things happen when we bring together 1000 teens for five days for the convention of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, one of the largest gatherings of Jewish teens anywhere. It is the way that these teens open up about the pressures, worries, fear and self-doubt that bubble just beneath the surface of their smiling faces.

So the NFTY convention organizers, and their Union for Reform Judaism partners, interspersed – between the fun, food, inspiring prayer, motivating speakers, meaningful social justice activism, and Jewish learning – a series of serious workshops which allowed the teens to bear their souls within the supportive security of a loving groups of teens, and the guidance of nurturing, trained adult youth workers.

Talking Truth about Leaving Home
“Take two post-it notes, and write on them your top two concerns, anxieties or agitations about leaving home and family as you go off to college. Stick them on the wall. Now without talking, read through all the answers and as a group collect together similar responses until we have a small number of categories.”

These instructions guided 34 Jewish teenagers, who chose to grapple with the myriad of issues surrounding “Leaving Home and Family … on the path to college.” With openness and honesty, they wrote about, and later talked about, their concerns:

  • What do I do to maintain my good relationship with my younger sibling?
  • Finding balance in communication with parents – How often is too often? How much should we talk/text/skype?
  • Money, money, no free money
  • How do I ensure I’m making the most of my parents’ investment in me?
  • Moving toward increased independence
  • Who will take care of me when I get sick?

Then in triads, each shared his/her concerns as the others listened nonjudgmentally and brainstormed supportively.

Convening the Conversation, Then Getting out of the Way
Between us, my wife Michelle November and I have plenty of experience working with youth. The former director of the North American College Department for the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 16-year synagogue Program Director, and active Camp Swig/Newman alumna, Michelle now works intensively with teens and their parents as the Associate Director of Admission for Los Angeles’ New Community Jewish High School (in West Hills, CA). A former Jewish summer camp director, NFTY regional advisor (CRaFTY), and chair of the Camp Newman rabbinical camp committee, I serve as rabbi of Congregation Or Ami (in Calabasas, CA), whose leadership heard and responded to the call of the URJ’s visionary Campaign for Youth Engagement. Together we have two college kids and a third in high school.

Michelle and I have made it our life’s work to support and guide Jewish young adults through the highs and lows of their exciting existence. Still, for the conversation, like so many other talks with teens, our task at convemtiom was to gently guide, slide in the Jewish and the compassionate, but mostly to get out of the way.

Crowdsourcing Confidence and Kindness
Sitting on the floor, back in one circle, the students took turns revealing what they feared. Then crowdsourcing took over as the group offered ideas from their collective experiences:

  • Connect regularly; a short text on the way to class assures your parents that you are alright (and can keep overly involved parents connent but at bay).
  • Remember that when you go off, things at home change. When you come back, don’t expect everything to just go back to how it was.
  • Skype with younger siblings; text them asking questions about what they are doing.
  • As the intensity picks up in the months before you leave, be quick to be apologetic after the inevitable outbursts that occur at home.
  • Rabbis, youth advisors, Hillel directors and teachers are still and always there for an unbiased supportive, non-judgmental conversation.
  • Go out with siblings within the first 24 hours back at home; individual time to reconnect is crucial.
  • Reach out to the relatives and family friends in your new city; connect with classmates of your parents friends; you never know who might become a good friend or major support.

The workshop concluded with a group hug /slash/ prayer circle in which we asked the Holy One for courage, patience, and perspective as we walked these uncharted path to our future. We sought strength and sechel (smarts) to remember that we are precious now, and we will be equally precious later as we traverse the paths. And we offered thanks for the loving support of a Jewish community that cares.

Why NFTY and Jewish Camping Really Matter
Michelle and I spend significant time, energy and money placing our own and our synagogue’s young people into NFTY events and Jewish summer camps. We evangelize about the incomparable benefits of sending or pushing teens in this direction. Why?  Because NFTY and Jewish summer camps are the antithesis and antidote to the “Mean Girls” syndrome.

Where else, outside of home, do teens find unconditional love and complete acceptance? Where else do Jewish teens receive positive messages about who they are and nurturing guidance of Jewishly motivated adults? Most importantly, where else in their pressure cooker, anxiety-filled existence do they have a place where they can share their innermost thoughts and worries, and we adults know that they will find support, openness and loving direction to put them on a path toward healing and inner peace?

This is why NFTY and Jewish summer camps matter. This is why parents – and grandparents, rabbis, cantors, educators and temple leadership – should be inviting, cajoling, begging, bribing, pushing and financing their teens to attend NFTY events and Jewish summer camps.

What Happens in Vegas…
They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We say that what happens in NFTY stays within our teens long after they graduate into college and beyond. In a world where the pressures and anxieties of young adulthood easily overwhelm, NFTY and Jewish camping help adults hedge our bets for our kids’ future.

So get your kids into NFTY and Jewish camping. Support your synagogue efforts to expand and fund their youth engagement activities. The future we secure will be our own.

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