[NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement is celebrating its 75th! In recognition, eJP invited 4 NFTY alumni – representing 4 different decades – to share their thoughts on the influence NFTY has had on their lives.]
By Justin Felder
I’ll always remember that feeling of disbelief, and I’m still not totally cool with it. I was 16 years old at a NFTY event in Coral Springs, and the regional president took to the podium and announced that the annual Mitzvah Corps project NFTY-SAR and NFTY-STR co-worked on all summer would be cancelled. It was pure havoc: people walked out, tears were falling; the whole nine.
But it wasn’t cancelled – it was a ‘socio-drama.’ While at first I didn’t understand the point of the exercise, it proved something to me that I’ve incorporated throughout my life and current career: the best leaders are the ones who give those they lead ownership of whatever it is their working on.
We cried when we thought Camp Jenny was cancelled not because of how much fun we had those Memorial Day weekends hosting kids from Atlanta at Camp Coleman, but because we felt we were part of something important. We were why it happened; why the kids that came to Camp Jenny had such a positive experience. We had ownership – and when we thought this was going to be taken away from us, we realized how much it meant to us.
I had the good fortune of working with so many great leaders through my time in NFTY. I served on my region’s board for two years and North American board for one year. My number one takeaway from the thread tying these leaders together was selflessness: when an advisor was up late buying and organizing welcome materials, they made the kids who put the bags together feel like rock stars. Fellow board members laid the ground work for huge projects – largely alone – making sure the end result was a team effort. Rabbis would help nervous kids craft anecdotes to go along with prayers at camp, and claim no responsibility when those campers spoke in front of the community.
Since graduating college I’ve become a sports anchor and reporter. First at a TV station in Myrtle Beach, and now in Green Bay. There’s an inherent vanity many people peg on my profession – which is not completely unjust – but my experience in NFTY has made me always strive to give others ownership, to redirect praise and credit. I may be the person out in front of the camera on stories, but I try always to recognize, thank, and give credit to those who do just as important work, without the recognition.
NFTY provides a lot of people the opportunity to lead and to learn from their older peers. You hear “generational leadership” all the time, and it’s so valuable, because when you’re in high school, the people just two to three years older than you can seem so worldly and knowledgeable (they have cars?!), that you tend to take a bit more time to listen closely to what they have to say.
For whatever reason – luck, structure, staff – my experiences with NFTY leaders was incredibly positive. We’ve all had the mean boss, the showboat, the know-it-all. NFTY showed me what the right kind of leadership was; that its roots should be in the group, not the self, and that lesson has served me well.
Justin Felder grew up going to Camp Coleman before getting involved in NFTY and Kutz Camp. He served on NFTY Board in 2004-2005 and was on staff at Coleman and Kutz. He’s currently a sports anchor and reporter in Green Bay, Wisconsin where, yes, it snows quite a lot.