By Austin Zoot
While driving back to Cincinnati from Chicago after Thanksgiving, my fiancee and I played a fun little game, counting the number of NFTY events each of us had attended. I am a product of the Chicago Area Region, she a Southwest alum. Between our time as participants and staff members in the youth movement, we learned that I have been to 45 youth group events and she has been to 40. From regional events to North American gatherings, 85 times we have had the chance to experience the joy and togetherness of NFTY.
The more I thought about it, the luckier I felt. I have had the opportunity, on 45 occasions, to come together and experience what it feels like to create a community. 45 times I have had the chance to learn from the best young minds in Judaism, and to grapple with some of life’s greatest questions. Spanning over 10 states and multiple countries, I have had the opportunity to see the world and to do so through the lens of gathering together to do the work of our people.
NFTY events are not cheap. Throughout my experience, my parents were incredible in making participation in Jewish youth engagement a priority financially and through their support. As a result, I have spent time and resources to make sure that I could be present at some of the greatest gatherings of passionate young Jews, and continue to develop my own knowledge and network along the way.
But, in exchange for that investment, I have received so much. My time at 45 NFTY events has given me the greatest gifts I could ever ask for. I am in rabbinical school because of the inspiration provided by the leadership I was able to practice as a teen. I hope, as a Jewish professional, to create the space that all Jews have the ability to think critically about the Jewish world around them, using the tools I learned from my time in NFTY. I met my soon-to-be wife at a NFTY event at an URJ camp, where she was kindling her own love of Jewish community building. She is now a NFTY regional advisor, helping to create these opportunities for others, and paving the way for our Jewish future.
The beauty of youth engagement, though, isn’t found exclusively in showing up for events; it is what happens there that changes the foundations of who we are as people, and of what we are as a movement. I have seen teens dedicate entire weekends to grappling with ideological challenges that face the Jewish community in North America. I have worked alongside peers, mentors, and mentees to try to figure out how we can make the world a better place through Tikkun Olam, through Repairing the World. I have felt what it is like to create a Shabbat experience that not only warms your heart, but moves your soul.
Next week, I will attend the URJ Biennial, a grown up version of a NFTY event. To have 45 events of experience under my belt makes me appreciate even more how lucky I am to get to do this work as my profession. And, during the weekend, if ever I want to see the Jewish world through a different, vibrant, committed lens, all I have to do is ask a teen how to make a difference. They are the experts in creating a mobilized community for change in just three days.