Three Moments from NFTY Convention
By Greg Kellner, Director of URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy
Exhilarating and Inspiring! These two words describe NFTY convention, where 1000 teens and more than 200 youth professionals gather every other year to learn, to celebrate, and to live in a wholly and holy Jewish world for 5 days. I want to share some personal highlights that made the convention uniquely special for me.
The Science Service
Two months prior to the conference, Robbie (our Assistant Director) and I were asked to lead a weekday service with the theme of science. While we had one summer of practice under our belt, this was just for teens and we wanted it to relate. Many of our prayers relate directly to science and we shared this with the teens. Asher Yatzar, sometimes referred to as the “bathroom prayer”, thanks God for ensuring our body’s openings are working properly. Another morning blessing thanks God for opening the eyes of the blind, and is relevant in a time when transplanting an eye is within the realm of possibility. One attendee shared with his fellow teens that prior to this service he had never felt connected with worship but he left this service having felt a connection to prayer in a new way.
Mentoring Teens in Non-traditional Fields
I had the pleasure of planning and leading a session for youth professionals in partnership with Blair Marks, President of Women of Reform Judaism. We joined together with 8 other committed youth professionals to discuss how mentoring could change the face of how we engage kids in our synagogues. What if we found mentors in our temples that were engineers and scientists, and helped to guide them toward life choices that embrace Jewish values? How would this change the way teens grow up in our synagogues, forming relationships with professionals in not just science and engineering, but in other professions as well? Both Blair and I have an interest and commitment to more women involved in STEM, so this was our approach to mentoring, but it became apparent during the workshop that there were so many more possibilities for how we can guide and inspire our youth by capitalizing on the resources right in our own congregations. 80% of the girls who attended last summer at 6 Points Sci-Tech are returning, and one reason is because these campers had incredible mentors in their counselors who took an interest in their campers, and who campers viewed as strong female role models.
Understanding and Overcoming Disabilities
I watched our teens at they were mesmerized by Matan Koch, a fellow Eisner Alum and friend, who has lived his life with CP. I recall Matan as a kid, using his motorized wheelchair to get around the hills and roads of camp. I watched as Matan described his journey and how he thrived in the face of adversity, and ultimately was appointed by President Obama to be on the President’s Council on Disabilities. It was clear that Matan was an inspiring figure for teens to go home and start or continue their work of inclusivity to ensure that all teens could experience full participation in NFTY or programs at their synagogues.
Every other year when I attend NFTY convention, I am re-energized by the work going on in our movement, in particular by our teen leaders. From the moment I landed in Los Angeles for my first NFTY Convention in 1999, I felt an incredible connection to the community by which I was surrounded. I am grateful that I can continue to experience these moments as an adult and facilitate these memorable moments for others.