Like Dawn Skimming the Horizon: Riding the Changes in NFTY

NFTY Convention 2019; courtesy.

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, MAJE, Maya Levy & Fletcher Block

In the last five years, like many Jewish organizations, NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement has been making gradual, intentional changes. Faced with falling numbers at overnight events and navigating new models for teen engagement in our synagogues, we realized we needed to clarify NFTY’s purpose.

Through many conversations with teen leaders, stakeholders, and staff, we have seen more and more bright spots in recent few years as NFTY has started focusing more heavily on local events, engaging middle schoolers, holding joint events with URJ camps, and more. The change was slow, but the future was coming into focus, and it looked bright.

Then COVID-19 hit.

In a matter of weeks, NFTY’s intentional, methodical change process was kicked into overdrive. Due to our new financial reality, NFTY faced significant staffing changes and needed to quickly embrace a new organizational structure. Change is always difficult, but it’s especially difficult for an 80-year-old youth movement whose millions of alumni make up the current and future leadership of our Reform Jewish Movement.

In this moment of disruptive change, we came to realize that we needed to embrace the fact that our work – and the way we do it – needed to radically shift. We needed to embrace a future of NFTY that is different from what we are used to, but that remains strong and resilient for the generations to come.

How are we doing that?

1. Holding our vision close

Though each generation has had a slightly different experience, the overall goals of NFTY have remained constant – and they don’t change as a result of staffing structure or resources. We are, as we have always been, dedicated to providing life-changing experiences for teens through community, leadership, and social justice – all rooted in Reform Judaism and the goal of making our world more whole, just, and compassionate.

Through NFTY’s eight decades of existence, the organization has seen many iterations of staffing, supervision, and program focus. But NFTY’s strength, like the strength of the Reform Movement itself, has always come from holding tight to our vision and evolving our approach based on both internal needs and external realities.

As we began this work, we quickly realized this isn’t a moment to abandon our vision; it is the moment to bring our vision to life throughout these changes, to reimagine how we implement it.

2. Gathering our people

At the core of NFTY is partnership between our teens, our synagogue leaders, and the staff and leadership of the URJ, and in announcing out plans for NFTY’s future, we knew we needed to respect our relationships with all who lay claim to this program. We resisted the urge to wait until our plans were “fully baked” before sharing with our community, instead forging ahead with as much transparency as possible.

We knew this news would be difficult to hear, and we wanted to quickly assure our community that NFTY would still be around, that everything would be all right, and that we were working hard to support this precious program. As soon as our staff – especially those whose jobs were being eliminated – were notified of the changes and cared for by their supervisors, we invited our community to join us in virtual meetings to learn more about the significant changes coming to NFTY.

On those calls, attended by more than 1,000 people, we shared what we knew: even with the switch from 19 regional directors to 4 area managers who oversee multiple regions, each NFTY region would still host one URJ-run retreat every year; there would be new opportunities for synagogues and teens to partner with the URJ; and that we would continue to support our NFTY regional boards. Everything else, we told them, we would figure out together.

These informational meetings launched a summer-long co-creation process – led by a core team of NFTY teen leaders, synagogue professionals, and URJ staff and alumni – to help NFTY evolve into this next stage of its development. This collaborative process will allow NFTY’s restructuring to be driven by ideas that come from, and work for, more people; giving teens the power to reimagine the movement they will lead and live in.

3. Prepare to Grow Anew

In our first conversations about our co-creation process, we mourned our loss and worried for our future. We immediately fell into a preservation mindset: How do we continue to support teen leaders? How do we keep our most cherished events and programs? How do we maintain the partnership of our congregations?

Once the initial sting faded, we realized we were having the wrong conversation.

Building on the change process we began two years ago, we returned to our core vision and started to reimagine how to implement it. Instead of looking backwards, we need to look forward to a bright future. We need to look at our assets and many resources from alumni and parents, to our strong staff and camping system and reimagine what role they can play.

Now, we’re asking ourselves questions like:

  • How will we gather in ways that help us be our best selves and make our world more whole, just, and compassionate?
  • How will we shift from a program model, where opportunities are offered by a large, dedicated staff, to a platform model, where everyone is a creator?
  • How might we create meaningful support for teens to lead now and in the future?
  • What areas can NFTY transform, and what is the unique opportunity in this moment?

Current NFTY President and co-author, Maya Levy, shared this quote from Walidah Imarsha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, in discussing the road ahead:

“Nature has taught me about fluid adaptability. About not only weathering storms, but also using howling winds to spread seeds wide, torrential rains to nurture roots so they can grow deeper and stronger. Nature has taught me that a storm can be used to clear out branches that are dying, to let go of that which was keeping us from growing in new directions….

“The only lasting truth is change. We will face social and political storms we could not even imagine. The question becomes not just how do we survive them, but how do we prepare so when we do suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an unexpected onslaught, we can capture the potential, the possibilities inherent in the chaos, and ride it like dawn skimming the horizon.”

As Maya told our teens and families this week, “May we all see the possibilities inherent in the chaos and ride this change like dawn skimming the horizon.” Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, MAJE is the Director of Learning & Innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism. Maya Levy is the 2019-2020 NFTY President. Fletcher Block is the 2020-2021 NFTY President.