Discovering the Jew I’m Meant to Be: A Letter from NFTY’s Immediate Past President

By Kathryn Fleisher

Empowerment. Networking opportunities. Leadership development. These were the skills and experiences I anticipated I would gain while serving as president of NFTY. The reality exceeded my expectations, giving me so much more than I had anticipated.

I have spent the past 18 months visioning for the future of a movement. I’ve attended conferences, built professional relationships, trained emerging leaders, and traveled around the world. These experiences have transformed me into the leader I am today.

I’m just now starting to notice, though, that while I was busy becoming that leader, another transformation was happening just below the surface: I was becoming the Jew I’m meant to be.

I didn’t expect to connect to my Judaism in such a genuine, meaningful, and long-lasting way, and I certainly didn’t actively strive to accomplish this transformation. But now, as I reflect on my term, I see that underlying every conversation and meeting over the past 18 months was one common theme: a fierce dedication to nurturing the Jewish faith.

This dedication is intensely inspiring. Day in and day out, I was surrounded by people who are driven by their faith and beliefs, so much so that they have committed their lives to furthering Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. Being surrounded by these champions of our faith opened my eyes to just how profoundly spiritual and deeply moving Jewish leadership can be.

To more fully understand my relationship with Judaism and Jewish leadership now, I must look back further into my past.

For as long as I can remember, Judaism has played a central role in my life. When I was 5 years old, my connection to Judaism was hiding between the pews in our congregation’s sanctuary, scribbling in coloring books during services. At age 7, being Jewish meant “helping” in the temple kitchen, setting out lox and schmear for oneg. At 9, I was allowed to choose for our family to join a congregation after we relocated from Iowa to Ohio.

As I got older, I found myself more deeply involved in Jewish life and, in turn, Judaism became further ingrained in me. But through it all, I took being Jewish for granted. Despite coming from an interfaith family, growing up in volunteer-based congregations, and experiencing anti-Semitism, I took being Jewish for granted. Until this past year, I was just Jewish, and that was simply the way that things were.

This year, I had the profound realization that Judaism doesn’t just exist by coincidence, and being Jewish is not something that happened to me by chance. Our people have fought, prayed, worked, and willed our faith to survive the test of time for more than 3,500 years. Now, in the year 2017, that weight is on my shoulders – and what a beautiful gift that is. Being a Jewish leader is an obligation and opportunity to defend, progress, and fiercely love the Jewish faith.

Thus far, I am convinced that the trick for knocking Jewish leadership out of the park is allowing the weight of our holy, precious history to drive us forward rather than letting it drag us down. Religion’s role in our intense, fast-paced, 21st-century lives can be unclear. After serving as NFTY president, I see this as my generation’s responsibility to conquer. The generations that came before us worked and fought to make Judaism an option for us; now, we must carry that torch.

As a member and leader of NFTY for the past six years, I’ve learned that my Jewish leadership journey must be about making Judaism relevant and meaningful to myself, my generation, and generations to come. Whether through pursuing social justice, finding new ways to embrace Jewish traditions, or reimagining Jewish community-building, I’m committing myself to this journey.

On my right pointer finger, I wear a ring engraved with the Hebrew phrase da lifnei mi atah omed, “know before whom you stand.” Originally, I wore this ring as a reminder of lessons in generational leadership that I learned at URJ Kutz Camp in 2015. Two years later, those words have taken on new meaning.

Knowing before whom I stand – the generations past, my own generation, and the still-unknown generations of the future – inspires me to practice Judaism, hold its teachings in my heart, and embrace the obligation to ensure that future generations will find meaning and comfort in the Jewish faith just like I have.

Serving as NFTY president is an experience I will always cherish, especially for the way it allowed me to explore my Judaism. Above all, I’m most grateful for the chance to embrace the incredible opportunities and profound obligations I have as a Jew. I now deeply understand that while I may not be fluent in Hebrew or observe Shabbat every week, I am as Jewish as they come.

NFTY made me confident in this understanding of myself, both as a Jewish person and a Jewish leader. I know that I will hold onto that history, fight for that reality, believe in those values, and, one day, pass all of it along to the next generation.

Kathryn Fleisher of Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, OH, just completed her term as NFTY’s North American president and is now attending the University of Pittsburgh, where she is majoring in politics and philosophy and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog