Last month, I attended the NFTY convention in Atlanta, Georgia. NFTY-PAR events held for just the Pennsylvania region are truly special, but experiencing NFTY with over a thousand other kids from regions around the country, including Canada, was a once in a lifetime experience I will never forget. Walking into a giant room filled with over a thousand teens, I felt like this was a place I belonged. I met up with some of my friends from Urban Mitzvah Corps which was a summer program I participated in last summer where I volunteered as a camp counselor for underprivileged kids. I also met up with NFTY-PAR friends and Camp Harlam friends. This convention gave me a chance to see friends from Florida, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. We stayed in a hotel for four nights and experienced something that would change our lives forever.
The teens participated in programs where we heard the most inspiring speakers including a man pushing for stricter gun laws after he experienced gun violence first hand in the Virginia Tech shooting. During this program each teen received an index card with the name of a victim of gun violence. There were 600 names representing victims since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. I finally realized just how many victims of gun violence are gun-downed every year. NFTY wants all of us to take a stand against gun violence and asked the teens to sign a petition for enforced background checks. This is the reform Jewish standpoint and together we can all make a difference.
I also participated in a program about race and privilege. This program used an analogy to explain the complex nature of our society and how our privilege comes into play. In a simulation activity, everyone received two pieces of paper. One with a number and one a blank page of computer paper. We were told to place ourselves along a random spot on the wall in the room. This random spot represented a child who has no choice in the place in which they live and the circumstances in which they are born. The leader then placed an empty box in an area of the room. This box represented success if you were able to throw your paper into the box successfully. Before throwing the paper, we were told to take the number of steps that were written on the paper. Some paper ended up next to the box while others weren’t even close. Not many people were able to achieve success by getting the paper in the box, but those who did consisted mainly of people who were very close to the box. Some people could just throw their paper right in. Others were slightly farther back, but still it was an easy shot. Others were even further back but had good throwing skills to be successful. Too many of us were stuck so far from the wall making it impossible to achieve success. Privilege is something that is not easily recognizable, especially when you're so close to the box. People tend not to look behind at the other people struggling. All you can look at is the people closer to the box than you are. It is hard to recognize you have privilege yourself when you only see people who have more than you. Privilege isn’t a bad thing and with it we can use our resources to help perform tikun- olam, and heal the world.
Another enjoyable memory was to going to the Atlanta Zoo with my friends. We participated in all of the fun activities at the zoo. NFTY provided us with food, a caricaturist, and a henna artist. Later that night Dan Nichols, a Jewish musician gave a private concert to all the teens.
One of my other favorite activities was going to the Civil and Human rights Museum of Atlanta. This is a modern museum that had a lasting impact on my life. I sat down at a lunch counter and put on headphones to participate in a simulation of what it felt like to be in a sit-in protest. People left the simulation crying. I can’t begin to explain how much it felt like you were actually there. When I first put on my headphones I lasted about ten seconds before pulling them off to see if people were behind me. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement that happened so long ago, but also the human rights around the world that we are still fighting for today. Social action is a huge Jewish value and was incorporated into many of the activities.
Shabbat was also a really special time for me because I have never participated in a Shabbat service with that many kids. It was amazing to look around and realize that everyone here was Jewish and could all pray in the same way no matter where they came from.
NFTY teens met up with BBYO teens for a few programs as well as a big gathering. It was the largest gathering of Jewish teens ever. It was an amazing feeling to be a part of it. We broke down the walls between the youth groups by remembering we are all Jewish and should treat everyone as one of us no matter what youth organization they belong to. I look forward to the day when the name of the organization doesn't even phase teens. My friends from NFTY met my friends from BBYO and I don’t know if there will ever be another time we will all be in the same room again. In that moment, NFTY was BBYO and BBYO was NFTY.
This experience actually changed who I am as a person. I found out so much about myself and about myself as a Jew. The withdrawal that I have when I came home from a month of sleepaway camp was the same feeling I had when I had only been at convention for five days. This experience will stay with me forever and I hope that many more teens take this opportunity, meet new friends, hang out with old friends, and celebrate being Jewish.