Yair Robinson is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.
Every year at the high holidays, we’re treated to hearing a few of our teens sing Josh Nelson’s “L’dor Vador”:
We are gifts and we are blessings, we are history in song
We are hope and we are healing, we are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories, we are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom, not the first and not the last
L’dor vador nagid godlecha*
L’dor vador… we protect this chain
From generation to generation L’dor vador, these lips will praise Your name
Looking back on the journey that we carry in our heart
From the shadow of the mountain to the waters that would part
We are blessed and we are holy, we are children of Your way
And the words that bring us meaning, we will have the strength to say
Ever since Natalie Walden sang it before her graduation some years ago, the words and the melody bring tears to my eyes and fills my heart with joy. Because every word is true: it is the youth who, through their own exploration of their Jewish values, protect the chain of our people.
I am a second-generation alumnus of NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth arm. To this day I am proud of the work I did as a youth grouper; it was formative for my becoming a rabbi and choosing this path. More than that, NFTY taught me that Judaism was not something to experience passively, but actively; that even a 16 or 17-year old kid could lead a service (not just for confirmation or bar mitzvah!), could write that service, could have something to contribute not only to his peers, but to the community at large. That I could live my Jewish values—yes, emergent, nascent—and make an impact on the community around me.
Beth Emeth has long been proud of BESTY, our own chapter of NFTY, but I wonder how many see this aspect of our congregation as essential. To be sure, we have other ways for teens to engage, from serving as cadet aides in our religious school, to confirmation, to a strong and proud BBYO in Wilmington, and there is something to be said for each and every one of those opportunities. Each one is a portal for a Jewish teen to ‘do Jewish’ with other teens, and to explore their own Judaism in a safe space.
But NFTY—BESTY—is ours. It is where our kids explore not only how to live their Jewish values, but their REFORM Jewish values. And their work in our congregation is not merely for the teens (or their parents), but for everyone. Our BESTY President, Jason Kramer, shared with me:
The youth group is not a foreign body, rather an extension of the Congregation…Yes the youth group is important to engage younger members of the Congregation but it can also serve as an asset to the Congregation as a whole… Through camps and regional youth group events, we have created a network of teens our age, our religion… BESTY provides a place where adults can reach out to kids to learn what kids want, how they want to help, and how they can go about that in an effective and meaningful way. Through all of this, the youth group aids our Congregation in more ways than providing events for the older kids.
And Amanda Wachstein, Regional Director of Youth Engagement for the Pennsylvania Area Region, writes: “Youth Group offers teens the opportunity to explore and live their Reform Jewish values. A Reform Youth Group provides transformative experiences and unique opportunities for leadership, friendship, learning, travel and fun all through the Reform lens.”
When I see our kids on Capitol Hill lobbying congress on issues they’re passionate about through L’Taken, when they’re sharing with each other at a ‘shul-in’, when they’re leading services or building relationships with other Reform Jews, when they represent this congregation at NFTY convention in Atlanta, it reminds me how our Reform Jewish values are being lived and carried forward.
I would not be here were it not for NFTY. My guess is that, for many of us, that’s true. Our youth group has recently rebuilt itself through the hard efforts and commitment of several teens, like Jason Kramer, Ariel Friedlander, and Abby Kamen, and our talented advisor Avi Remetz. It would be easy to say, “my kids did that and are grown—it’s not for me.” or “my kids aren’t old enough yet”, but I would ask you to see our Youth Group as an essential aspect of the congregation, and to support it. For in doing so, you support our future as a congregation. L’dor Vador Nagid Godlecha: From generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness. L’dor vador—in every generation, may WE protect this chain.