NFTY and BBYO: We Can Make Each Other Stronger

by Rabbi Rick Jacobs

As I write this, I’m on a literal and figurative high – literal because I’m writing to you from a flight back to New York from Dallas, where I had the privilege of attending and addressing the BBYO International Convention. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, Why is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism going to a BBYO convention? Isn’t BBYO the rival of NFTY, the Reform youth movement?

I’m here to tell you – and you can quote me on it – that BBYO is not our rival. They are our partner.

NFTY and BBYO both offer significant channels for Jewish teens to have experiences that can influence lives in permanent and profound ways. Through these channels, we engage tens of thousands of teens in weekend retreats, Israel trips, summer camp programs, and other leadership experiences that research shows are the most powerful Jewish identity-building experiences that our community has to offer.

But it is still not enough. Together, NFTY and BBYO reach only 3.5 percent of North American Jewish teens. Clearly, there is so much more to be done.

To the extent that these two youth movements can help one another and cooperate in pursuit of common goals, we must – by all means possible. To the extent that each offers unique and diverse options, we must be respectful and supportive. In doing so, we will maximize our collective effort to reach as many Jewish teens as possible, which is the ultimate goal of the Reform Movement’s Inspired Engagement initiative.

Thirty five teen leaders from NFTY and thirty five teen leaders from BBYO took this call to action very seriously when they met in Dallas this week to discuss the power and potential of working together. These teens, who hail from all across North America, spent time brainstorming and made a commitment to follow up with one another after the event. During this meeting, two young women – one from NFTY and one from BBYO – shared a bit about their backgrounds. They didn’t know each other, but to their surprise, they learned they were from the same Reform congregation! Both young women found enormous personal fulfillment and leadership opportunities from their participation in the two different youth groups. Now, they’re working together to think about different ways to engage even more of their peers.

I spoke about this partnership when I addressed the BBYO opening ceremonies, where I was greeted by incredible ruach from BBYO’s teens and their guests from NFTY. In my remarks, I discussed the importance of celebrating both our similarities and our differences and of working together as a kehillah kedosha, a holy community. “We are part of something much larger than our respective youth movements,” I told them. “We are part of the Jewish people, past, present and future. The Jewish future depends on you feeling connected to and responsible for each other, not just for those in your youth organization. What you are discovering about Judaism this weekend could easily become the most important anchors in your lives.”

I shared with them a powerful example of a teenager who, just like them, made Jewish life a priority, despite the busy-ness of secular life. Jason Brown, a Reform Jewish teen from Chicago, is competing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi this week. Jason has been a competitive skater his whole life, and in the midst of his training, he also spent five summers at URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Wisconsin. Why? Because Judaism is a priority to Jason and his family – they realize that Judaism is part of their whole lives. I commended the teens in the room who, like Jason, have made time to deepen their connections to our people and heritage, as part of their many other commitments. And as I closed my address, I told them, “Remember, BBYO and NFTY, that we are stronger when we work together to expand our reach to even more Jewish youth. May our Jewish heritage and the Jewish community always be for you a sacred anchor especially “when the winds of changes shift.”

Friday afternoon, our NFTY leaders left the BBYO convention and traveled to URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX, where, for four days, 130 teen leaders from our 19 NFTY regions will take part in a leadership retreat and board meeting. While they’re there, they’ll be tasked with electing a new North American board and thinking together about plans for the future of NFTY – and of our Jewish community as a whole. These young people deeply understand that they are not youth leaders; they are full leaders of the Jewish community and poised to make major contributions now and far into the future.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

cross-posted on the RJ blog